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Fashion’s Dysfunctional Market Schedule

NEW YORK — It’s a seasonal tug-of-war.<br><br>On one end of the rope, high-end designers in New York and Europe are trying to pull orders out of their clients ever earlier. At the other end, most buyers are holding back, not writing orders...

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NEW YORK — It’s a seasonal tug-of-war.

On one end of the rope, high-end designers in New York and Europe are trying to pull orders out of their clients ever earlier. At the other end, most buyers are holding back, not writing orders until the last possible minute.

In the middle, sales reps at many contemporary and ready-to-wear lines are feeling stretched thin, since they’re expected to sell two seasons at the same time.

During the recent wave of contemporary and ready-to-wear trade shows here geared for the holiday and resort market, many vendors said buyers repeatedly asked for immediate fall deliveries, a practice that creates a disconnect between all parties in the supply chain.

Often smaller retailers like to do business closer to current season so they can get a better feel for trends and not have to front cash while guessing what’s going to be popular six months out. The same goes for the smaller vendors.

This plays into the perennial questions about consumer shopping habits. Do women want to buy their winter coats in August when it’s too hot to even try them on? Do they want to buy bathing suits when they’re horrified to look at their winter-white skin in the Erès dressing room? According to retailers, they don’t.

“In a perfect world, you need a coat when it’s snowing, but that’s not the way the fashion world works,” said Scoop owner Stefani Greenfield. “In my East Hampton store, they’re coming in wearing sarongs and buying shearlings.”

While Greenfield said it would be better to have a buy-now-wear-now fashion cycle, she said the American consumer is trained to shop early. The merchandise that’s most marked down is often what the weather makes appropriate to wear. If goods were shipped later into the season, then nobody would want the merchandise by the time it was marked down, she said.

“Women today want to buy it and put it on,” said George Simonton, who designs a signature ready-to-wear line for LPF Apparel.

But if consumers and stores shopped for their immediate needs all the time, it would be difficult for manufacturers to plan their businesses. Simonton said instead of buyers checking out fall merchandise in March, as was the case a year ago, this year many retailers held off until April, and even in August, some were still placing holiday orders.

It’s this practice that Development designer Henri Lim said is damaging to smaller lines that can’t turn on a dime. Larger companies, who have more clout with their contractors, are able to turn faster. That disrupts the fashion cycle, Lim said, because buyers get accustomed to buying later.

Development, a $6 million Los Angeles-based contemporary line, offers five seasons, each divided into monthly shipments. The business model forces buyers to plan ahead, since Development doesn’t offer immediate deliveries, even though it has domestic production.

“When we go to trade shows, it’s to show the traditional way,” Lim said. “But the larger companies with quick turnaround are able to force their factories to make things faster and it just destroys the market for everyone else.”

But many contemporary executives said quick turnaround is key to their success since a large part of the contemporary business is trend-driven with a consumer that shops closer to season. Manufacturing domestically helps them achieve the critical quick turnarounds.

Chaiken president Julie Chaiken said that, on a personal level, she would like to see clothes delivered to stores closer to the time when consumers will be wearing them. But as a domestic manufacturer, she said she understands that fabric availability and lead time require fashion companies to work well in advance.

“We closed our fall market around May 1,” Chaiken said. “Then in July, some stores came to us and said they needed fall goods. If we were producing offshore, we wouldn’t be able to accommodate that. If you’ve got a bestseller from a store and you can recut it, you have the ability to be back in stores closer to season.”

Chaiken also said the lines that define markets are blurring more with boutiques than with larger department and specialty stores. Some of her customers in New Orleans might ask to buy fall merchandise later or have Chaiken hold off on shipping the merchandise until August or September when the weather cools off.

The key to success, according to designer David Rodriguez, is to be as flexible as possible. He cited trunk shows as a viable option for doing business in advance without taking risks on how much fabric to order or how many garments to cut — a typical business tactic among many ready-to-wear brands.

“If you tell retailers you can only buy fall from this time to this time, you’re shooting yourself in the foot,” Rodriguez said. “But I have stores looking at pre-spring merchandise and asking for fall and I don’t have it. It’s flattering, but I could put myself out of business gambling on how much to produce.”

Buyers said that contemporary and smaller ready-to-wear brands tend to follow the market dates set by luxury sportswear brands from Europe, even though they could use the extra time to correct their collections and follow trends more closely.

Fran Stamper — designer, bridal and couture buyer for Denver-based specialty retailer Auer’s — said the dates for markets are thoroughly confusing, but that she could see no easy solution to the problem.

“Smaller ready-to-wear lines that manufacture in the U.S. sometimes need to wait,” Stamper said. “If suddenly pink is hot, they could easily be in the pink business if they hadn’t put their lines to bed with the sportswear lines. But if they don’t have their spring line ready in September, their chances of getting our money is slim. If I see them in November, like the old days, we don’t have any open-to-buy left. I think it’s a catch-22.”

Stamper said sportswear lines need to show earlier since separates are usually made in different factories, sometimes in different countries, which requires more time for coordinating production and distribution.

Further adding to the headache are European lines that sell their collections in New York on independent schedules. Stamper recalled a trip to New York during Fourth of July weekend to buy John Galliano and Chloé.

“I can’t buy from pictures,” Stamper said. “It’s absurd. We’re travelling more than ever and we don’t like it, so somebody should fix it. Chloé and John Galliano showed on July 8 and 9 when most other Europeans showed in June. Christian Lacroix showed June 25 and 26. Another group showed on the 11th through the 13th. If you’re going to create a market, at least do it at the same time.”

Linda Heister, vice president of Chicago-based ready-to-wear line Mark Heister, along with other buyers said they blame the mess on Helmut Lang, who in 1998 famously upstaged the European fashion weeks by moving his show to September.

Once Calvin Klein uttered the phrase, “I’m in agreement with Helmut Lang,” a stampede of New York designers rewrote the fashion calendar. Some vendor executives complain the move to hold the New York shows six weeks earlier worsened the seasonal dilemma.

“You spend your dollars in February for a September completion?” questioned Heister. “Committing money seven months in advance when you don’t know how business is going to be, that’s fine when everything is great, but now we end a good month and breathe a sigh of relief. But we don’t know what it’s going to be like next month.”

LPF Apparel’s Simonton said he is not a fan of showing before the Europeans, since he likes to go to Europe for inspiration. Heister said she understands the concept of stealing Europe’s thunder, but thinks it’s also problematic.

“I know that Americans want to be first so that everyone thinks they’re the inspiration of the world,” Heister said. “It’s a noble goal, but it really puts a kink in deliveries and throws everything around.”

According to European luxury brand executives, working closer to season is out of the question and said it’s the luxury customer — who they contended will buy a fur coat in June — that sets the early pace for fabric orders and production.

“When you have $2,200 suits and $800 blouses, you want to get in early and make sure you have what you want,” said Rena Lange USA president Tracy Welch. “In bridge and contemporary, it’s an impulse buy, so [those companies] have to be able turn on a dime. But the only way a European house can have an October delivery is to show in June.”

Barry Becker — vice president of sales and marketing for Léonard Inc., the U.S. branch of Léonard Paris — said a woman invited to a garden party in August would be hard pressed to find a suitable dress. That’s the reason why the luxury customer shops in advance, he said.

“She shops early so she doesn’t have to worry about it,” Becker said. “They think ahead and have serious schedules. Whether it’s a trip planned, a wedding, a bar mitzvah, a dinner, business or charity event, they know to shop ahead to get what they want so it’s nipped in the bud early.”

Setting aside the luxury customer, Becker also said dealing with high-end fabrics and prints generally requires more production time.

In dealing with customers who shop early, Gregg Marks, president of Kasper ASL, said it’s difficult to change consumer shopping habits. But Marks said if he ships merchandise too early, it’s already marked down when the customer is looking to buy it.

“It’s a difficult thing to change,” said Marks. “But it all comes down to when the goods get to the store. If you put it into the stores later, they’ll buy it later. In August, it’s 100 degrees and Barneys is all outerwear. It’s ridiculous.”

Marks, along with Scoop’s Greenfield, said the one remedy is seasonless merchandise. Greenfield said her private label lines allow her to fill in between seasons, so there’s always something fresh in the store and appropriate to wear that night.

But for many, trying to define lines around the ever-vague fashion cycle is like trying to tame a wild animal.

Bud Konheim, chief executive officer at Nicole Miller said even though it would be nice to have his business organized months in advance, the creative process including fabric developments and the constant adding of designs to a collection makes for a looser approach to business. Adding to that is the way trends play out in the market and how design teams choose to react to them, he said.

“You can’t make rules,” said Konheim. “Everybody wants to make it run like a railroad, but it’s not, it’s a design business. It changes and shifts with the customer and you have to be able to shift with it.”

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