DUSSELDORF — Europe’s largest apparel market, Germany, is still in the dumps, but showing faint signs of improvement.

About 55,000 trade visitors turned out for the CPD woman.man trade show here Aug. 3-5. That was about 5 percent less than last August, and the approximately 1,900 domestic and international exhibitors showing at the fair also represented about a 5 percent decline. But as Sigfried Jacobs, managing director of the German Apparel Retailers Association, remarked, “The declining number of visitors mirror what’s happening in the industry. We have 30,000 apparel retailers in Germany, and lose 2 to 3 percent, or 1,000 to 1,500 stores, each year.”

Moreover, consolidation continues unabated on the manufacturing end. Retail sales in the first half were down 4 percent, which is better than the 8 percent drop in the first half of 2002, Jacobs pointed out. As for the shrinking domestic market, growing exports are helping to breach the gap, many manufacturers said. So are foreign visitors at the fair, which now represent 35 percent of total attendees.

Foreign collections, always an integral part of the CPD assortment, visibly increased this season. Turkish manufacturers came on stronger than ever, with 95 exhibiting in stylish, modern booths organized by the Istanbul Ready-Made Garment Exporters Association, ITKIB, while another 20 showed independently. China also made its CPD debut this season with 11 apparel firms presenting their collections in Düsseldorf. In all, the show featured collections from 51 countries.

From a fashion standpoint, color was the story for next spring-summer. Pale and hot pink; sun and lemon yellow, and a palette of sherbet tones provided an upbeat note at all price points. Shiny satin fabrics were widely featured, as was 100 percent linen. Prints were a hot summer theme in large-scale, two-tone looks on crisp cottons or in floral patterns for flirty, light georgette dresses and tops. Pedal pushers, capris and three-quarter-length pants were another Düsseldorf favorite, and while the mainstream German market remains very sporty and casual, a dressier touch could be spied in many collections.

With money too tight to mention, not only for German consumers but German retailers as well, as many go into their 10th year of dwindling sales and declining profits, Düsseldorf witnessed an intensified focus on opening price points and more favorable margins. This was especially noticeable in the higher ends of the market.“We can’t pretend nothing is happening. You have to react to the times,” said Gerd Strehle, chief executive officer of Strenesse. “We will retain our luxury level, but we are also building up lower price points to create a new balance. You will always have to pay for quality, but as a brand, you have to react more flexibly. We’re bringing some price points down so one can mix more easily. It’s more in line with today’s consumer behavior.”

At Escada, ceo Wolfgang Ley said, “We’ve always had special programs or margin builders to give retailers a little extra help. But whether it’s by chance or design, I really don’t know, our average price points are generally down 30 percent for spring.”

He stressed Escada was not artificially pushing for lower price points, “But we’ve improved our logistics down the whole chain and have lowered our own margins. Plus, the clothes are lighter and the collection has less constructed blazers and suits, which helps keep down prices.”

Moreover, Escada is introducing Escada Modern Business Woman for spring, with price points about 25 to 30 percent lower than the Escada Margaretha Ley collection. The goal is to meet the everyday fashion needs of the professional woman, while attracting a new customer.

“We’ve had 35 percent new end customers in Germany in the last seven months because we rejuvenated the brand,” Ley said.

In general, he said he doesn’t expect “any significant economic recovery in 2004.”

“The fundamental data is terrible,” Ley said. “But psychologically, there’s a lot of color and femininity, and women will buy.”

Peter Boveleth, sales and marketing manager of the bridge-level Ambiente collection, said he senses an upswing, even though the weeks of 90- to 100-degree temperatures weren’t emotionally favorable for the first winter deliveries in the stores. But at CPD, where Ambiente stages a fashion show each season while exhibiting in a showroom in Düsseldorf, Boveleth said, “Retailers know exactly what they want to buy. The look is a bit more well kept and a bit more tailored. That’s the consensus.”Arvid Moorman, managing director of the designer sportswear collection, Kathleen Madden, said, “The German market is stabilizing. What’s missing is the passion about what fashion can do, but [the mood] is definitely more positive than it was last season.”

Exports are a growing part of Madden’s business and racked up double-digit export gains last year. During CPD, the company opened new accounts in Moscow, Marbella, Spain, and Warsaw, and will be opening shops in Dubai and Shanghai this fall.

The brand, founded in Atlanta more than 20 years ago, is based in Switzerland and manufactured in Italy of largely Japanese fabrics. It has recently relaunched in the U.S., where it will be sold in about 50 to 60 doors for fall.

“But in two to three years, I think the U.S. and Canada could be one of our most successful markets,” Moorman said. “The response was overwhelming and the orders were substantial.”

In the more moderate market, which is a core CPD segment and one of Germany’s hardest hit, attention was focused on new delivery and purchasing concepts.

“We’ve become more focused when it comes to fashion, but then we thought, ‘What has to change at retail, at POS?’” said Jürgen Büter, marketing manager for Bianca, a leading German moderate sportswear collection. “The answer: liquidity and speed. The biggest problem in the industry is that we deliver too much too early.”

To improve the situation, Bianca is moving to control the timing and content of retailers’ orders, offering set monthly packages designed to create a harmonic presentation at point of sale.

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