DALLAS — The apparel industry here is on the move — but just where is still up in the air.

Two plans for relocating fashion showrooms from the International Apparel Mart are competing for the approval of sales representatives and fashion firms that lease space in the Mart.

The Dallas Market Center Co. said Sunday that it hopes to reenergize the region’s fashion business by moving all 600 tenants in the Mart to the nearby World Trade Center, a separate building in the same campus that’s owned and operated by the DMC. The permanent showrooms are slated to occupy the seventh, eighth, 14th and 15th floors of the WTC by March 2004, when they will be renamed Fashion Center Dallas.

But after the DMC’s announcement, an alternate strategy was circulated Monday that proposes to relocate those same showrooms downtown. That plan calls for creating a fashion center in the vacant 31-story Mercantile Tower, with such amenities as a fitness center, dry cleaner, retail shops and a park where runway shows could be staged.

Details are expected to be revealed today by developers Paul Stell, owner of Stellar Development, and his partner, Luke Crosland of Crosland Investments, at 4 p.m. in an open meeting for Mart tenants at the nearby Renaissance Hotel. The project dovetails with a larger plan backed by the mayor, city council and Neiman Marcus to bring retail and residents back downtown. A prominent local realtor, Henry S. Miller 3rd, operator of the Highland Park Village luxury shopping center, is on board to work on retail and restaurant leasing.

While many reps were enthusiastic about the DMC’s proposal, others were waiting to see what the developers had to offer. They were all unanimous, however, that a change was long overdue.

"They couldn’t do anything but improve on what we already have," said John Allen, who manages the corporate showroom for Blue Willi’s misses’ sportswear.

DMC’s goal is to energize the apparel business here, which has suffered from diminishing traffic and complaints from reps and buyers about the soporific effect of the 1964 building and its confusing layout, dismal cafeteria and antiquated decor."I think it will increase our presence in the business dramatically," said Bill Winsor, chairman and chief executive officer of the DMC, on Monday. "Creating a new presentation and format will differentiate us from the standard rod-and-drape show and from other market centers that have not stepped up to that investment. We have high expectations that this will increase the level of interest in shopping Dallas."

Winsor’s aim is to create synergy between the fashion industry and the more vibrant gift, fine jewelry and home furnishings businesses that occupy most of the 15-story WTC.

DMC officials had no comment about the alternate downtown proposal.

Completed in 1978, the WTC has a more pleasant ambience than the apparel Mart. Showrooms surround a bright atrium that’s decorated with international flags and product displays. A full-service Starbucks recently opened, and plans call for signing up branded restaurants to replace the cafeteria. During the two biggest gift markets in January and June, the building buzzes with 32,000 buyers, Winsor noted. At a big March or October market, about 8,000 to 10,000 buyers typically shop the Apparel Mart.

Fashion showrooms will be clustered in the WTC by product category, with women’s better, bridge and contemporary lines on 15; moderate sportswear and such categories as intimate apparel, swimwear, bridal and men’s wear on 14; jewelry and accessories on seven, and children’s wear on eight, near existing showrooms for toys and children’s home furnishings. Floors 12 and 13 will be devoted to temporary exhibitors and divided between hard and soft goods. Apparel market weeks are not expected to overlap gift shows, but they might be scheduled back-to-back to encourage buyers to shop both, Winsor said.

Fashion shows and seminars will be held in the renovated atrium of the adjacent Trade Mart.

The DMC has offered to finish all showrooms from a selection of paint and carpet and to provide an unspecified moving allowance for additional remodeling. The capital investment is significant, said Winsor, but he declined to reveal a figure.

No plans have been made for the Apparel Mart, but its parking lot and garage will continue to be used by patrons of the WTC, he noted.Several major reps in the building endorsed Winsor’s plan.

Butch Plott, a partner in Navia-Plott, which shows better and contemporary lines, said: "It will be a tremendous boost to the apparel industry and to our personal business because of the amount of traffic they get at the World Trade Center. It’s so much more inviting, and I think it will bring more people to Dallas."

"It’s great," said Nat Ekelman, who has shown better apparel in the building since it opened and owns the GeNe Sales showroom. "It will bring a higher level of energy."

"It’s overdue and it makes sense," said Brad Ritz, whose Ritz Group features special-occasion and novelty sportswear. "It will allow for ease of crossover merchandising and shopping. And as someone who comes to work here every day, this building is so depressing — there are no services and amenities."

Others were more in tune with the downtown proposal.

Summer Paillet, who represents bridge and contemporary lines, liked the idea of moving downtown because she thought the new concept would draw more retailers. "The hip buyers aren’t going to come here just because we’re on top of the World Trade Center, but if we’re downtown in a historical building with a park for fashion shows, then they’re going to want to check it out," she speculated. "I just hope people will sit back and think about where we want to be in 20 years."

Pam Martin of Martin & Co. also thought a downtown venue would be more stimulating. She questioned how much crossover buying she would reap from being in the WTC.

"The gift showrooms will benefit because our specialty stores also buy gifts, but it won’t do me any good to get 20 new [gift] accounts that buy eight pieces," Martin said. "I want apparel stores."

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