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L.A. Market: Buyers On the Lookout for Safe Harbor

LOS ANGELES — Come January, it’s anyone’s guess whether consumers will be sunning in Cap Ferrat or staying home to nurse ailing stock portfolios.<br><br>Accordingly, vendors showing at the holiday-resort market, which closed Tuesday...

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LOS ANGELES — Come January, it’s anyone’s guess whether consumers will be sunning in Cap Ferrat or staying home to nurse ailing stock portfolios.

Accordingly, vendors showing at the holiday-resort market, which closed Tuesday here, focused on safe bets like gifts and limited cruise deliveries to reinterpretations of items that already sold well.

Buyers nibbled at resort deliveries, but mostly searched for immediates that would easily freshen a wardrobe — accessories like skinny scarves and trinket pendants, a novelty coat or romantic blouse. Consumers continue to splurge on specialty pieces that appear one-of-a-kind, retailers said.

Although buyers approached ordering tentatively, most anticipated a good fall, expecting consumers to return for items they did not buy last fall after Sept. 11.

At the Designers & Agents trade show, boutique buyers buzzed about New York-based denim line Habitual as the heir apparent to Seven Jeans. The line was not shown at market.

“I don’t know if I can get it,” sighed Samantha Chang, owner of a contemporary namesake boutique in Malibu, Calif. She chose Paper Denim Cloth as a new denim resource, but is keeping her name on Habitual’s waiting list.

The line’s looser, trouser-like appearance won buyers’ approbation, some of whom said they are wary that Seven’s popularity has peaked.

To Chang, who characterized business as “average,” having bits and pieces of the latest details is crucial. She previewed spring, leaving with miniskirts, stitching details and layered voile on her mind. “Novelty sells,” she said. “My customers are looking for anything that adds to their existing wardrobe.”

Christian de Castelnau, owner of contemporary denim line Crystal, said caution like Chang’s is appropriate.

“They should be cautious,” he said. “The economy hasn’t picked up yet.” In particular, he’s stayed on top of requests from local boutiques that have sold out of the line’s $90 wholesale corduroy pants with folk-yarn embroidery. For resort, the line offered the same embroidery on terry sweats, like those from Juicy Couture.

Crystal wasn’t the only line aiming to duplicate Juicy’s success.

New resource E.G.O., which stands for Every Generation Overlaps, is “airport couture, carpool couture,” aimed at “42-year-old, two children” women, according to sales manager Brad Boonshaft. The line, consisting of bright, casual pieces in denim, French terry and velour, aims to recreate the signature Juicy Couture look in a more forgiving fit. Pants, for instance, have a ribbed knit waistband that hits just below the navel, but can be folded down for a barer look.

“We want to be able to sell this as a cross-over collection,” Boonshaft said, adding he’s booked $500,000 in five weeks, mostly with golf and spa shops.

In a market overflowing with sweat suits, Dillard’s junior buyer Donna Fendley searched for daytime dresses with Kimono or bell sleeves. “Everything is feminine and drapey,” she said. As for her preview for prom 2003, trends are “still sophisticated with a strong color palette. I’m seeing bright, crisp sherbets and soft pastels.”

As shoes and accessories are becoming more sought-after as wardrobe updaters, clothes have taken a back seat, Fendley added, “unless they have those accessory details.”

Anne Wade, owner of misses’ store Anne’s Secret Hang-Ups in Novato, Calif., also hunted for dresses, including knee-length styles and casual mother-of-the-bride. Wade posits that customers’ buying habits are directly proportional to the swings of the stock market.

“When it goes down, we’re not busy and when it goes up, we are,” she said. “I have seen this trend for a couple of years.”

But while retailers searched for dresses, the market turned up more locals reinventing denim.

Andrea Bernholtz, an owner of year-old line Rock & Republic, said a cluttered denim landscape means retailers have to be coaxed to see something new.

“They’ll say ‘We’re covered in denim’ and I’ll say ‘Try ours,’” she said. “It’s important to me that five people at a party can be wearing our jeans and no one would know it’s the same company.”

She offered diverse styles, including cargo-style jeans with a saddle stitch, preppy pinstriped trousers and glam-rock suede-accented jeans.

Greg Duzian, formerly with Lix Jeans, launched Barstow, a line designed to evoke “American trailer trash — a drop- dead gorgeous girl, living in Barstow.” A contingent from Saks took notes on the line, including $78 Johnee pants with oversized belt loops and a gothic B stitched on the back. The loops “contour the waist” and also allow for fashionably wide belts, Duzian said. Sales rep Beate Scholz said buyers responded to overdyed colors like brick and cocoa, as well as natural.

Showroom owner Lynn Balbinder said the current quarter has been the strongest to date for reorders. Her showroom carries artsy bridge-priced lines from Israel, which have been shipping “100 percent” despite the unrest in the region.

Asymmetric looks in chiffon and denim, sweaters accented with stones, and “architectural” designs performed well for plus-size women, she said. “Our showroom is not a ‘safe’ showroom. But people are risking it, because this is the stuff that stands out.”

Buyers said they gladly accepted input from vendors as they struggled to solve the riddle of how to transition from Bohemian.

“We still plan to go in the romantic direction, but fabrics are looser and a little more casual,” said Shelly Yun, owner of two Shaya boutiques here. Yun expects apparel sales to fall in line with other basic sectors like food and shelter that are doing well in this economy.

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