By  on September 7, 1994

LONDON -- Club-hopping kids searching for the hottest trends go directly to Sign of the Times, a four-year-old retailer with three stores here.

Sign of the Times had its beginnings at a stall in Kensington Market in 1989. Two years later, a second unit opened in Hyper Hyper, the group market on Kensington High Street. The third store, this one freestanding, recently opened in the trendy Covent Garden area.

The store carries about 30 young designers, including Kevan Jon's dip-dyed denims, Fleur Oakes waistcoats, Olivia Vanderveld's webbing dresses, second-hand styles from Christa Davis, and the baby-doll looks of Joe Bates, Joie, SolaSobo, Jimmy Jumble and Anthea Mooney.

Retail prices at the freestanding shop and the Hyper Hyper unit range from $37.25 (25 pounds) to $298 (200 pounds) for a Julie X handpainted dresses. The Kensington Market stall sells nothing over $74.50 (50 pounds) and focuses more on street and punk fashions.

Fiona Cartledge, the 32-year-old owner, also wholesales most of the lines she carries and forecasts wholesale volume of about $74,500 (50,000 pounds) for that part of her company this year. Wholesale customers include Comme de Fu in Los Angeles and Barneys New York, she said.

Her strength, she believes, is that she carries nascent designers, many of whom don't have the financial backing to work six months in advance producing full collections. So they'll produce only a few pieces at a time, which gives Sign of the Times its fashion-up-to-the-minute feeling, Cartledge said. That is its advantage over such larger competitors as the chains Miss Selfridge and H. & M. Hennes.

Cartledge plans to have regular cocktail parties in the new Covent Garden shop, inviting customers such as models Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell and singers Sinead O'Connor, Primal Scream, St. Etienne, Wendy James, Annie Lennox and Suede.

"We get a cross section of people here," Cartledge said, adding most of her customers are in their late teens to early 20s. "We aren't snobbish about fashion. About a third of our customers have alternative lifestyles, and the remainder come to buy things to wear to the clubs.

"In clubland, the fashion looks go in and out quickly, and we have to react," she said. "We are changing constantly and usually focus on about three main looks at a time."Cartledge said club-going young people discard trends quickly, so she likes having a low inventory and high turnover. She predicts that this fall her clientele "will be about mixing very structured fabrics with shiny ones -- rubbers and distressed looks."

While it is the store's strength that it works with up-and-coming designers, Cartledge admits that Sign of the Times finds it difficult to get jackets, pants and bodies to create outfits that are more wearable during the day.

"Our plan is to begin doing the more basic things under our own label," Cartledge said. "That will leave the wacky side to the designers we work with."

Cartledge does her own market research by going to clubs and the enormous parties called raves several times a month.

"My life is a night-and-day clash," she said, laughing. "But there is a real buzz about clubs and fashion here now, with a lot of new designers. We're trying to be part of all that's happening and to create a real Sixties feeling. Sign of the Times is about fostering young designer names."

-- Fairchild News Service

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