AS BUSINESS REVIVES, DESIGNER JEWELRY EYES NEW STRATEGIES

Byline: Wendy Hessen

NEW YORK --The patient is showing signs of life.
For the designer segment of the fashion jewelry business, the worst of the slump that most people agree began a little less than two years ago may be ending.
For fashion jewelry generally, the minimalist trend of a year ago -- not to mention the brief tenure of the grunge look before that -- turned into a nightmare. That was especially difficult for the designer segment, because it specializes in
trend-oriented jewelry, and during that time there were few appropriate trends to work with.
While overall figures are lacking, designer jewelry--signature collections of better and designer pieces retailing for more than $100 and sold primarily to major high-end specialty stores--is probably the smallest segment of the fashion jewelry business but the most directional.
To survive, some designers turned to the bridge area and its semi-precious materials or the fine jewelry category or other types of accessories. Others developed additional distribution strategies--such as focusing on smaller specialty stores or private label business.
Now, with more structure and formality returning to fashion, vendors and retailers alike feel there are opportunities to revive the jewelry business, provided the merchandise is in tune with the return to ladylike suits and dresses evident in ready-to-wear.
"Fashion jewelry had a tough 1994 due to the minimal look, but we see new opportunities for spring 1995," said Sharen Jester Turney, senior vice president and general merchandise manager for accessories and jewelry at Neiman Marcus.
Until now, Neiman's had been featuring much fashion jewelry with designer labels. That might be changing in favor of more bridge jewelry. Although Turney said the store is "not getting out of the fashion jewelry business," she also said:
"Fashion jewelry, like everything, is cyclical, and a lot of our regular resources haven't kept pace with the market. We have to address the needs of our ready-to-wear and couture clothing customers."
Gail Pisano, senior vice president and general merchandise manager for Saks Fifth Avenue, gave fashion jewelry a similar vote of confidence.
"Fashion jewelry was off for most of 1994, but we still believe in it," she said. "We're currently doing some restructuring and soul-searching in terms of our current vendor structure. We need congruity in all areas from ready-to-wear to jewelry."
Although retail executives declined to specify exactly how they plan to overhaul their selections, many designers are already taking the initiative and gearing their collections to be more classic and less trend-of-the-moment-oriented.
"The trouble isn't over for the industry," said Richard Graziano, designer and owner of R.J. Graziano. "In order to stay in business, stores and vendors have to remain focused on, among other things, showing a wider variety of clean looks rather than offering a new trend every minute."
Graziano said he has been moving in this direction by broadening the design viewpoint of his jewelry, offering less radical looks that appeal to a wider number of people.
"This concept, producing jewelry with enough of an edge to pick up on the mood of the day and yet appeal to a wide range of people, has really been born out of my appearances on QVC," he noted. Graziano has a regularly scheduled home shopping TV show.
But while most designers agree that staying away from radical trendiness is a must at this time, some pointed out that sticking with the same old formula is also a mistake.
"In the last three years, buyers have gone crazy figuring out how to turn merchandise," said designer Robert Lee Morris. "The lack of guidance from fashion magazines only compounded the problem, especially for stores carrying better goods, since their customers--who read fashion magazines religiously--didn't get any inspiration from their pages," Morris said. "Designers found themselves making things that were safe and homogenized just in order to survive."
Morris, like others, kept his business going during tough times by diversifying into other areas, including handbags, belts, small leather goods, a licensed jewelry line with Warner Bros. Studio stores and even a licensed line of china and decorative accessories with thehome accessories firm, Swid Powell.
This year, Morris will also be doing something a number of similar firms have either already done or are considering--expanding into bridge jewelry. His "luxurious bridge" line mixes sterling silver and 18-karat gold.
Designer Kara Varian Baker is another who has recently added a more expensive line, this one of 18-karat gold.
"Even though money is still tight for consumers, I think there is an interest in investing in fine things such as gold jewelry," Baker said.
Some retailers agree, despite uncertain times in the fashion jewelry business. Barneys New York recently began adding 14- and 18-karat gold jewelry to its main floor selection, according to Judy Collinson, divisional merchandise manager for accessories.
Henri Bendel is planning major changes in assortment and design direction for its main floor jewelry department, said Rob Goldfarb, merchandise manager for accessories.
"Customers have told us that investment dressing is what they want now, whether it's semiprecious or fine jewelry, or fashion merchandise that has the look of fine jewelry," Goldfarb said. Much of the merchandise Bendel's is bringing in to meet this demand will be in stores by the second quarter, he added.
Meanwhile, aware that some big specialty stores seem to be shying away from fashion jewelry business, designers who don't plan significant moves into bridge and fine jewelry are already looking at new distribution strategies.
Jay Feinberg, designer and president of Jay Strongwater, a firm with a business entrenched in large specialty stores, is one of these. Feinberg had never done a trade show before, but decided to participate in the January edition of Accessorie Circuit--a show that attracts a large number of small specialty stores--to start building business with that type of account.
"Doing the show was, to me, psychologically rewarding and emotionally uplifting, since more than half the stores I saw left paper," he said.
Feinberg is also working to maintain business with some of his larger accounts by fulfilling their demand for semiprecious, bridge-type jewelry.
There are also those firms that are trying a little of everything in order to stay stable. Roxanne Assoulin is trying a combination of new distribution and new products, according to Danielle Blanco, one of the firm's designers.
"We've had some success with a private label business that we just started, and we are considering expanding further into hair goods, which we started showing at the January market," Blanco said.
Another company, Dayne Duvall Designs, already has a well-developed business with small specialty stores as well as fashion, bridge and fine jewelry lines. Those areas have helped the firm maintain growth even during the most sluggish periods of the last two years, said co-owner Maxine Coppersmith.
But, Coppersmith said, the company is hardly planning to relax, even if the tempo is starting to pick up in the fashion jewelry business. This year, for the first time, Dayne Duvall is targeting museum stores, fine jewelry retailers and overseas markets, as well as building on its fledgling home accessories business.

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