Hit hard by the loss of retail accounts, the contemporary crowd is offering more lower-priced novelty pieces and venturing into cyberspace.

Though it has long been one of the hottest sectors of the industry, contemporary manufacturers are feeling the pinch of economic doldrums that have caused the closure of retail accounts and crimped the spending habits of surviving retailers.

“It is a very tough time,” said David Dalrymple, designer and partner in House of Field. “We lost a lot of stores over the last 18 months. In the past, we had nine or 10 accounts in South Beach. Now we have half that, and they are buying less.”

Marc Goldberg, national sales manager of Marithé & François Girbaud, echoed Dalrymple’s sentiments. “Business is bad, and you wonder how long a lot of these stores can maintain. I know several that are in trouble. People are buying more and more buy-now-wear-now, not a wardrobe. Department stores can absorb [excess inventory] because they charge the manufacturers, but nobody is handing out money to the little specialty stores.”

In the struggle to grow — or simply survive — contemporary fashion houses are trying a variety of tactics, from pushing novelty items to tempting buyers with guaranteed sell-through and free shipping. Here, a look at some of the strategies of WWDMAGIC exhibitors:

  • FASHION AT A (LOW) PRICE: In response to penny-pinching consumers and buyers, some manufacturers are expanding the lower ends of their collections.

    At WWDMAGIC, edgy House of Field will launch a collection featuring pieces that resemble denim, but in fact, are made of comfortable stretch cotton and spandex jersey. Unlike the rest of the House of Field line, which is produced in New York, this line will be made in Brazil to keep wholesale prices below $50. Silhouettes include jeans, a boy-leg bib overall, little tops with back straps, a pencil skirt and short skirts with ruffles. “I think this is what the market is calling for,” Dalrymple said. “Young women want to go out and buy a few things for $100 and put together a whole look.” House of Field expects wholesale volume will be $750,000 to $1 million this year, about the same or slightly below last year.Nataya, a Los Angeles-based resource that specializes in romantic, vintage-style dresses, has more than doubled the size of its Classics by Nataya line, a less costly special-occasion collection. Classics by Nataya wholesales from $50 to $99, while the main Nataya collection ranges from $70 to $150.

    “We are trying to bring more appropriate clothes to market,” said sales manager Lena Sutina. “We have been successful in our special-occasion part of the line because people are getting married all the time. We are also going forward with the regular line, but it is a little more expensive and avant-garde, and sometimes not all the boutiques are ready for that, especially in the West, where the economy is really bad.”

    Nataya’s volume for 2003 is projected between $2 million and $2.5 million. “If the economy had held like it was three years ago, we’d be doing six or seven [million dollars],” Sutina said, “but right now it is just keeping us alive.”

  • FASHION FOCUS: Manufacturers are honing in on what they do best: novelty fashion pieces.

    Taking inspiration from a novelty bestseller in its more expensive Biya collection, Johnny Was introduced multicolored embroidered jackets in stretch poplin twill and velveteen, wholesaling from $99 to $119. “It looks like a piece of art, and having it up on the wall has opened new accounts,” said national sales manager Jennifer Cohen.

    Hype also is straying away from basics. “People are spending their money when something is different and special and you have to have it,” said sales manager Haley Miller. “We have always done novelty, and we are sticking to it.”

    Top looks at Hype include a silk charmeuse halter dress with a matching silk shantung jacket that has chenille flowers as well as color blocking, with embroidery and beading.

    Marithé & François Girbaud is focusing on two jean styles that it will promote heavily with a new spring ad campaign. The “peek-a-boo” is a mercerized denim jean with details on the leg and pockets, while the “V-fuse” style is low cut with small, feminine back pockets and a slight flare.“It’s an item business,” said Goldberg. “Cool with just a little gadgetry is where the market really is. We were hitting the world as a collection, and it is too costly.”

    Marithé & François Girbaud’s 2003 women’s wear volume is projected at $15 million, up 20 percent from 2002.

  • CYBER-SAVVY: Web sites can serve as a quick way to show a line to a buyer, create an image or sell directly to consumers, and manufacturers are building them as fast as possible.

    “We are developing a Web site right now to get closer to our buyers,” said Claude Fredj, an owner of Margaret M. sportswear in Montreal. “The problem is that many of the small stores don’t even have e-mail or the Internet at this point. It’s surprising, but true.”

    But Fredj believes enough in the Web to produce a smaller catalog this season in order to shift money to fund the Web site, which he expects will be up in September.

    Margaret M.’s business will do about $5.5 million this year, about 10 percent less than last year. “If it continues to go down, we will have to open stores ourselves and do retail, but I don’t really want to do that,” he said.

    H. Starlet already sells small accessories on its Web site and is preparing to put the clothing line up within a couple of months, according to co-designer Tanya Hamilton. “We will do photo shoots for each group and have it on the Web site so individuals can look it up as well as buyers,” she said. The company expects sales to double this year to $2 million, driven partly by its success with celebrity placements.

    Vicars and Tarts, which specializes in quirky British-inspired fashions wholesaling from $23 to $90, is building a nontransactional Web site that will feature press clips, store locations, look books and sales representative contact information, said owner Camilla Shah. Password protection will restrict access to line sheets to buyers. The company will introduce a new label for spring, Golden Crest, that features sexy, Seventies-style silhouettes in luxurious fabrics, such as silk and satin. The company is aiming for $200,000 in first-year sales.

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