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L.A. Market Week Dresses Up

The buzz surrounding the revamped fashion week in Los Angeles energized the fall market, which ended there Tuesday.

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LOS ANGELES — The buzz surrounding the newly revamped fashion week here energized the fall market, which ended Tuesday.

In a more theatrical presentation, Mercedes-Benz Shows LA and SmashboxFashionWeekLosAngeles hosted nearly 60 fashion shows spread over five days, inspiring the California Market Center to freshen its traditional Friday night fete. CMC moved the festivities to the historic Orpheum Theater nearby, serving a dinner buffet and cocktails in between events honoring the Otis School of Fashion mentoring program, which presented designer Corey Lynn Calter with the first Moss Adams Fashion Innovator award, and runway showcases of mart vendor trends and the Coalition of Los Angeles Designers members.

“There was a synergy about the whole week,” noted Ana Swaab, national merchandise manager for Nordstrom’s Savvy department. “It was such a great thing for L.A. and long overdue.”

That was a familiar refrain among buyers attending the market, which was held at four downtown buildings. All at the crossroads of Ninth and Los Angeles Streets, the buildings’ managements banded together under the Intersection moniker to jointly promote their offerings during the markets.

Many buyers, however, admitted they didn’t make it to the designer runway presentations at the white tents just blocks away at the Downtown Standard, or those 12 miles away at the Culver City studios. For some, limited time in town made shopping the market and local stores a more pressing priority. For others, show organizers didn’t reach out in time.

“I didn’t know about it until very late and would have had to redo my entire schedule,” said Allyson Krowitz, Henri Bendel’s merchandise manager for women’s ready-to-wear.

Krowitz said she found little beyond T-shirts and tanks in bright colors to order from small vendors here, but said her time spent in Los Angeles remains worth it.

“There’s such an eagerness to find new stuff,” she said. “If you sat back and waited, eventually you’d find California designs in New York. But it’s still important to be here and be first with the latest thing.”

Other buyers reiterated an ongoing frustration: the Los Angeles market arrives so late in the buying cycle — a full month after New York shows — leaving little left of fall budgets. Even local buyers who wanted to support local designers found they couldn’t participate as much as they would have liked.

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Helen Hwang, owner of Los Angeles boutique Yellow, was among those who were nearly tapped out. But her desire to carry local designers prompted her to “buy just a little bit more.”

War and the deadly Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome also conspired to dampen enthusiasm. Buyers from Parisian boutique Colette, who traveled to the region last year, were among the European no-shows at market despite voicing initial interest, according to show organizers. Many Asian stores stayed away, too, prompting organizers to speculate that their absence may have had something to do with SARS.

But most buyers, like Neiman Marcus senior fashion editor Lewis Hopkins, came here to pick up what California does best: casual merchandise. He looked for vendors capitalizing on Sixties’ martini-by-the pool looks, leather bomber jackets, suedes and denim resources. Despite the proliferation of military, camouflage and utilitarian themes at showrooms, Hopkins said, “We’ll carry military for the younger customer but we’re not going to represent it in a huge way.”

Indeed, military emerged as a questionable trend among buyers, and not solely for geopolitical reasons. “Is there life after cargo?” mused Shauna Stein, owner of On Beverly Boulevard, a shop here.

Vendors Poleci, Sharagano and ABS reported continued sales from the utility look in pants, miniskirts and outerwear. And, the frenzy for denim, staples for Blue Cult and ABS and a second-season addition for Alice + Olivia were strong sales drivers, according to reps. But the word was that fall also had a new direction of cleaned-up, more ladylike looks.

“They’re definitely asking for more jackets, more suiting — things are just getting a little dressier,” said Elizabeth French, who owns a namesake showroom at the CMC.

How & Wen trousers in pinstripes and tropical wool blends, Chelsea Davis’ wide-waistband wool pants with matching fitted jackets and Beth Bowley’s two-ply and four-ply cashmere sweaters were top draws.

At the four-day Designers & Agents show held at the New Mart and Cooper buildings, a “Friends and Family” fashion show Saturday night featured such designers as Alicia Lawhon and Lotta, with pals strutting the runway in their fall looks, followed by a DJ-driven free-for-all ’til midnight.

By day, California-based boutiques like Blonde in Santa Monica and Patty Faye in Silverlake were picking up sheer wool shirts and miniskirts with pleats and buckles from San Francisco’s Rachel Mara, according to sales manager Michael Gorenstein. For Carl Dias, a buyer for three Traffic stores here, dressier, ladylike must-haves included men’s wear-inspired wide-leg trousers, still sitting low on the hip, and classic, fitted white shirts with points of interest like buttons, wide cuffs or pleats.

Newness, that vague, elusive qualifier sure to be the magic elixir for consumers, was consistently on the lips of buyers who were looking for fresh items to juice impulse sales at their stores.

Neiman’s Hopkins was preoccupied with finding new designers and discovered Daniel Green and Lukus Eichmann — two 19-year olds and their burgeoning denim line, Saddlelites, from Glendale, Calif. — in a back closet at the D&A show. As of press time, the month-old line fusing Japanese-made denim with western styling was entertaining exclusivity pitches from Neiman’s, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale’s, Green offered.

Seth Weisser, owner of manufacturer-retailer What Comes Around Goes Around, exhibiting at D&A, wrote orders for reconstructed Lacoste vintage shirts with contrasting trims in halter and western versions.

At the Gerry Building, Charles Burrows said he opened seven new accounts, including boutiques Sway and Olive in Seattle and Dungarees in Studio City, Calif., for his whimsical line, Outdoor Terrier and Kitten, the graphically driven Australian line he distributes. Kitten’s cream shirt sporting the likeness of Jimi Hendrix and Outdoor’s “Benji Vuitton,” a designer spoof with flocked imagery, were key sellers.

Novelty benefited two-month-old showroom Fille at the CMC. Owner Missy Arko said the Harveys line was generating orders with pink plaid wide-cuff pants, two-pocket gauchos and a circle-skirt dress. “It’s been a slow show but we’re getting quality buyers,” Arko said.

Initially, there had been some confusion over when market actually began. Because the tent shows kicked off two days before the official market dates, the CMC opted to open the market early, too, yielding mixed results for buyers and showrooms.

“I didn’t realize that out-of-state vendors wouldn’t be here until Friday so I’ll have to return this weekend,” groused Dana Sanders, owner of men’s and women’s boutique Terra, to open June in Jackson Hole, Wyo., echoing other frustrated buyers throughout the week.

Simple readiness was another issue for many showrooms. “It was a totally false start Wednesday. We didn’t have our samples yet,” said Cristina Angarola, whose CMC showroom carries Smashing Grandpa, Jimmi Joolz and Corey Lynn Calter.

Samples aside, the yellow sign of caution: buyers veered away from overzealous order writing.

“I may be spending as much as last year, but certainly not up front. I want to keep a nest egg for trends to jump on,” said Stein, who was focusing on tops to go with bottoms.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Traffic’s Dias has worked on a 5 to 10 percent reduction in open-to-buys, a tactic that has given him a “little breathing room” for trends, while allowing the stores to turn a profit.

Olivia Richardson, women’s casualwear buyer at London-based Selfridges, said she’d likely spend as much as last year on fall but wasn’t anticipating a banner year. Tops headed her shopping list, with orders already written for Fils’ girly one-of-a-kind styles crafted from vintage fabrics to complement the store’s denim offerings. “We’re not predicting an enormous increase in sales,” she said.

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