NEW YORK — Although accessories certainly aren’t racking up the sales they did during their heyday in the late Nineties, the category was a standout this holiday season in what was generally a dismal selling period for most fashion retailers.

In the new year, stores are banking on novelty and feminine looks to drive sales, but many are keeping inventory as lean as they can and are ordering later than ever. Those were some of the messages from the January market, where makers showed a range of spring and summer offerings.

"We had a good holiday season, but stores are very cautious now," said Ed Bucciarelli, president of the Liz Claiborne Accessory Group. "We are being focused and consistent with our inventory. Everything has to have a reason to be."

Helen Welsh, owner of a self-named showroom, said: "I had many stores who wanted deliveries even this month and in February. Many stores waited until the end of the spring buying season to see where they wanted to go."

A number of executives expect that the challenging times will bring about some consolidation in accessories, an arena teeming with small companies and a consistent influx of new designers.

David Salvatore, president of fashion jewelry firm Blair Delmonico, said: "This year will be survival of the fittest. Companies who are different and are involved in making it happen will be the survivors. We have to be cheerleaders and entertainers now."

This month’s market, generally a small one, was a little chaotic since the two major trade shows — AccessoriesTheShow and Accessories Circuit — were held a week apart. Some vendors lamented the market’s two-week stretch and that it was held so soon after the holidays, since a number of companies were just getting back to business on Jan. 6, the day market started.

On the trend front, many vendors took cues from the spring runway shows by showing an array of colors, especially in jewelry. Gemstones remain important, although turquoise has been replaced by more use of amethyst, rose quartz, coral, chalcedony, mother-of-pearl and jade. Silver is also making a comeback, and pendant necklaces, especially flower pendants, were seen in a number of new collections.In handbags, soft styles are still key, although treatments such as PVC coating are adding some newness. Canvas and straw, always summer favorites in handbags, were dressed up with embellishments, including initials in embroidery and rhinestone. Coin purses and small wristlet bags are another growing category.

Liz Claiborne continues to step up its accessories and is expanding its company-owned brands across new channels. In 2001, the wholesale nonapparel group, which includes accessories, accounted for $496.1 million of overall sales of $3.45 billion. Claiborne has just launchedSigrid Olsen handbags, and the newly purchased Ellen Tracy business will launch handbags and jewelry later this year.

"Accessories is definitely a growth engine for the company," Bucciarelli noted.

At the Circuit, held Jan. 12-14 at the Show Piers, about 50 new vendors joined the crowd of 800, and another aisle was added for accessories.

Gerald Barnes, general merchandise manager for ready-to-wear and accessories at Neiman Marcus Direct, was scouring the Circuit for ideas for early fall. Accessories have sold well this holiday, he noted.

"Since we have the catalog, we are basically done with spring," he said.

Among styles he predicts will be strong this spring are colored accessories and combination items, such as jewelry that mixes leather and shells.

Like many other buyers, Deborah Fell, owner of a self-named store in Highland Park, Ill., said she was searching for "something a little different," and was on the hunt for new jewelry looks as well as small leather goods.

"I am also ordering small and reordering if needed," she said. "Small orders can become bigger orders."

Vendors at AccessoriesTheShow, staged at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center Jan. 5-7, were generally pleased with traffic, despite the fact that the show was spread across two areas, one on the fourth floor and one in the basement level.

At Blair Delmonico, which is best known for its jewelry made of colored crystals, new colors such as coral pink and baby blue are key and a pearl-like material was also being used. The Weehawken, N.J.-based company also launched a line of sunglasses, its first foray into this business, for spring. The resin eyewear wholesales for $38 to $78 and is targeted at stores such as Nordstrom, Marshall Fields and Bloomingdale’s."It’s a natural for us," said Salvatore, who estimated that first-year retail sales will total about $500,000.

Heidi Cohen, accessories buyer at Henri Bendel, said she was stocking up on cuff bracelets and watches at the show.

"Jewelry is still strong for us," she said. "Overall, we had a good holiday season in accessories. It was better than last year and we are adding more room to the category for spring."

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