CHICAGO--Excitement about fashion's new shapeliness drove orders at the Chicago Apparel Center fall women's market here last week.
Despite slight spring sales increases, however, many buyers weren't sufficiently convinced to boost their fall open-to-buys over last year's levels.
Rather, in this specialty store-driven market, buyers were abuzz about the growing impact of malls and mass merchants on their business. Some said they felt pressured to redefine themselves with specialized merchandise, while others saw an opportunity to distinguish themselves with boutique-styled service.
Favored fashion choices included body-conscious silhouettes in structured suits and fitted separates, especially those with animal prints and color hints.
The five-day market ended Tuesday, with ice and severe rainstorms over three of the days getting blamed for putting a lid on traffic.
"We expect the market [traffic] will be even or slightly below last year," said Susan McCullough, marketing vice president at the Apparel Center. She predicted that any decline wouldn't be more than 5 percent against the previous fall market, which had a traffic boost of 13 percent.
Among exhibitors, moderate-to-better multiple-line representative Susann Craig said, "Our [sales] figures are holding even with last year though traffic looks lower.
"We're still selling a lot of comfort," said Craig, noting the popularity of cotton and fleece casual wear alongside more fitted knit pieces.
Other reps gained greatly with the new looks. In Marshall Stewart's multiple-line showroom, fall orders for better goods "were the best we've had in five years," he said. His established lines were up, he noted, with gains reaching as high as 50 percent.
He attributed the increase to an appetite for shaped clothing. "With the advent of new body-conscious jackets, they're buying," he said. "It's not the oversized, sloppy look. Newness gives them another reason to buy."
Among those pleased with the new shape story was retailer Mary Catherine (she doesn't use her last name professionally), owner of Opulence, a better-to-designer women's boutique in Westmont, Ill.
"I think the fall shopper will be happy," she said after leaving paper with Suzelle for dressy-casual separates and Junnviette for suits.
Taking her cue from heightened value-consciousness in consumers, she shopped for clothes "that won't go out in a year or two" but were trendy enough to provide style mixing both neutrals and brights.
"You can't go all one way with color or your wardrobe is boring," she said.
Shaped suits and casual career looks topped Mary Compton's shopping list for Town and Country, a moderate-to-better shop she owns in Oregon, Ill.
Though business was up 5 percent for the last six months over the previous year, Compton held her open-to-buy even with last year.
"Five percent isn't enough of a jump to make me increase my fall budget," she said.
While pleased with the many "good looks for fall," Compton had only left paper with Karin for conservative dresses and sportswear by midday in a one-day buying trip.
Other small retailers reported suffering in competition with the growth of discounters and mass merchants in their markets. Leann Brechler, owner of Leann's Lingerie in Stevens Point, Wis., and buyer Lori Flanders said a new Target store and the upgrading of J.C. Penney merchandise hurt their business in the last year.
The competition was forcing them into "more fashionable, less basic looks," said Flanders who added that she had "a hard time finding resources like that."
"We are selling more shapers and push-up bras," said Brechler, noting the impact of shapely fashions on her merchandise.

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