NEW YORK -- The arrival of hot summer weather in many areas of the country has not slowed the gradually accelerating tempo of accessories business at retail.
Even though it's a traditionally slow period for stores, accessories departments are keeping up the momentum they gained this spring. Handbags in particular are leading the way for retailers ranging from Bergdorf Goodman to J.C. Penney Co. to Kmart.
What's more, the minimalist trend that hurt jewelry and belt sales for some earlier this year appears to be disappearing -- at this point, more so in jewelry than in belts, stores indicate.
Anne Gravseth, merchandise manager for accessories at J.C. Penney Co., based in Plano, Tex., said handbags, small leather goods and sunglasses have been summer's strongest categories thus far, each registering double-digit increases compared with last year. For the department as a whole, accessories increases are running in the high single digits.
Straw handbags, wallets-on-a-string and Bill Blass sunglasses have led the way in their respective categories.
Gravseth also said belts have been active. She credited the store's emphasis on casual looks for strong sales, and indicated that wovens, chain and ethnic looks have been strongest.
The scarf area has registered strong sales with one particular item, Gravseth said -- a $14 pre-tied scarf that features a velcro closure.
Anne Keenes, senior vice president and general merchandise manager of accessories for Saks Fifth Avenue, said handbags have been her leading classification since spring. They have continued to boost early summer accessories business, which is currently up slightly from a year ago.
"Summer handbag business has been driven by [a variety of] materials, including nylon, straw and macrame," Keenes said, noting that the store sold out of a soft straw bag style by DKNY.
Silver -- both the color and the metal -- was also a big hit for Saks. Keenes described it as "a home run in jewelry and accessories across the board," and said it performed best in macrame or leather totes and handbags and sporty-looking jewelry done in novelty treatments -- engraved with words or phrases, mixed with crystal or amber, or textured.Also selling well in jewelry, according to Keenes, have been bead necklaces in neutral or amber colorations, as well as a more classic-looking collection from St. John Knits.
Keenes added that casual looks have been predominant in all categories of accessories, and pointed to Kaminsky straw hats, DKNY baseball caps and Ralph Lauren and Giorgio Armani scarves as examples of the casual influence.
"Handbags have been the highlight of our season," said Simonetta Morrison, vice president and divisional merchandise manager at Bergdorf Goodman, noting the leaders have been natural-looking woven straws, crochets and leathers in large, casual bags.
Morrison said the store is having a strong June following low single-digit gains in April and May.
She added that backpacks continue to be the best-selling silhouette, having effectively replaced totes. In terms of fabrications, exotic skins such as alligator have become very popular, especially in bright orange, turquoise, lavender and even white.
Morrison said Bergdorf's has sold 36 woven leather totes by Barry Kieselstein Cord with his signature matte gold hardware, retailing from $1,650 to $1,885. Crocheted totes from Jamin Puech in Paris, priced from $200 to $400, and Donna Karan's braided Lurex metallic yarn pouches and woven patent leather drawstring bags, from $150 to $200, have also been strong.
Scarves have been a lively category, Morrison said, pointing to chiffon and gauze looks from the Giorgio Armani line in soft prints and pale neutral colors as the most active.
Another area that has seen "very good" sales is the hair accessories section that the store created for summer. Morrison said it is running 100 percent ahead of plan. Very narrow headbands -- about one-quarter inch wide -- and feminine looks in chiffon, linen, bone, wood and tortoise have been the hottest so far.
Bridge and costume jewelry have continued to be difficult areas, according to Morrison, but she said fine jewelry has registered double-digit increases.
Sheila Aimette, fashion director for accessories at Macy's East, said jewelry, handbags and hats have been leading classifications this summer in the plus business being seen by accessories.
Macy's has seen "high sell-throughs" with designer jewelry lines in the store's New Signatures area, which concentrates on trend-oriented merchandise. Aimette said small and dainty looks from Dana Kellin, Wasabi, Me & Ro, U&I, Anatoli and M&J Savitt's line combining sterling silver with cubic zirconia have attracted consumers looking for summer earrings, pendants and rings.Backpacks are Macy's leading silhouette in the handbag area. The hottest items here are bags from Kipling, a Belgian firm that makes brightly colored, sporty nylon pieces; Just Libby leather styles with contrast stitching, and Maxx's nylon series. Aimette added that silver and white handbags have also been hits this summer.
Aimette said Macy's accessories sales have included strong business in special-occasion looks and casual styles.
At Kmart, accessories business this season "is certainly better than last summer," according to Dave Penrod, divisional vice president for fashion accessories and hosiery, based in Troy, Mich.
He said the chain has done particularly well with printed canvas totes in the handbag category, primarily in florals, although totes sporting "The Flintstones" and "The Lion King" characters have come on strong. He said "The Flinstones" merchandise broke about 30 days ago and "Lion King" items have already experienced strong sell-throughs in the past 10 days.
Straw handbags, however, have been somewhat slower than the chain had expected, although he said he wouldn't consider it as a major problem yet.
Baseball caps have been the strongest silhouette in the hat segment, and Penrod noted that while belts were "still slow," braided looks have helped to boost business in the category.
He added that fine jewelry has been sporadic but, in the last 30 to 60 days, 14-carat gold styles have performed especially well.
Rob Goldfarb, merchandise manager for accessories at Henri Bendel, said that on the whole his accessories business has been up, with increases he categorized as "modest."
"Thankfully, the minimalist trend is dissipating and we're already seeing improvement in categories that had been toughest lately -- jewelry, for instance," Goldfarb said. He singled out small earrings and sterling silver, some mixed with cubic zirconia, as the strongest segments of the category.
To keep the momentum of spring going, Goldfarb said Bendel's is doing weekly jewelry trunk shows with different vendors and hosting personal appearances by scarf designers.
In other classifications, Goldfarb noted that soft straw hats, nylon or crocheted handbags and floral, silk chiffon scarves have continued to move well since spring. Strong lines include Marina Killery and Kokin millinery, Colette Malouf hair accessories and Robin Devick scarves.Hair accessories, an especially strong area for Bendel's, received an added boost from sterling silver items that have continuously attracted customers.
Another emerging trend that Goldfarb thinks will grow through the fall is a renewed interest in brights, especially in hair accessories and pareo-type scarves.
Lord & Taylor is also having success with dressy accessories as well as casual merchandise, according to Lavelle Olexa, senior vice president, fashion merchandising.
Olexa explained that the store has cultivated a very loyal following of consumers who look to Lord & Taylor for their dressy accessories, of which hats are a big part. She said flower-trimmed numbers from Frank Olive, Eric Javits and Kokin are most popular.
On the casual side, fabric handbags by Kenneth Cole and Sharif Americana, Kipling backpacks and a hemp style from DKNY for $175 have accounted for most of the business, because they are "the one category that is key for putting together the soft look seen in ready-to-wear this summer," Olexa noted.
Other hot items, said Olexa, are sunflower-trimmed ponytail holders, tortoise hair clips from Riviera and baseball caps.
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