Retailers voted during the August market on design winners in 10 categories: eight for women’s areas, along with a men’s and children’s wear designer.

This year, AmericasMart also honors three DIVA winners in retail. In addition to the women’s apparel winner, The Carriage House, a Decatur, Ala., specialty store, The Namedropper, in Montgomery, Ala., gets the nod for children’s wear and Pener Men’s Wear/Man of Fashion won for men’s apparel.

The Impact award goes to Jim Fallon, editor in chief, WWD, for excellence in Fashion Journalism.

Everyone is invited to the awards ceremony, to be held Oct. 18, in the Grand Atrium Theatre at 6 p.m. With a Shangri-la theme, the evening will be inspired by the Far East and include entertainment, complimentary hors d’oeuvres and a fashion show highlighting each DIVA designer of the year.


FASHION ACCESSORIES: SUZI ROHER ACCESSORIES

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anadian designer Suzi Roher says she tries to get people “waisted in style” with her handcrafted belts. From a 7,000-square-foot studio in Toronto, Roher and a team of artisans constantly look for new ways to transform leather and metal into hip-hugging art.

“Accessories are all about the latest and greatest, so every season, we’ve got to have fresh, innovative belts that set us apart,” said Roher, whose idea trunk includes 500 colors of leather and a hearty stash of rhinestones, jade, amber, bone and other embellishments. “I like to use all natural materials, and I love to mix things up.”

Stretch is built into the contoured design of her belts, which wholesale between $65 for her best-selling “oval stretch” belt and $160 for fancier filigree belts. Roher offers three collections a year with 60 pieces, including her signature all-stretch metal belt built to “last forever,” she said.

The classic fit and function of Forties-era styles continue to influence her designs, but look for touches from the Far East in upcoming belts, too. A little tongue-in-cheek is in store, with a holiday design Roher calls “tough love,” which features rhinestone hearts and a peace sign affixed to a chain that looks like barbed wire.Even after 24 years in business, Roher said she’s still on a mission to get women to see belts as the finishing touch to any outfit. “If fashion is the main course, the belt is the dessert,” Roher said. “People still don’t understand that belts are jewelry, so we have to make pieces that people just have to buy. My goal is to make those passion pieces.”

Roher won’t disclose annual sales, but did note that she does more than $1 million dollars in business with Neiman Marcus alone. She has about 600 active accounts, ranging from high-end department stores to specialty shops.

SPECIAL OCCASION: TADASHI

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f all goes according to plan, customers should be completely at ease lounging around the house in a Tadashi gown. “My goal is to make eveningwear that’s as easy to wear as a T-shirt,” said Tadashi Shoji, who has been blending high glam with low discomfort for two decades. The Vernon, Calif.-based designer’s recipe starts with a heavy dose of stretch and soft, flowing chiffons. Add his hallmark bias trimming and figure-flattering drape, and another Tadashi prototype is ready — almost.

“Every day, we try our dresses on live models for two to three hours to see how it fits and feels,” Shoji said. “If she doesn’t feel comfortable or feel good, it doesn’t pass.”

A native of Japan, Shoji got his start in the Seventies studying Hollywood costume designs, then launched his own label in 1982 in order to make luxury eveningwear at prices below those of the big-name designers.

Where there’s comfort, there’s stretch, and Shoji was quick to put that element into his eveningwear. “We did stretch organza before anyone else,” he said. The Tadashi label also kicked off the georgette three-panel soft pants craze, he noted.

Tadashi’s traditional black-and-white palette is getting a big injection of color, including periwinkle, pink, fuchsia and chartreuse, Shoji said. This spring, look for butterfly and floral prints, also new for the line, he said.

Tadashi rolls out about 150 pieces five times a year. Wholesale prices range from $89 to $129 for separates and from $109 to $199 for dresses. Sizes range 2 to 16.More than 600 accounts, including specialty retailers and all major department stores carry Tadashi. The company also has showrooms in Japan, Europe and the Middle East. Wholesale volume is estimated at $22 million this year.

BETTER/BRIDGE: LAFAYETTE 148

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his young Anaheim, Calif.-based company takes a hands-on approach with each gown under the watch of owner Kevin Lu, a former Chinese doctor.

Casablanca Bridal has only been designing and making gowns since 1996, but has grabbed a lot of attention for the personal attention it puts into every garment. The hand-beaded gowns are made at a privately owned factory that acts like an alteration shop, said Gloria Yu, co-owner and wife of Kevin.

“We do a lot of customization, and I think that’s what makes us really stand out,” she said. “We cut to measurement, raise necklines, take off the sleeves — for no extra charge. It’s like having your own alteration room in the back of the store.”

Organza and soft tulle are prime ingredients in the simple, delicate designs of Casablanca’s detail-oriented gowns. Also, the company just introduced a Mikado fabric that stiffens the dress a bit and adds shine and definition.

Casablanca offers 20 styles of bridal gowns each season in ivory and white, wholesaling from $249 to $349. Some of the most popular styles are off-the-shoulder, Lu said. One of Casablanca’s bestsellers in this category is made from Italian matte satin with an organza overlay. Bodices feature floral embroidery and are dusted with bugle beads and seed pearls.

Lu would not disclose the company’s wholesale volume, but noted that Casablanca has 1,200 accounts.

BRIDAL: CASABLANCA

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amed for its New York street address, Lafayette 148 is known for feminine suitings in wool and stretch blends, as well as novelty pieces in textural fabrics, leathers and suedes.

All the fabrics are from Europe, and the company cuts and sews all of the garments at its Manhattan factory, said executive vice president of merchandising Aileen Dresner.

Lafayette 148 was founded in the late Nineties by fashion operations specialist Deirdre Quinn and garment manufacturers Shun Yen Siu and his wife, Ida.The look and feel of the label is at the hands of former Donna Karan designer Edward Wilkerson, who frequently takes his cues from nature. The shoreline and Atlantic Ocean flowed freely in recent collections, with sea-foam blues and greens, bright whites and sandy browns.

In addition, inspiration comes from the texture and drape of the fabrics, which include cashmere, organza and silk mohair. “We also use consumer feedback gathered at our 200-plus trunk shows a year to react quickly to trends,” Dresner said.

Wilkerson has said he designs to feel like he’s wearing cashmere pajamas, and cashmere, including coats in all lengths, is definitely a staple at Lafayette 148.

The label is also known for its silk-beaded pants, wrap dresses and textured tanks. Jackets run the gamut, from butter-soft leather to silk prints with embroidery and beading.

About 200 styles per season are offered in a wide range of wholesale price points, from $33 for a cotton/spandex jersey tank to $848 for shearlings.

The line is sold in major department stores such as Saks, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom, as well as 250 specialty stores in the U.S., Canada and Asia.

Lafayette 148 officials project a wholesale volume of $38 million this year.

JUNIORS/YOUNG CONTEMPORARY: EARL JEAN

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arl Jean kicked off a low-rise sensation when it hit the Los Angeles scene in 1995. The company has since moved its headquarters to New York with a new design team and new owner — VF Corp. — but it’s clinging to the sexy look left by founder Suzanne Costas Friewald.

Earl’s 75 Jean, the 6 3/4-inch low-rise, still drives the line, but the company’s adding to the mix for spring with more fits. The new Coast Jean, for example, has a higher rise at 7 3/4-inches, plus more pocket detail. There are also more washes, on the lighter side with Sunbleached and on the darker side, Rainy Days, which has some abrasion and holes around the pocket area.

Earl Jean tries to distinguish itself from the hordes of other denim brands by offering products in leather, wovens and knits, too, said Kristi Bruwer, vice president of sales. And there are also T-shirts and dresses. A line of outerwear features Earl’s basic jean jacket 443 with its signature western yoke in the back as well as popular fleece-lined jackets.About 115 pieces are on tap for the spring collection, with wholesale price points ranging from $64 to $75 for jeans, $73 to $125 for jackets and $64 to $75 for nondenim bottoms.

Earl Jean has about 260 accounts, but it’s looking to beef up its retail presence with its first national advertising campaign in the fall, Bruwer said. A spring ad blitz will follow as the company continues to come up with new washes and cuts.

The message is simple, Bruwer notes, “This is a great-fitting jean.”

BETTER CLASSICS: GEIGER OF AUSTRIA

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hrough four generations, this family-owned business has created a classic niche with the long-lasting wear of boiled wool garments. Geiger of Austria knits fine wool yarns into fabric, then boils it, causing the fibers to curl up and form a cozy cluster of air pockets. The tight-knit fabric is then cut and sewn into its Walk jackets, skirts and cardigans.

Geiger, which has a Vermont distribution center, has produced more than 50 varieties of boiled wool from its home base in Austria. Cotton and leather also are part of the mix.

The company offers a lightweight wool and a silk-linen group for warm weather wear, as well as poly blends and spandex, said Connie St. George, Geiger’s director of sales and marketing for North America.

“We are definitely on the traditional, classic side, but we put in things we can have fun with,” said St. George, who noted that a red pepper color spices up the new spring and summer collection in two groups of coordinates dubbed Tequila Sunrise and Mexican Passion.

The rest of the collection, which includes about 150 pieces, features soft pastels of dusty pink, cornflower blue and apricot. Sizes range from 4 to 20. But nothing says Geiger like its basic boiled wool jacket, which wholesales from $138 to $298 for specialty items. Other signature pieces include its A-line boot skirt, wholesaling from $92 to $199, and coats from $275 to $600 with fur trim.

Head designer Barbara Geiger keeps one eye on the past and the other on the future to keep up the family legacy, St. George said.“Our customers are very loyal, so we keep standard colors or bring back color to coordinate with what they might already have in their closets,” she said. “If they have something they bought five, 10 years ago, they can easily find something new each year that will work and freshen it up with a new look.”

At the same time, Geiger has expanded its offerings — for example, with bolder colors — to reach a younger customer.

Geiger has sidestepped the major department store chains in the U.S. and Canada, except for Nordstrom, to focus on specialty retailers, St. George said. The company has about 500 such accounts, and wholesale volume is estimated between $10 million and $12 million in North America.

CONTEMPORARY: NANETTE LEPORE

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his self-described gypsy has a quirky-yet-girly style that’s hard to miss. After just six years on the runway, Nanette Lepore has hooked Hollywood (and Hollywood wannabes) on her fun colors and whimsical prints. The New York-based designer is cranking up the color to full blast for spring, with bright greens, pinks and yellows that she recently described as not just “so electric,” but “so pow!”

About 90 pieces typically come out with each collection. As always, Lepore said, there will be a wide range of fabrications. “Each is merchandised with a young, fun eye,” she added. Lepore is known for sexy, fitted jackets; colorful feminine tops, and ruffly shift dresses, all of which have turned Jennifer Lopez and Britney Spears into fans.

Lepore is also known for finding a flattering fit for those not-so-Hollywood shapes. Sizes range from 0 to 12, and pants and skirts get a generous cut. Her tops frequently have lots of details in the neckline and sleeve, which tend to keep the eyes up and away from the hip and bottom area, if need be.

“The line is driven by attention to those special details and great fit,” Lepore said.

The Ohio native plans to branch out into her own fragrance and a collection of body products in spring 2004. She’s also opening more of her own boutiques. Her second U.S. boutique opened this year on Robertson Boulevard in West Hollywood. Lepore also has boutiques in New York and Tokyo. Lepore declined to disclose wholesale volume, but estimates she has about 600 accounts, including department stores such as Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman. Wholesale price points range from $48 for a jersey knit shirt to $160 for jacket.PROM/PAGEANT: JOVANI

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ovani has built a prom and pageant business out of offering more mileage for the money.

The gowns from this New York-based special occasion company pack a lot of crossover appeal, giving it a leg up with retailers and glamour girls.

Jovani offers about 150 pieces in its prom collection, for example, and they can be worn just as easily for pageant or cocktail wear. Wholesale price points for ballgowns range from $139 to $325. “The prom line overall is higher end, but for a once-a-year event, another $50 at retail is not a big deal if a girl just loves the dress,” said Sherri Hill, Jovani’s prom designer.

Jovani also offers form-fitting matte jersey gowns, which range from $89 to $139 wholesale. Its standout strapless prom gown is modeled after a pageant style, featuring a high neckline and a sweeping low cut in the back.

The company is also known for its use of subtle multitonal layers of organza, tulle and lace in color combos such as amethyst and turquoise and lots of variations on aquamarine.

“The whole effect is very light and airy,” Hill said.

Jovani also stands out from the crowd with its new line of hand-painted silk chiffon dresses. Hill is working on other new styles that will mix chiffon with beaded laces.

In addition to its prom and pageant business, Jovani offers a line of mother-of-the-bride dresses and cocktail attire. The company declined to disclose wholesale volume, but said it has about 1,500 accounts.

WOMEN’S APPAREL RETAIL: THE CARRIAGE HOUSE

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his could be considered a lifetime achievement award for veteran merchant Jim Adams. Adams, owner of The Carriage House in Decatur, Ala., has not only survived, but thrived as an independent owner, despite an era of big retail and fickle consumer tastes. Adams began with a men’s store that he opened in a strip shopping center in the early Sixties. He later switched to women’s apparel and moved to a downtown spot once home to the city’s opera house.

Adams has continually transformed his merchandise mix from sophisticated designers to sportswear and bridge lines with the true instinct of a merchant, noted Milt Crane, director of buyer relations at AmericasMart in Atlanta. “So many retailers just stay in the same format, but Jim doesn’t stay still. He has always been a visionary,” Crane said.When demand started dropping for higher-end designer names 10 years ago, Adams jumped ahead of the competition by adding bridge lines such as Yansi Fugel and Lafayette 148. Lafayette 148 is still the top line at Carriage House, but Adams is updating the mix again.

“Right now, we’re into better casual lines, such as Votre Nom,” Adams said. “We’re really getting into more lifestyle dressing and carrying fewer collections.” Adams also offers larger sizes in XL and 1X in the bridge price point, he said.

One thing hasn’t changed, though, and that’s the old-fashioned approach to service, Adams said. A salesperson will still spend hours with a customer in the dressing room, he said.

“It’s just what we do,” Adams said. “Some people might say that’s special, but we’ve always done that.”

Adams’ retail skills seem to be a part of his DNA, and he’s keeping it in the family, passing his expertise to his son, Seth Adams, who joined the family business in the mid-Nineties. Seth runs two stores in Birmingham: Village Sportswear, which offers mostly bridge and a few designer lines; and Marella, a contemporary boutique aimed at a younger, high-end customer. Marella carries several lines exclusive to Birmingham, including Michael Kors and Teenflo.

Seth said he’d like to open at least one more store in Birmingham, and he will no doubt inherit the legacy that started with his father.

“When I quit, he’ll have to run the Decatur store,” Jim Adams said. “We’ve done a lot with the store [in Decatur], but he’s really given the business the growth and excitement.”

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