LOS ANGELES — Even a robbery scare at the Bank of America in the California Market Center Monday couldn’t dim the exuberance of retailers and manufacturers, who reported 30 to 50 percent increases in business this year compared with 2003.

At a fall-holiday mart filled with vintage-inspired pins, ponchos, bows and feminine frills, it was the little things that counted, and the extras were hot sellers. Buyers wrote orders on everything from ponchos and capelets to knit sweaters and denim.

Buying fervor broke into a near melee at the Sage booth at Designer & Agents Annex at the New Mart, where two retailers began a tug-of-war over the one-of-a-kind, hand-dyed crinkle skirts — similar to one worn by a newly pregnant Julia Roberts on a People magazine cover. “Now it’s so popular that [designer Sage Machado] has been sizing them, naming them and making them to order,” said sales rep Dina Gardner, referring to what had been a cash-and-carry, one-size-fits-most line.

“The poncho is becoming the new pashmina,” said Nisa Zap, rep at the Mica showroom, which debuted Voom by Joy Han, a line of ponchos, vintage-inspired T-shirts, tanks, skirts and dresses.

Buyers such as Heather Payne, owner of Studio 1220, a contemporary boutique with three locations in San Diego, ate it up. “I’m getting embroidery details, sequins — very vintage — anything that looks like you got it from your grandmother,” she said, noting a 10 percent increase in business.

The impact of the unfounded robbery report that closed surrounding streets for about 20 minutes was minimal, said Deirdre Mendoza, a spokeswoman for the California Market Center. “People couldn’t go in and out of any of the marts for that period of time,” she said, noting that the Cooper Building and the New Mart werecordoned off. “But it didn’t really affect business.”

Ron Herman, owner of five namesake contemporary-designer boutiques here, heralded soft, feminine dressing as a welcome change from this city’s uniform of jeans and T-shirts and, perhaps, a sign of the times. “I think it’s interesting that this movie is coming out today — ‘The Stepford Wives,’” he said Friday. “I’m not saying it’s good to be a Stepford wife, but what if it’s a return to nice and pretty and simple?”Even denim line Paper Denim & Cloth jumped on the vintage bandwagon at the debut of its West Coast showroom, with the premiere of a flea market-inspired Tinted Flea jean. “This wash has sold better than any other jean today,” said sales and merchandising manager Kim Tuber. Scoop, Atrium and Ron Herman picked it up, and business was already 30 percent higher compared with the same time last year, Tuber said.

Jennifer Cunningham, a buyer for Tootsie, four contemporary boutiques in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Atlanta, described the trends as “very Forties vintage-inspired.” She snapped up brooches and knit sweaters adorned with pearls and rhinestones.

There is still a lack of variety in pants styles, Cunningham said, noting that Alvin Valley, as well as denim resources Ernest Sewn and True Religion, were also on her hit list. “Customers have been requesting it. I’m looking for more structure to get back into stores.”

At the Brighte show, newcomer Bat’s Daughter anticipated such a need and debuted a 30-piece collection of well-tailored wool suits in olive and red houndstooth, as well as Fifties-inspired cocktail dresses. The line took in $60,000 worth of orders on the first day of market and projected $100,000 by Tuesday. The suits, which wholesale from $300 to $400 and already have been chosen by several magazines for fall editorials, are a response to a changing economy, said owner Angela Batinovich. “I think you have to compete for the job now….You need a full suit,” she said.

Also at Brighte, Cheeky Brand owner Nathaneal Harkham peddled his line of, well, cheeky T-shirts with slogans such as “Gotta Lotta Flavor” and “Vote for Me.” The line caught the interest of the Dillard’s department store chain, and the retailer is in talks with Harkham to carry the year-old line exclusively in its junior departments.

“A year ago, people weren’t willing to take a chance,” said Harkham, whose T-shirts are sold at Fred Segal, Nordstrom Savvy and the L.A. boutique Intuition. “In the past two months, buyers have gotten more comfortable buying an alternative product.”

That’s not to say warm-weather L.A. buyers will snap up heavy wool sweaters. But they warmed to lightweight cashmere pieces at Alice + Olivia, showing sweet pullovers detailed with satin ribbons and funkier cashmere sweaters embellished with skulls and peace sign motifs done in crystals.“Normally, it’s a lot more low-key [at the shows], but buyers know that their customers understand [trends such as edgier cashmere],” said rep Sophie Dymoke, who projected an increase of 50 percent in sales.

Aside from clothing, buyers had holiday gift-giving on their minds, to which D&A responded by devoting 15 percent of show space to home merchandise, including bedding, pillows and vases. It appeared to strike a chord with retailers.

“Small boutiques have been coming by and mixing this with fashion,” said Cynthia Combs, a rep for Tepper Jackson’s and French Bull’s Sixties-inspired brightly colored plates, bags and pajamas. “People don’t buy what they don’t see [at stores]. It’s a margin booster.”

Rachelle Howie, owner of Bella Cosa on Robertson Boulevard here, scooped up armloads of Sage’s Indian-style skirts, as well as “something embroidered” and jewelry for holiday. “You don’t need to overbuy [holiday], because it’s such a short season,” she said. Still, she was aware of filling in merchandise gaps, thanks to a 50 percent increase in business. “People are shopping again,” she said. “People are spending money. It feels positive.”

Emily Long, owner of Avenue in Tucson, Ariz., had margins in mind as she, too, stocked her boutique with jewelry, party dresses and bags. “Always bags,” she said. Although her sales were flat compared with a year ago, Long said she was looking forward to a strong holiday selling season buoyed by the vintage fashion trend. “Everything is so feminine and glamorous now, I’m obsessed with it all.”

TRENDS

  • Vintage-inspired knits

  • Brooches

  • Rhinestone-embellished cashmere

  • Circle skirts

  • Ponchos, capelets

  • Crocheted scarves

  • Brocade and silk chiffon

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