SPURT OF NEW ITEMS WHETS RETAIL HOPES FOR FALL ACCESSORIES
Byline: Amanda Meadus and Wendy Hessen
NEW YORK--Accessories might end up being the big fall story at retail. A spate of hot trends and items are setting fire to transitional and early fall business, according to a spot check of merchants from high-end to mass market. Looks such as shiny glamour, animal prints, tailored plaids and fake fur have been instrumental in fueling checkouts, as have specific pieces such as backpacks, narrow belts and delicate earrings. For a number of merchants, this fresh wave of fashion comes as a relief following a first half in which no strong looks predominated. "Last season, everyone was so worried about accessories and what few trends there were, but what's out now is fun-looking and really attractive to consumers," said Judy Collinson, divisional merchandise manager for accessories at Barneys New York. "Our business looks good compared to this time last year," said Kim Anderson-Curry, divisional merchandise manager for accessories at Sears, Roebuck & Co. "We're logging double-digit increases compared to early fall a year ago, and key items are driving the business." Most retailers have been offering fall goods for a month or less, and with success coming so soon in the season, they say things can only keep getting better for the remainder of the year. Of all the items toting up sales for stores, backpacks are coming through as the early leader for just about everyone. This has been the case at J.C. Penney Co., according to Anne Gravseth, merchandise manager for accessories. "Large and mid-size pieces have been the hottest silhouettes," Gravseth said. "A yarn-dyed Black Watch plaid style under our own Arizona label has been particularly strong." She added that handbags in classic styles from Oggi Domani and Penney's Hunt Club line, retailing from $50 to $65, have also been moving, as have shoulder wallets from Rolfs and several private brands. There has also been early interest in narrow leather belts, as well as transitional-weight scarves, Gravseth added. Sears has also scored with backpacks, particularly those in denim or vinyl, Anderson-Curry said. These as well as several other items--belts in earth-tone nubuck, wallets on strings--have been strong performers. In these areas, private-label goods as well as merchandise from companies such as Michael Stevens and B.H. Smith are doing well. Trendy backpacks and miniature jewelry have been the standouts for Barneys, according to Collinson. Talking about backpacks, Collinson said, "Trends such as patent leather are truly driving sales, rather than just being looks that everyone talks about but no one buys." Small and flat backpacks have also been attracting attention, Collinson pointed out, as have items from Prada and Henry Beguelin. Handbags have also been seeing their share of action, with unusual pieces such as a mohair number from Jill Stuart and a corduroy line from Kate Spade checking out well. Jewelry sales have been dominated by small, intricate earrings and necklaces by such designers as Bettina Duncan, Christopher Phelan and Me + Ro, Collinson said. "Jewelry business was on a downturn for a while, and as a result the scales of the pieces were downsized," she noted. "Right now, a smaller, more feminine, look is more alluring than a big, bold chunky one. Regarding trends in general, Collinson said they have been an important part of early strength in accessories this season. "There are so many good trends happening right now, and this really bodes well for the fourth quarter," said Anne Keenes, senior vice president and general merchandise manager for accessories at Saks Fifth Avenue. As reported last week, Keenes has resigned from Saks, but will continue with her responsibilities until mid-September. In particular, Keenes said, she expects the move toward more color and more femininity to maintain fall accessories sales, which have gotten off to a rousing start, later in the season. For now, she said, animal prints are driving business in everything from scarves to handbags to fake fur hats. "I don't think animal print will be a long-term trend, but it's been terrific as a transitional look," Keenes said, pointing to scarves by Ellen Tracy and Anne Klein as top sellers in this arena. Handbags have been one of the leading categories all year and continue to show growth, she noted, with the backpack emerging as the must-have piece for fall. "We can't keep them in the stores," she said. "Every fabrication from every resource has just been selling tremendously." Even a DKNY backpack made of polar fleece and designed for cold weather use has been selling briskly although it's still warm out, she added. Cindy Quinn, divisional merchandise manager for accessories at the Braintree, Mass.-based Bradlees, said that while some traditional items continued to be strong this fall, there are also some new items and categories showing early signs of strength, potentially signaling trends for fourth quarter. Mini-backpacks and highly functional, multi-compartment, organizer handbags are two of the latest styles currently checking at retail, she noted. They are moving in plaids, nylon and vinyl. A novelty, animal-influenced trend could be cropping up in fine jewelry, Quinn said. Pieces currently selling are in motifs ranging from jungle beasts to ocean denizens including dolphins, starfish and shells. She said the store will closely track sales in the category, altering its plans and assortments if the trend proves to have staying power. Because of current sales activity, as well as the fact that Bradlees is continuing its expansion plans, Quinn said she was "very optimistic about the fourth quarter." Although the hair category often does well at this time of year, Quinn added that multiple packaged sets in new, textured fabrications have been particularly strong. She also noted that sales of licensed character watches and the increased availability of lighted-dial models later this year, will continue to foster growth in the fashion watch area. Kim White, merchandise manager for fashion jewelry and watches at Federated Merchandising, the buying arm for Federated Department Stores, noted: "Watches are the driving force within the jewelry and watch area now." Key looks that have been boosting business include plastic, functional sport watches from makers like Timex and Armitron, character watches such as those with Looney Tunes figures, and jewelry-inspired looks from Anne Klein and Anne Klein II. "Watches have become part of our daily jewelry wardrobe," White said. "They can vary from sporty, athletic looks to more tailored and dressed-up career looks." On the costume jewelry side, she noted that with the downtrend of chokers--last year's hot item--Federated has offset its assortment with basics that have the look of fine jewelry, focusing for instance, on matte finishes, sculpted earrings, and chain looks, that are more statement-oriented. Pins, she added, are expected to be increasingly important as the season moves forward, because of the return to more tailored clothing. Among the goods showing power at Henri Bendel have been small jewelry, handbags, scarves and hair accessories, said Rob Goldfarb, merchandise manager for accessories. "Novelty-driven merchandise has been very important in categories such as hair goods, while classic styles are doing well in something like handbags, where structure is coming back," he said. Animal print items are making great strides at Macy's East, said Sheila Aimette, fashion director of accessories. Specific sellers here have been fake-fur animal print hats by Eric Javits and Topper and backpacks from L.J.S. Simone. "Plaid prints have also been behind a lot of action in hats and backpacks," Aimette said.