ATLANTA--Bright color, casual dresses and contemporary sportswear were winners at the summer market at the Atlanta Apparel Mart, with buyers on the lookout for better merchandise that doesn't compete with department stores and discounters. Ordering was active, although Peg Canter, general manager of the mart, noted traffic was down 3 percent from last year. She speculated that a disappointing holiday season may have affected attendance. The five-day market ran through Jan. 29. "January isn't an 'absolute necessity' market," she said. "Buyers often wait until April to buy." She added, however, that the market also drew new out-of-territory buyers, a result of an expanded direct mail campaign begun in October. The demand for better-price merchandise was a welcome development for exhibitors. Mark Garland, principal of Mark Garland, a multiline better sportswear and dress firm, reported a 60 percent traffic increase and 30 percent sales increase over last year, due to a new focus on better-price lines. "The mart is drawing better stores. Most people want better lines because they can't compete with discounters." Out-of-territory buyers and better stores drove business for Rick and Sarah Miller, a multiline better sportswear and dress firm that projected sales even with last year. "With the attrition of specialty stores, we look at staying even as an increase," said Rick Miller. Retro looks saturated the market, ranging from classic early Sixties Jackie O dresses to funky, floral polyester print sportswear and hip-hugger pants. Shiny fabrics continued into summer, along with cotton piquAs. Border trim and piping were popular details. Distinctiveness was the common demand among all buyers, who sought looks that give consumers a reason to shop specialty stores. As always here, color was welcomed as palettes broadened from spring pastels to summer brights. Dresses, especially casual day looks, were a hot category, as many sportswear firms added dresses to collections. Despite the traditionally slow summer season, many Atlanta area buyers are planning big for the season that includes the Olympics in July. "We want to capitalize on the event," said Ginny Feltus, co-owner with Marie Rexer-Monde of Rexer Parks, an Atlanta better women's specialty store. "We anticipate increased business from out-of-towners, and local people that need clothes for all the festivities." With a budget even with last year and a bigger percentage allocated to casual sportswear, Feltus bought Lilly Pulitzer's bright prints, Jackie O sheath dresses with jackets from Cynthia Rowley, body-conscious dresses from Nicole Miller, and novelty sportswear from More Dash Than Cash. In 1995, Rexer Parks' sales increased 35 percent. "Amid the gloom and doom, the specialty store is evolving," said Feltus. "Atlanta's booming, and we've found a niche in contemporary sportswear and dresses." In contrast to the general assessment of the market, it was an important one for resort retailers shopping for lightweight fabrics and bright color. "Atlanta wraps up late spring and summer for us," said Fredi Verdesca, owner of Jami's, a Naples, Fla.-based better women's store with six Florida locations. "We see more gutsy tropical color than we did for spring." With an open-to-buy up 10 percent over last year, Verdesca bought sportswear lines that also offer casual dresses, such as Leon Max, Bonnie Strauss, Kiko, L. Bates and Ecolution. "Pretty clothes," with good color and fit were the focus for Linda White, owner of Limited Editions, a better-to-bridge women's specialty store on St. Simons Island, Ga. "I don't follow trends," she said. "I buy what works for my Southern customer, and every one of them wants to look pretty." White bought Jerri Sherman, Teri Jon, Antonella Preve and Julie & Leonard--all lines she described as "pretty." With an open-to-buy up 7 percent over last year, White also bought sportswear by California lines Surya, Faith and Nativewear. Business has increased each year for 18 years at Limited Editions. "We're more insulated from the woes of the economy than big, industrial cities," said White. Many buyers were pleased with new, upbeat lines. "It was a dynamite market," said Trish Zetterberg, owner of Summerville Rags, a better-to-bridge women's specialty store in Augusta, Ga. "I found some great new resources." Zetterberg bought washable linen and rayon blend sportswear from Ecolution, suited special occasion looks from Karen Nicole, and European-inspired summer dresses and sportswear from Canadian resource Olsen. Rather than trendy, cutting-edge fashion, Zetterberg bought investment dressing.
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