By  on November 4, 2008

Small independent designers aren’t about to offer fire-sale prices for their creations, but they are becoming increasingly heedful of what shoppers are actually buying and are tweaking price tags accordingly.

For some, such as Alexander Wang, Behnaz Sarafpour and Maria Cornejo, presenting a collection with a wide range of prices is helping to spark sales in these trying financial times. Vena Cava’s designers, Sophie Buhai and Lisa Mayock, have dropped wholesale prices by between five and 10 percent for select pieces in the spring collection.

With store traffic and consumer spending on the wane, some expect those shoppers still spending money to gravitate toward versatile pieces that will stand the test of time.

“People love talking about how price is no object and how it’s the fashion pieces that always sell. But the truth is, the amazing fashion piece that a celebrity wears that gets tons of press is not the one that sells. It’s the quiet little wool jersey shift dress that we sell hundreds of in reality,” Sarafpour said. “We’re not focused on one or the other. We’re trying to be mindful of both.”

While established designers are staying true to their more fanciful pursuits, a few newcomers this fall have tried to keep a lid on prices from the start. Jeffrey Monteiro, who launched a signature collection, and Lynne Hiriak, who unveiled the Cardigan by Lynne Hiriak label, have tried to keep prices within reach to be competitive, although they are not exactly J. Crew or Club Monaco.

Monteiro, whose line wholesales from $120 to $370, quizzed friends about what they bought, where they shop and what they need. “I have a lot of friends who shop regularly. They’re all professionals so they don’t have gads of time to shop, but they still love fashion. I feel a lot of fashion has become inaccessible to most people,” he said. “Designers have to be more clever and really concentrate on who their customer is. People aren’t just buying anything — products have to be of use to them. It can’t be a matter of just [buying] it. That will be good for the market. It makes it stronger.”

That is something Sarafpour has seen for herself. “The most important thing is the perceived value of something. I don’t think at a time like this that you can sell anyone anything and they will want five of that,” she said. “People are thinking seriously about pricing, but that is not to say the more expensive items aren’t selling.”

Her accounts are definitely on the high end of the designer and luxury business, and have never indicated that price was an issue. That said, the designer has noticed a spike in sales of sharper-priced items. She has no plans to tweak prices, but she is “very mindful of having a full range of prices.” For example, her label has dresses that retail for less than $1,000 as well as ones for $3,000.

Sarafpour has sold “tons” of a thin-knit $600 dress, partially because the price point and styling were on the mark. “People are looking for things that are really versatile that they can get a lot of use out of,” she said. “Special things have been selling, too, but we don’t sell them in the large numbers that we do with some of the other items.”

Wang is another believer in offering a wide range of price points — with one of his simple tanks retailing for $65 and an embroidered dress going for $1,200. Spring sales have tripled, compared with last spring, “so I guess the pricing has been on target,” he said. Of course, Wang is working off a low base.

Stores “just need variety — it has to be what it’s worth. But of course something that looks like it cost $500 that can be bought for $200 is always a good thing,” Wang said.

In the coming months, the designer will be hosting five more trunk shows and sales clinics than last year. Ultimately, it is “so important to consumers to know the process of inspiration behind each piece,” he said.

Marysia Woroniecka, business partner for Zero + Maria Cornejo, said the label is uniquely positioned since it is “perceived as a designer collection, but the prices [$150 to $550 at wholesale] are more attainable in this climate.” Cornejo also has a reputation for creating pieces that last from one season to the next, she said. The company opts to work with a select number of stores rather than expand as quickly as possible. “We would rather work with fewer people and really invest in those places. We’re not going to push them to buy something when they don’t feel confident about something. We encourage them to buy appropriately. I would rather they bought a bit less and felt very confident,” Woroniecka said.

For summer, Cornejo has introduced a few “very well-priced groups” such as a viscose and silk jersey one that consists of basic underpinnings. Tops wholesale between $85 and $120, and dresses run from $140 to $167.

To absorb costs created by any price changes, Vena Cava is selling more units of items made of less expensive materials, offering things in one color instead of several and making simple pieces with very singular materials or details, such as a T-shirt dress made out of metallic lace instead of silk crepe de chine, Mayock said. “In the past season we’ve tried to make sure that the retail price for every piece communicates that it’s of high quality. Obviously that’s going to be more scrutinized in the coming seasons.”

All of Vena Cava’s more expensive, special pieces — such as a $435 short slipdress with a beaded collar and $395 leather leggings have been selling best, she said. Information about special treatments or materials is printed on hangtags to help shoppers better understand the price.

Having worked for Mayle and Derek Lam, Monteiro said he was very aware of price points when he developed his 33-piece collection. He said he also wanted to design pieces that are not disposable or readily available everywhere.

Pricing was imperative to Cardigan’s Hiriak. Styles retail from $145 to $695, with core pieces in the $200 to $300 range. Hiriak knows her way around the designer business, having worked as a design consultant for Thakoon, Derek Lam and Lela Rose. Thirty stores carry the line, including Barneys New York, Saks Fifth Avenue and Ron Herman. So far, stores have not mentioned pricing. “It hasn’t been a needed conversation. We do offer a lot of products in a range that is affordable,” she said. “People say we’re a fashion line and we’re a product line. That works to our advantage. We’re utilitarian.”

For spring, Dorothy Lanier, designer of the two-year-old Dosty label, has lowered prices on select spring items by as much as 10 percent. As someone who manufactures in New York, she feels those cuts “tremendously” compared with those who produce in China where margins are more forgiving. But Lanier is confident it will help sales. “It’s just another incentive. It’s got to help to some degree,” she said.

Other designers, especially ones who can no longer get bank loans, may not be so determined. “This is the type of economy where a lot of people are going to say, ‘It’s just not worth it,’” Lanier said.

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