By  on February 9, 2005

NEW YORK — Maybe it’s a good thing for fashion week that shows have turned into a platform focused more on the media, celebrities and buzz than an outright presentation of the latest looks to buyers.

If shows were completely focused on buyers, designers would be presenting collections to an ever-dwindling audience. There are fewer buyers than ever in the front row of shows in the tents.

As retailers grow larger through consolidation, buying power is being concentrated into the hands of a few stores that analysts and executives say already hold significant sway over the vendor base.

Large vendors repeatedly refer to their top accounts as partners. That doesn’t mean they are equal.

“There are no true 50-50 partnerships,” said Hal Upbin, chairman and chief executive officer of Kellwood Co. “Somebody at the end of the day has the upper hand.”

In the case of apparel vendors and retailers, the retailers have an edge of 51 percent, he said.

“I am not [so] naïve to believe that at any point we really have a 51 percent vote,” he said.

Given the consolidation on the retail front so far, Upbin said continued contraction would create incremental changes in the vendor-retailer relationship rather than seismic shifts.

“If you could beat me before you bulked up at the gym, you can still beat me,” he said.

As minority stakeholder in the partnership, vendors look to keep the ball rolling with superior branding, value, quality and an efficient supply chain.

“All the good stuff that makes us ‘indispensable’ to the matrix,” Upbin said. “You need to have a reason to be.”

Unless department stores somehow take the as-of-yet unimaginable route of going totally vertical, à la the Gap or Victoria’s Secret, they will continue to need vendors, analysts said.

The two groups have a “symbiotic relationship,” said Philip Zahn, a debt analyst at Fitch Ratings.

“They need each other,” he said. “You can’t easily just walk away from one of your key vendors. It takes time to develop new vendors.”

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