FROM RUNWAYS TO MASS: A SLOW TRICKLE

Byline: Amanda Meadus

NEW YORK--Don't expect to see the latest looks in designer accessories jumping to the mass market anytime soon.
According to retailers and manufacturers of mass market accessories, the styles that come out of the Milan, Paris, London and New York ready-to-wear shows every season rarely make a rapid move to their levels; sometimes, they don't show up at all. If a particular trend does have mass potential, it usually takes at least a year to filter through.
The retro look that ruled the Paris presentations this month, for instance, won't be happening at all, according to some major players in the mass market.
"The accessories that go with the retro style tend, I think, to be more on the dressy, career-oriented end, while we tend to work more in the casual vein," said Connie Marsh, director of fashion and product development for accessories and sportswear at Kmart Corp., Troy, Mich.
Marsh added that while the high-end, directional segment of the fashion industry might be heading into a new phase of glamour, femininity and formality, "consumer research has shown us that customers usually shop at mass merchants--not just Kmart, but mass merchants in general--for their casual apparel and accessories needs."
Consequently, she noted, Kmart does keep track of trends in Europe, but with an eye to the more informal styles. On a recent trip to Europe, she said, Kmart's merchandisers went through stores such as Galeries Lafayette in Paris and picked up on belt bags, backpacks and tweedy socks, items they felt would work for them as well.
"The retro look would totally not work for us because the appeal is just not wide enough and not understandable enough," said Abe Chehebar, chief executive officer of Accessory Network, a major mass market vendor here that produces handbags, small leather goods, hats, hair accessories and several other classifications.
"In order for us to interpret a trend from, say, the European runways, it would have to be something that just about every designer showed," Chehebar noted. "It must be something widespread and definitive."
The firm is influenced, however, by some of the U.S. designers, particularly those with a major presence in department stores.
"We look at what's happening at stores like Macy's and with [labels] such as Liz Claiborne," he said. "We're most interested in the more moderate levels of retailing. What's going on at, say, a Bergdorf Goodman isn't that applicable to us."
Accessory Network also investigates the European market frequently, Chehebar said, and keys in on widely popular items.
"Backpacks started to get hot there two years ago, and we've picked up on those," he said. "Likewise with casual work boots, which everyone there has been wearing. We've taken some of those ideas and interpreted them in accessories."
Some companies do take direction from even the most innovative of the designer pack, but it's in subtle ways.
"We pay a lot of attention to what's happening on the runways each season," said Jon Bihn, president of Monique Handbags here. "But we do not translate anything literally because, very frankly, the mass market would not understand it and is just not ready for it."
Monique's method, according to Bihn, is to present a statement in a subdued manner, either as a piece of trim or hardware or in a fabrication or silhouette.
The time span for translating a trend into the mass market is about a year for Monique, Bihn said. If the firm picks up on retro, for example, it would be worked into the spring 1996 line. To make sure the style has that type of longevity, he added, Monique's designers track it through the department store levels to see how long it sticks around.
A similar pattern holds true at mass eyewear firm Foster Grant, where styles on line for the upcoming spring season have been derived largely from last spring's key trends.
"The trickle-down is there but it often takes a while," said Alice Myer, director of marketing for Foster Grant. The company's current spring stories include natural/environmental, shown in antique-looking metal frames, and muted colors, expressed in brown tortoise-shell-colored plastic flecked with bits of other soft hues. Both natural looks and muted color palettes were key designer motifs for last spring.
Another manufacturer, Idea Nuova, generally works on a six-to-nine-month time frame, said Beno Accad, vice president. Idea Nuova produces a number of accessories classifications, including hair goods, belts, jewelry, scarves, handbags and sunglasses.
"We feel that this is the amount of time it takes for the acceptance of the trend to reach the mass market customer," Accad said.
However, he noted, if a certain motif shows early signs of major strength, his company will jump on the bandwagon as early as possible. This was recently the case with patent-leather goods, which designers started showing in fall ready-to-wear presentations and which Idea Nuova started offering to the mass market soon after. This is not the usual case, though.
Sarne Corp., a mass market handbag maker, "is influenced by the latest fashion trends in the same way an artist is influenced while walking through a museum," said Paul Kopyt, president.
"Since our core business is mostly oriented toward career basics, we aren't as susceptible to extreme trends, but if we see one we believe in, we find some way of working it in," Kopyt said. "We are, after all, in the fashion business, so we can't ignore fashion completely."
Yet, Kopyt added, his firm remains oriented primarily to basics because of the nature of the mass market consumer.
"This is a consumer that is privy to the same information about and exposure to fashion trends as anyone else, but who is different in terms of priorities," he said. "She may want an accessory done in a particular style but is tempered by practical reality. In other words, she may not have the luxury to spend a large amount on whimsical things, and may need to concentrate the bulk of her spending on more practical pieces."

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