NEW YORK--As it heads into one of its biggest markets of the year next week, the accessories industry is refusing to sit passively and feel sorry for itself, despite some recent disappointments. Vendors preparing fall merchandise for the May market, which opens next Sunday, admit that, like much of the fashion industry, they are facing numerous obstacles. When most ready-to-wear designers in last month's fall collections failed to show accessories with their clothing, for example, a number of vendors expressed discouragement, and even outrage, about what they perceive as a lack of respect from Seventh Avenue, especially over the past several years. This came as a particularly hard blow because many felt that the end of fashion's minimalistic, unstructured period would mean a return to plenty of adornment on designer catwalks, a wish that has yet to be realized. What's more, while fall is usually a strong trend season, few important directions have emerged and manufacturers say they don't have a strong feel for exactly what looks will be in demand. While this year got off to a solid start, with vendors reporting their strongest January market week in years, activity since then has been on an up-and-down course. And while the spring accessories season at retail has generally been good for a variety of merchants around the country, some classifications--such as fashion jewelry, which is apparently mired in a long-term slump--have continued to perform poorly. Vendors are gearing up for market with a checklist of strategies designed to make the best out of an uncertain season. They include: Pushing promotional materials, such as direct mailers and top-of-counter visual aids, to pique retailers' interest and help them sell the products to consumers. Adding new classifications and brands and offering wide ranges of trend interpretations to cover the needs of as many stores as possible. Introducing merchandise for future seasons, such as holiday and even spring 1996. "At this point, it's far better to keep pushing the envelope than play it safe," said Patricia Stensrud, president and chief executive officer of Victoria Creations, a fashion jewelry firm. "The kiss of death right now in our industry would be to crawl into the bunker and wait until things got better before trying anything new." In addition to selling product, Stensrud said her firm will also be emphasizing at-counter visual presentation to its retail accounts during market week. It is introducing a new series of easel-backed counter cards to be displayed with its Richelieu fashion pearl line, designed to point out to consumers that pearl jewelry works with casual as well as more dressed-up clothing. "We want to remind women that we know they don't wear suits all the time and that they do have the option of wearing pearl jewelry that works with jeans or other casual clothes," Stensrud said. "We also want to show stores that they don't have to stay with the same methods of merchandising fashion jewelry." Jewelry designer Dayne Duvall, who also operates Notanonymous, a manufacturer's representative showroom, introduced another type of promotional vehicle, a direct mail piece, in preparation for the market. The full-color mini-catalog was mailed to retailers the week before last, Duvall said. "We wanted to get stores interested in what we had to offer before the market even started, and so far it's been working extremely well," he said. "We have never had so many appointments booked going into a market week as we do this time, and we've even had stores calling to place advance orders on some of our lines." Others are venturing into new product categories or rolling out new lines. Manufacturer's rep showroom Apropo, for instance, is introducing gloves to its product mix. "We're looking for anything to latch onto, anything that we think might be strong, and gloves were one of the few accessories that did emerge strongly from the fall ready-to-wear collections, particularly in Europe," said Uri Alter, owner of the company."So, three of our designers are adding gloves to their lines," Alter added. "We'll also be experimenting with new trend directions, like big and bold jewelry and unusual mixes of fabrications in handbags. Since there's no definitively clear direction, we feel now is the time to try new things." Belt firm Omega Fashions has high hopes for the launch of its licensed Etienne Aigner belt line. "It's a line that has a designer name and yet much lower price points than anything else in the designer area," said chief executive officer Joel Pinsky. "In other words, it fills something of a gap in the belt market, which is perfect for right now, because we need to be giving the consumer an actual reason to buy something." In another strategic vein, vendors such as milliner Kokin will be offering merchandise for future seasons earlier than usual. Kokin will show a full holiday collection for May instead of waiting until August to do so. "I'm going to be stressing the holiday collection to stores because I think it will help give their fall merchandise selections more of a 'snap,"' said Kokin, who is known by just the one name. "I also think there are a lot of unexplored opportunities in the holiday hat business and I want to get stores thinking about it and ordering it earlier, rather than have them wait until August when they usually view it as more of a fill-in business." Abe Chehebar, president of Accessory Network, said he will show some spring 1996 goods to his accounts. "The main reason we'll be doing this is because we have some spring items that we feel will be very hot sellers, but that we also know are quota-sensitive as well as price-sensitive because they are made of cotton and ramie, fibers we expect to go up in price," Chehebar said. "So we want to get the merchandise to the stores as soon as possible."
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