LOS ANGELES — The adage that shorter hemlines foreshadow a robust economy might need tweaking.
Although buyers saw a parade of thigh-grazing frocks, economic uncertainty produced price sensitivity as they cruised showrooms from Friday to Tuesday in the California Market Center, New Mart, Cooper Design Space and Gerry Building, as well as the trade expos Designers & Agents and Brighte Companies.
Liora Levy, a buyer for Notorious in Los Angeles wasn't keen on picking up too many of the itty-bitty numbers. "I'm not buying a lot," Levy said, adding that she had reduced her budget by more than half.
Retailers from big cities, in particular, appeared to be focusing on price. "There is more competition," said Lindsay Myers, a sales representative for Los Angeles contemporary brand Amo & Bretti.
Andrew Mason, production manager for Los Angeles' The Maitlands contemporary line, said retailers bought larger quantities of select items. Versatility was key, he added, noting that a white Swiss dot minidress was popular because of its $98 price and ease in being worn by itself or with pants.
Dale Pike, senior account manager for Inge Christopher, based in San Rafael, Calif., said many buyers stopping by the handbag brand's booth at Brighte were shopping for immediate deliveries. "They are being more deliberate with their choices," she explained. "They will buy many colors of one thing they like rather than 20 different things."
Genie Parada-Fishman, whose sales agency represented Linda Loudermilk at D&A, agreed that retailers concentrated on ordering "fabulous items" instead of entire collections. And EM Productions, which represents lines including Grai and Society for Rational Dress, saw that many buyers were loyal to tested brands and cautious about picking up new ones.
Some emerging labels cut wholesale prices. Venice, Calif.-based Parballe replaced cashmere with a cashmere-silk blend for a short-sleeved hoodie cardigan in order to slash the price 60 percent to $110. Denmark's Baum Und Pferdgarten trimmed its profit margins for its U.S. business because it wanted to do well here. "It's a big market. It's important for us to have good stores," said spokesman Christian Hansen."The economy has been tough," said Steven Madden, designer of Steven Madden Ltd., after unveiling the spring collection of his year-old dress line in Directives West's fashion show.
Another wrinkle in the economic outlook was the rising euro. To cope with the rising cost of Italian leather, handbag line Beth Springer, based in Venice, Calif., increased one tote's price to $330 from $285. "It is a bit impossible to keep up with a euro that is going up on a daily basis," said the line's namesake designer.
Still, Beth Springer reported that business was up 33 percent year-over-year, partly because of European and Canadian stores' interest in the line. Tourists from those countries, attracted to the U.S. by the favorable currency exchange rates, helped keep traffic flowing at Sonoma, Calif., apparel store The Loop, said owner Joene Kelly. "I am not worried," she said about the holiday season.
But Rosanne Karmes, creator of the Sydney Evan jewelry line and owner of the CMC showroom Le Trend Couture, said French stores weren't hopping on the U.S. goods bandwagon yet.
To entice buyers, vendors put on runway shows that doubled as cocktail parties. The Bordeaux line treated guests to an a cappella performance by a soprano before unveiling dresses accentuated with silver lamé and oversize stones at Hollywood nightclub Opera. Bianca Nero, Yana K and Plastic Island chose the CMC as the venue for their spring presentations.
Yana K touted its Hollywood connection with a performance by singer Kelis, who helped design her coral-colored sequined shift trimmed with a black bib and bow tie.
If the ultrashort hemlines didn't get noticed, then the colors did. Fuchsia, purple, kelly green, yellow and royal blue dominated palettes. "Bright colors are important for spring. A lot of people are tired of the dark colors," said Agnès Mallemouche, production manager at Los Angeles-based handbag brand Lockheart, which highlighted green and red in its spring lineup.
Prints caught retailers' eyes, whether they were drawings of toppled trash bins at Linda Loudermilk or a profile of Barbie in Mattel's new fashion collaboration, Barbie Luxe by Patricia Field. "Print is back and very strong," said Carly Willis, women's buyer for Los Angeles specialty retailer Satine.In a metaphor for the tightening wallets, several designers and manufacturers cinched belts, creating silhouettes that were more fitted and tailored. Seven For All Mankind cut high-waisted shorts and pants out of seersucker, while Aristrocat added trapunto stitching on the waistband of denim shorts.
After the transparency trend prodded by Jil Sander in Milan, designers and manufacturers unveiled versions of see-through fashion. Hungary's Use/Unused wove bamboo into an ivory lining for a sheer black wrap dress. Single After Eight, a cocktail dress line produced by "Project Runway" alumnus Andraé Gonzalo and Los Angeles-based manufacturer Single, layered burgundy silk chiffon over coral silk charmeuse on a flirty number wholesaling for less than $200. "It's difficult to find something in that price range," Gonzalo said.
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