The contemporary crowd has become a hangout for trend-thirsty women and retailers are inviting them to run up a tab.

From rugged to refined, from cargo pants to miniskirts, overdyed denim to washed satin, stores are serving up looks for fashionable types who either don’t always want to go for those designer price tags, have matured past juniors or can’t find the right mix in the moderate-to-bridge sportswear establishment.

“The contemporary market is a really nice place to be right now for us,” said Julie Gilhart, vice president and fashion director at Barneys New York. “It’s got lots of interest and lots of detail. It’s fun when you can sell color and a good look for the price, but yet you can still sell really casual clothes. It’s one of the most exciting areas of our store right now and fall is going to be really strong, as well.”

Trends such as cargo pants, layered T-shirts, tops with lingerie detail, minis, prints and color are bestsellers at the Barneys Co-ops in New York. Gilhart cited Citizens of Humanity, Diane Von Furstenberg and Marc by Marc Jacobs as strong brands in the category.

“[Marc Jacobs] just knows how to take every classification and make it right for the moment,” Gilhart said, “and Diane Von Furstenberg’s clothes are just sexy, with colors and prints that are right on.”

It is the strength in design along with a focus on trends that has buoyed the contemporary category in recent seasons.

“Contemporary overall is a very strong business at Bloomingdale’s, particularly miniskirts, denim and utility-cargo pants,” said Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president of fashion direction for Bloomingdale’s. “The clothes look new, they’re exciting and they’re value packed.”

Highlighting specific strengths at key contemporary brands, Ruttenstein said Juicy Couture excels in T-shirts and track pants with hooded shirts, Joie is strong in denim and twill jeans, Seven is a winner in denim and Marc by Marc Jacobs’ entire collection is selling extremely well. He also cited Puma T-shirts and track pants.

Two emerging brands that are doing well at Bloomingdale’s stores in California but have yet to be sold at Bloomingdale’s on the East Coast are Citizens of Humanity, with its denim looks, and Da Nang’s twill pants.“We do really well with signature key items and feminine, floral, trend-driven items,” said Robert Burke, vice president and senior fashion director, Bergdorf Goodman. “For us, contemporary has evolved from being a total collection business to very strong key items, whether it’s Joie or Juicy Couture. It used to be more basics and bridge-inspired, meaning getting sensible pants with a jacket, or a sweater in four different colors. Now, it’s more item inspired.”

Burke cited Joie’s silk cargo pants; Juicy Couture’s zip hoodie or little athletic pants; Marc by Marc Jacobs’ army workwear cotton jackets with signature buttons; Elie Tahari’s “busy” pants — cargoes with a bunch of zippers — Nanette Lepore’s floral-print skirts and dresses, and SweeTees sleeveless T-shirts.

Such resources, Burke added, are “offering a lot of fashion for a very good price.”

Given the range of looks and the broadening of the category, it has changed how customers shop contemporary departments.

Ed Burstell, vice president and general manager at Henri Bendel, said of its contemporary mix, “There’s lots of color, leisurewear, active and trend-driven pieces. These are looks driven by key items. Shoppers will come in, buy a piece and mix it up. They aren’t wearing it head to toe, which is great for us because you can mix it back. The customer may come in for one thing, but then you can expose them to several different brands.”

While Bendel’s is scoring with Diane Von Furstenberg’s line, cargo pants and Mary Quant minis — in its third reorder — activewear such as Puma, Adidas, Nuala, Maharishi and Juicy Couture have been important factors in its contemporary sales.

“It’s all about active, but it’s becoming more stylized,” said Burstell.

Colors and prints are standouts at Saks Fifth Avenue, with “bright florals, novelty and optical prints, as well as color…selling well,” said Colleen Sherin, fashion market director.

“I think it’s because people are looking for pieces that are special and novel, not basic and boring,” Sherin said. “It offers them something they don’t have to liven up their wardrobes.”Yet the key to selling contemporary labels well is buying them well, said Stefani Greenfield, co-owner of the Scoop specialty boutiques.

“[Contemporary] is the margin-builder, profit-center group,” Greenfield said. “In order to be successful with these businesses, you need to own them, you need to really take a position. You can’t buy a size of a Joie cargo pant, you need to buy 12, 15 or 20 of a size. It’s really about being able to offer your customer depth, because when it’s a hot item, the amount of sales you can do on it is endless.”

Top-selling labels at Scoop are Joie, Marc by Marc Jacobs, Theory, Juicy, Jet and the store’s own Scoop label.

In Los Angeles, specialty stores are still seeing brisk sales of military-inspired looks in their contemporary areas, but also are honing in on romantic influences.

At American Rag, army looks with details such as ruching, zippers and pockets with contrasting fabrics like nylon, satin and canvas are driving sales, said Ruthie Miller, women’s buyer at the Los Angeles boutique.

Local label Da Nang, capitalizing on the look in soft, buttery cottons, is “very, very hot right now,” she said. “Coming up? It’s still military inspired, but I think people will be mixing it with very feminine looks. We’re seeing the ballerina trend get stronger, as in soft and loose skirts and tie-up slippers.”

Spaghetti-strap cotton dresses, Eighties-inspired striped dresses and skirts, and Mod jewelry are also racking up brisk sales. In a new direction, shoppers are buying loose-fitting denim overalls and pairing them with cotton short, puff-sleeve T-shirts. “Overalls are starting to pick up,” Miller said.

Feminine is the watchword at Hollywood Trading Co. at Fred Segal in Santa Monica, Calif., according to owner Alonzo Ester.

“After the utilitarian army surplus trend, women are going back to a feminine feeling,” he said. Noting that short denim skirts are the current primary sales drivers, he added that, surprisingly, denim has kept up its pace. “I was one of those people who said I don’t want anymore denim, but people are still updating their looks.”Layering is the name of the game at another Los Angeles boutique, Beige, according to Kelly Peterson, who is a co-owner of the store with Tina Messex.

T-shirts in soft fabrics, miniskirts and blouses are selling in bold summer colors like green, lavender, blue and white. Here, too, denim remains among the hottest items.

“I’m seeing women wearing denim with a beautiful Chloé top and Prada high heels,” Peterson said. “It’s sort of a West Coast fashion statement.”

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