By  on April 20, 1994

CHICAGO -- After several weeks of heavy promotion, the fall Ultra show, which combined women's, children's and men's wear in a single market at the Chicago Apparel Center, seemed to live up to the hype.

Reps said they were thrilled with traffic and orderwriting. Buyers seemed upbeat, reporting strong sales during March and April had more than made up for a disappointing weather-battered February.

Knitwear, especially in interesting textures like chenille and mohair, and the return of color were the most notable trends grabbing buyers' interests.

The five-day show ended Tuesday.

Susan McCullough, vice president, marketing, said store registration was up 13 percent over the women's and children's market of a year ago.

She attributed much of the market's success to the combined synergies of the men's and women's markets and said the combined format, which had not been tried at the Chicago market in several years, would be repeated in the future.

"It's the best market in years. It's like a rebirth in Chicago. It's euphoric," said Karin Berger, a multi-line rep, noting her orders were ahead by more than 100 percent by the end of the weekend with two more days still to go.

"The Midwest is regenerating," said Marshall Stewart, another multi-line rep. He said buyers were very upbeat after a strong March and April.

Both Stewart and Berger cited knits as the strongest category in their showrooms.

"There's enough newness and more color and variety to get the buyers excited," said Berger.

The show also marked the inauguration of Avenue X, a strengthening of the mart's 10th floor home for contemporary apparel. While the floor's appearance seemed to have changed only minimally, 25 new lines were added to its exhibitor list.

The efforts paid off, adding a noticeable charge of energy, according to Susann Craig, who has a showroom on that floor.

"We've seen stores who have been in the building, but have never come to the tenth floor before, and they are very happy with what they have found," she said.

Craig said sweater sales were strong in her showroom and noted an attraction for color returning."Color is pulling people into certain lines. Everyone's stores are looking like natural linen right now. They realize they have to have some color going forward," she said.

Many of the buyers said they were pleased to see alternatives to neutrals in the showrooms.

"There's more color in the market, which I'm thrilled about -- brights and rich jewel tones. I don't really have a neutral customer," said Debra Marion, owner of Applause, a better-price women's specialty store in Keokuk, Iowa.

"Silhouettes are easy and flowing, but a little more constructed than for spring," she added. Marion noted there were a number of new lines that she had only been able to see in Dallas before, and said she was pleased that many lines had become more accommodating to small stores by reducing their minimum orders.

Although business was better than last year, she was keeping her open-to-buy even. She said she would leave paper with Platinum and Jones New York for separates and C'Est City for washable silk separates.

Marlene Roy, co-owner of Trillium, a women's specialty boutique in Chicago, also noted the importance of color and textures. "Chocolate brown is really popular, also rich teals and garnets, especially in chenilles," she said, adding that she also liked silks and rayons for fall.

With a budget that was about even with last year, she said she left paper with Relais and Ani Barrie for chenille separates and Eileen Fisher for day-into-evening clothes.

Virginia Escalante, owner of Accents Plus, a women's specialty store in Evanston, Ill., said she was looking for longer skirts than were being shown in many showrooms.

"The professional woman or slightly older woman doesn't want to wear pants all the time. People are designing for the purpose of design, not for reality," she complained.

With an open-to-buy about 10 percent ahead of last year, she said she left paper with Annie Reva for longer skirts.

Not all buyers were bullish, however. Sharon Carli, buyer for four Chicago-based stores called Pants Box and The Box, complained that many of her resources -- especially junior lines -- had left the apparel center recently."It's become so much harder to buy. We have to travel more out of town," she said. She left paper with Wrappers for dresses and blazers and Ultra Pink and Pinky for related separates.

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