The contemporary set is satisfying retailers and shoppers with lower pricing, faster turnaround and hotter styles.Sure, they are purveyors of this year’s trend toward feminine, detail-laden clothing, but the collection of contemporary vendors is nothing if not tough. In one of the most difficult years to do business since the Great Depression, several reported they’ve doubled sales this year to last. Upon further examination, vendors’ success can be attributed to luck and hard work. The lucky ones jumped on the right trend at the right time, while others unexpectedly picked up a new breed of customer: consumers who normally shop luxury labels who have come to contemporary in search of fashion-forward looks at kinder prices. Others got ahead through sheer hustle, signing new accounts and improving turnaround times. Here, a closer look at contemporary vendors’ strategies for making the best of a tough market.l Riley, a line produced by the Vernon, Calif.-based Born Again Clothing, has doubled its business this year, according to chief financial officer Derek Banton. Specializing in low-waisted sweatpants, novelty sweatshirts and corduroys, it’s sold at Bloomingdale’s, Bergdorf Goodman, M. Frederick and Fred Segal. Riley’s popularity is driven by the strong consumer appetite for vintage-inspired and distressed clothing, said Banton. Banton also said the jump in volume came about because the company drummed up new accounts."I think business is getting tougher," he said. "You’re having to come out with a lot more effort to keep business up. You can’t just keep doing the same thing and expect business to be the same."One challenge, he said, is retailers’ ordering goods every six to eight weeks,and, instead of simply reordering goods, wanting fresh merchandise."It makes production a lot harder — to source and turn around fast enough," he said. Banton expects consumer confidence to continue its roller-coaster ride until the stock market settles down for at least three months. "Everybody is still losing a certain amount of business," he said.Still, consumers might readily invest in clothing before they buy a new car orhouse."They’d rather go without something else and buy a fashionable piece so they stand a chance of finding their love on Saturday night," said Banton.As for the next big move for contemporary labels: It’s "surf-inspired," he said.l At For Joseph, a company that will be exhibiting at WWDMAGIC’s Design Gallery within the contemporary section, sales have increased 50 percent this year to date. The line, which specializes in American western looks, has been around for 18 years. Owner and designer Joseph Agi said the latest uptick is primarily a result of product development. That, and attracting women who once didn’t think twice about spending $2,000 on a Gucci coat. They would rather pay $400 for a For Joseph version."We’re collecting a lot of rich consumers right now," he said, noting that he sells to Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus, as well as to 3,000 specialty store accounts. The contemporary category is in the midst of adapting to a new way of doing business, said Agi. He feels that contemporary companies, like their junior counterparts, are under pressure to produce goods closer to season, according to the whims of fickle customers."We’re finding that in America, women catch a trend," he said. "They all want the same thing. They want it for two hours, five days and two hours. Then they all change together for something else." l Lucky Brand Dungarees Inc. chief executive officer Gene Montesano strikes a philosophical note when talking about the state of the denim business, which he deems "pretty good." "It’s about having a business stomach," he said. "If you make clothing, make the best. Give the best service. That’s the best defense against any downturn. Be the one retailers want to do business with."Montesano said the brand has amassed a solid following because it doesn’t jump on every trend."I’ve seen people go from vintage-inspired to clubwear to rubber and back to vintage," he said. "We’ve had western shirts for 12 years now. It’s nice when it happens to be happening, but it never stopped us from having them in our stores."The Vernon, Calif.-based company, since becoming a division of Liz Claiborne in 1999, has expanded its retail business from six to 64 doors. The line currently ships to 500 retail accounts. But don’t expect Lucky to turn into a 4,000-store company like Gap."It’s about making the hard calls, not growing too fast, not selling to everybody and doing it special," Montesano added. "I think most people know about that, but I don’t think a lot of people do it."l H. Starlet’s offerings are perfectly timed to a market that’s tuned into chic activewear that’s almost more likely to be worn for a night out on the town as to the gym.The company’s sexy sweats à la Juicy Couture, Swarovski crystal-adorned clothing and tops sporting Italian-made flower cutouts have found their way into Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue and Henri Bendel. H. Starlet will also exhibit in the Design Gallery."So far — knock on wood — business is really great," said owner Heidi Cornell. "I was doing this from my apartment, and now I’ve got an office and five employees."l Being on top of trends from Europe, producing more than 100 new styles every month and offering retailers short-time delivery — between three and four weeks — is what has helped New York-based Sharagano double the lines’ sales this month over August 2001. "We are able to produce fast," said David Schamouelian, vice president. "That’s one of the reasons for our growth."Schamouelian said it leaves a bad taste in his mouth when he hears the industry make excuses for their flagging business. "If it’s not the stock market, it’s the weather," he explained. "I see it as an opportunity to look at what’s wrong."Schamouelian said there is plenty of reasons to be optimistic: Like For Joseph, Sharagano is picking up the consumer that would normally be shopping in a higher price point, consumer confidence is getting better and retailers are "being much more open-minded about their buys going forward."He expects fall and next spring to bring strong sales spurred by newness in the market. "The bohemian chic is continuing in a different way," he said. "It’s more based on color, prints and a mix-and-match of different fabrications."l Sales of Blue Cult are "tremendously" up, according to Caroline Athias, co-founder and design director.The only way to stay afloat in this economy is to create new product continuously, she said. The Vernon, Calif.-based denim line is two and a half years old and is carried by Urban Outfitters, Barneys, Saks, Nordstrom, Henri Bendel and Bergdorf Goodman. "We aren’t sleeping nowadays," Athias said, adding that Blue Cult creates 20 new pieces a month. "We need to create so that people are going to come to us. We’re constantly adding fashion pieces."As for spring, Blue Cult jeans will be cut with a higher rise. "Yes, I’m going to show the higher rise, but I know it’s not going to be the hot ticket right away," she said, noting that she thinks only the hippest boutiques will be likely to jump on the trend. "But I know [rises] are going to go up. I feel it."
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