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ATLANTA — Slowing economic trends loomed over buyers at the spring-summer market here, generating increased pressure on them to find items to distinguish their specialty stores.

“In fashion, tough times do not call for playing it safe,” said Bradley Forster, owner of Bradley, a Mobile, Ala., store, and one of many merchants whose sales slumped during fall or holiday. “I’m only buying things with the ‘wow factor,’ not basics.”

Bright colors and bold abstract prints were the most prevalent summer trend, especially in dresses and tunics, which buyers said was an energized category after spring introductions. Jackets, enlivened by new swing and trapeze shapes, were also popular.

The women’s and children’s show that ended its four-day run Jan. 29 at AmericasMart also offered a smattering of early fall merchandise.

Focusing on contemporary and accessories as growth opportunities, AmericasMart expanded space for new vendors in exhibition areas, including lines such as Ed Hardy, which grew to 15 booths in its third show here. A New Artist area launched featuring lines that were fresh to the mart, with 25 lines making their debut this show. The new product augments permanent showroom lines.

Traffic equaled last year and was described as “typical” for a January show by Chuck Corvi, project manager for apparel trade shows.

“There were bright spots and opportunities to grow business, and low spots, such as moderate areas,” Corvi said. “Mom-and-pop stores in small towns face competition from big department stores and other retailers.”

Contemporary stores, such as L Boutique in Sarasota, Fla., applauded the increase in younger, hipper product in clearly defined areas.

“I’m seeing more lines here that I used to have to go to New York to get,” said owner LeeAnne Swor.

For summer, Swor bought dresses, her best-selling category, from Susana Monaco, Trina Turk and Tracy Reese, and printed tunics and dresses from Black Halo and Milly.

Other buyers, shopping for an affluent, older customer base, said the market was too contemporary, neglecting a customer who demands updated fashion but needs a more generous fit.

This story first appeared in the February 8, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Buyer Jennifer Williams, owner of Jennifer’s, a Fort Myers, Fla., boutique, said, “You get the sense that business is so bad, manufacturers are just covering all bases. There’s no newness or one trend direction. It’s hard for the retailer to interpret.”

Williams had a slight decrease in 2007 sales. Affected by Florida’s real-estate and economic woes, she said tourism, especially from Europeans enjoying the benefits of the weak dollar, would continue to take up the slack.

Searching for sharply priced, margin-building items, she also sought pieces special enough to inspire consumers to buy, regardless of price. She bought dresses from Envi and Only Hearts, and denim, which hasn’t slowed, in wide-leg styles from brands including Fortune and Christopher Blue, for customers who value fit over labels.

Bonnie White, owner of her namesake boutique in the Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta, agreed that the market appeared fragmented.

“There’s too much of everything,” she said. “I’d like to see more edited product.”

Rather than jumping on trends, White concentrated on proven formulas, including her key knit classification. She bought sweater sets from Bordado, striped tops from Finley and glazed linen jackets in new silver and blue palettes from various vendors.

She allocating more dollars to accessories, given the current uncertain economy.

“I’m buying to show customers I believe in it,” she said, “But I’m bullish on accessories as a way to give customers alternatives to investing in complete new wardrobes.”

She bought scarves and wraps from Ellen Raines Martin and statement jewelry by Marcee.

Julie Routenberg, owner of Potpourri, a specialty store with two Atlanta locations, hunted for special items, rather than basics, and “put-together looks rather than T-shirts and jeans,” she said.

Along with core lines, such as Lafayette 148, she ordered new lines with color. Routenberg picked up architectural shapes in tops and jackets from Cannisse, and dresses by Taylor with a contemporary look that fit a misses’ customer.

Marigail Mathis, owner of an eponymous specialty store in Florence, Ala., responding to new abstract prints in unexpected color combinations, described the market offerings as “yummy.”

“There’s been a long gray drought (with drab colors),” she said. “We like combinations of plum and turquoise, silver and yellow, and silver returning in accessories.”

Along with tried-and-true line Elliott Lauren, Mathis bought new resources, such as Yoana Baraschi’s handcrafted dresses and knits from Shu Shu.

Mathis said her biggest challenge is finding updated looks for customers older than 35.

“We need a broad size range and better styles for this woman, who has the money to spend,” she said. “Lines that target this customer look dangerously close to dowdy.”

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