Following the rebound of retail sales in the second quarter and subsequent small gains in the third, the economy continues to grow at a moderate pace, according to the National Retail Federation, which projects a 4.8 percent increase for the year. Luxury goods and apparel are among the strongest performers, and although an overall soft market is beginning to stir, manufacturers and retailers aren't taking many chances.
Contemporary and young contemporary buyers are exercising caution this season, still relying heavily on reorders and item-driven pieces. Meanwhile, a demand for better young contemporary is being addressed — further distinguishing the category from junior — and contemporary companies are redefining the young contemporary customer and capitalizing on crossover buyers.
The ambiguity between young contemporary and contemporary is also being faced by WWDMAGIC, as the two markets will be merchandised as one for the first time this week.
"The lines have become blurred between the contemporary and young contemporary markets," said Christopher McCabe, vice president and general manager of MAGIC International. "The exhibitors share many of the same buyers, and with young contemporary designers continuing to create younger, less expensive interpretations of contemporary looks, this gives buyers easier access to more options."
Industry analysts agree the line is being blurred between contemporary and young contemporary.
"Buyers are seeing a void in the market for better young contemporary," said Abbey Samet, contemporary market analyst for industry tracking firm The Doneger Group. "It's for a consumer that doesn't want to pay the contemporary price point but doesn't want disposable clothing. It's more about a price point to better compete with fast-fashion retail chains like H&M and Forever 21."
Historically known as a customer who has graduated from the junior market, but is unable or unwilling to pay contemporary prices, young contemporary shoppers now have better options. Contemporary manufacturers are working to recruit customers earlier, luring them in at the young contemporary level and banking that brand loyalty will translate eventually to pricier divisions.
Similarly, existing young contemporary lines like To the Max and Kensiegirl attract contemporary buyers because of the option to merchandise these with BCBG Max Azria and Kensie, respectively. The younger lines offer lower-priced fashion-forward styles based on their contemporary counterparts to help the customer transition from junior to contemporary.From a manufacturer's perspective, that transition equals opportunity.
"To the Max is an aspirational brand," said Max Azria, designer and chief executive officer of BCBG Max Azria and its divisions. "She is just out of college, 22 to 30, new to her career and/or working to the next level — BCBG. She is a lifestyle-driven customer...looking for items to build her wardrobe. She's the young contemporary girl out of juniors," he said, adding that To the Max and BCBG share the same buyers.
For spring, To the Max is focusing on dresses and knit and woven tops geared toward lifestyle and career suiting, priced wholesale from $38 to $138. The company declined to comment on sales.
For Kensiegirl, a Vancouver-based line, drawing in customers from contemporary Kensie is a no-brainer. "If she's 20, it could go either way," said Lani Karls, creative director of Mac & Jac and its divisions, Kensie and Kensiegirl. In fact, Karls will soon launch the brands in Mexico with the idea that they will be merchandised together.
The difference in the divisions, Karls said, is the fabrics and, ultimately, the price points. Kensie offers silk in its lineup, and the $20 jump from Kensiegirl wholesale prices to those of Kensie reflects that.
Novelty jackets, tops, dresses and wide-leg pants are key pieces in Kensiegirl's spring collection. "We haven't had a strong-selling pant in so long," said Karls. "Sales [of wide-leg pants] are going through the roof."
Kensiegirl sells to about 850 doors, including Nordstrom, while Kensie sells to some 1,500 stores.
Young contemporary as well as contemporary buyers are definitely sticking close to season, forcing manufacturers to tighten up their turnarounds.
"We do reorders pretty fast," said Galina Sobolev, head designer and owner of L.A.-based Single and its division of dresses. "We can turn goods in four to five weeks, and most majors love that. If a particular style is selling well for them, they want to be able to capitalize on it."
Single, known for its signature silk prints, offers dresses, tops and tunics for spring for $56 to $148 wholesale. "Major orders average about 240 to 420 units per style, with Neiman Marcus leading the way," Sobolev said. "I find that specialty stores tend to be more adventurous and forward in their choices. They also end up reordering a lot."Single sells to some 500 specialty stores and five or six majors, even offering exclusive product for retailers such as Neiman Marcus.
Several seasons of dress domination helped double the company's volume last year, according to Sobolev. Sales reached $20 million, and the company expects a 20 to 30 percent jump for 2007. Also helping to boost numbers is Single Girls, a children's division of dresses, tops and tunics that bowed in January and shipped exclusively to Bloomingdale's through February. The strategy behind this move reflects that of other contemporary companies looking to go after a younger audience.
"We are getting our customer at a very young age with the Single Girls label so that she can grow up with us and continue to buy Single," said Sobolev.
Single Girls is expected to do $6 million in retail sales this year and Sobolev anticipates it to double in 2008.
Other possible expansions on the horizon include a Single swimwear line, a cover-up collection and scarves.
A.B.S. by Allen Schwartz, an L.A.-based contemporary label, also reports that sales are trending up, citing reorders and an item-based business as the main factors.
"Our success is being able to turn quickly to impact fast fashion," said Veronica Davis, director of sales and design, adding that turnaround usually takes six to eight weeks. "Reorders drive our business and are critical to keep our momentum strong."
Davis said wholesale volume is expected to increase 25 percent from last year.
Known for its quick response to trends and its willingness to adjust in a fickle market, A.B.S. recently shifted its focus from collections to item-based offerings, including pants, dresses and jackets in shine-infused linen or silk for spring, for $69 to $198 wholesale.
"Sportswear is emerging and is a strong part of our business," said Davis. "A great example is the impact of the wide-leg trouser. We have been in skinnys for so long, and while they still maintain strength, this new trouser alternative gives the customer a reason to buy something new."
Currently, 75 percent of the brand's roughly 800 doors have been major retailers, but focus is expanding to specialty stores and international business, said Davis, and the company aims to increase specialty business by 10 percent.Adding to its growth, A.B.S. by Allen Schwartz launched a line of footwear this year and plans to add jewelry, accessories and outerwear to the product lineup in 2008.
Like more established contemporary and young contemporary brands, newer labels like four-year-old Matty M out of Vernon, Calif., are also recognizing the importance of reorders in a market dictated by trends that come and go at lightning speed.
"In the contemporary market, we find that our buyers write [orders] closer to season as fashion trends are always changing," said Eleanor Sanchez, owner and president of Complete Clothing Co., parent of Matty M. "Reorders are important as we look to maximize trend items and take forward key concepts."
The young contemporary brand's concepts for spring include romantic knit dresses detailed with draping and voluminous sleeves, wide-leg trousers and fabrics such as silk voile and hammered charmeuse. Eco-friendliness is also key for Matty M. "We currently use only natural-based fabrics, and with so much focus on the environment, we are doing our part by introducing organic dye processes," said Sanchez.
The spring collection runs $34 to $64 wholesale, and Matty M sells to majors such as Nordstrom, Bloomingdale's and Macy's, as well as hundreds of specialty stores. Volume for 2007 is expected to double from last year, said Sanchez. — With contributions from Kennedy Carruthers
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