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Many Questions, Few Answers

What’s the next hot trend? How will the economic uncertainty and threat of war affect upcoming orders? These are just some of the issues retailers are pondering as they head into WWDMAGIC.<br><br><br><br>Buyers almost apologetically talk of...

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Joanna Cataldo, women's buyer at Sharon Segal at Fred Segal in Santa Monica, predicts Forties and utilitarian styles will be popular in the fall.

Donato Sardella

What’s the next hot trend? How will the economic uncertainty and threat of war affect upcoming orders? These are just some of the issues retailers are pondering as they head into WWDMAGIC.

Buyers almost apologetically talk of feminine skirts, cargo pants and striped jackets in the same breath as the geopolitical wrangling with Iraq and the state of the economy. But all subjects weigh heavily on their minds as they head to WWDMAGIC, which today kicks off its four-day run.

Retailers contend January was a difficult month but most were able to clear out inventory, thanks to deep discounts. Rather than toss off doom-and-gloom predictions for the next few months, buyers appear to be holding their emotions in check, choosing to focus their energy on those things they can control — namely, merchandise.

“The world’s a very different place post-9/11,” said Mark Goldstein, owner of four Madison boutiques in Southern California, observing retailers have accepted their catch-as-catch-can role in a stagnant economy. “It’s part of who people are and the women’s business is going to hang in there.”

A major problem, according to many buyers, is that there’s little fashion other than military chic and Fifties-inspired styles to latch on to, and buyers seem sincerely confused over what to give customers. Perhaps learning a very important lesson from last year’s peasant craze, which left retailers reeling from stagnant sales when the look quickly became saturated, few plan to subscribe to one direction. Instead, most said they will touch lightly on trendy items and will only perk up an increasingly popular movement toward casual and activewear.

“Anytime there is trouble in the country, people go back to easy dressing,” said Joanna Cataldo, women’s buyer for Sharon Segal at Fred Segal in Santa Monica, Calif.

“I can no longer afford to ignore the need for the casual, sexy looks that are so popular with these girls,” said Adam Shaffer, owner of two Undercover boutiques in West Hollywood and Santa Monica, who conceded he didn’t capitalize enough on this market last year. Shaffer plans to throw in cotton twill and silk cargoes as well as form-fitting T-shirts to complement dressier items. “Whether in price point or in functionality, this is what’s practical these days,” he said.

This story first appeared in the February 18, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Last January, Lisa Kline returned to casual lines such as Juicy Couture, James Perse and Hard Tail, and the strategy paid off for her eponymous Los Angeles boutique, returning sales to pre-Sept. 11, 2001, levels, up some 20 percent. At WWDMAGIC, she plans to scout for less-expensive items to encourage add-on business. Feeling comfortable enough to venture slightly from her casual mix, she has picked up harem-style cargo pants, Forties-inspired dresses and sexy, candy-colored pants for summer. “By the time I go to WWDMAGIC, I’ll be buying younger, fun stuff,” she said. Belt and denim lines and Asian-inspired looks top her shopping list. If the U.S. and Iraq do go to war, Kline said she’ll have to try and conduct business as usual. “I’m worried, but there’s nothing I can do. I have to buy and fill the store no matter what.”

WWDMAGIC is technically a fall show, but few are thinking ahead to the colder months. Melissa McElrath, owner of Melissa M. and Femme boutiques in South Pasadena, Calif., will concentrate on summer. “I like to get the weird things [vendors] have at the last minute,” she said. “The longer you wait, the more you can smell what trends are in the air. You can sense it.” McElrath said she will be hunting for knits in stripes, of which she said “there’s just not enough in the market”; cotton wrap skirts between 16 and 23 inches that sit on the hip, and neon to work with her military orders.

Bailee Martin, women’s buyer for three young contemporary boutiques, including two Zebraclub locations in Seattle and a Wish unit in Atlanta, hopes WWDMAGIC will help fulfill a transition out of bohemian. “Something sleeker and sexier but still feminine” would help change the direction of trends, she said, noting that she will likely place orders for cargo pants, flight suits with zipper details, bomber jackets and sweaters with asymmetrical zippers. Martin is especially eager to see Citizens of Humanity, the just-unveiled jeans line by the makers of Seven Jeans, Michael Glasser and Jerome Dahan.

“We definitely feel the effects of the economy, but recently our clientele has started spending more,” said Martin, noting that Zebraclub has garnered a 50 percent jump in business year-over-year, due to a print advertising campaign that ran in local newspapers.

“There’s nothing that everyone is jumping all over,” lamented Jennifer Lovazzano, who operates year-old Girly Girl Fashion Lounge, a contemporary boutique in Menlo Park, Calif. She plans to hunt for Fifties-inspired styles and long, flowing skirts her customers can don with a pair of flip-flops. Taking a cue from the success of Hard Tail for yoga enthusiasts and stay-at-home moms, Lovazzano will place more investment in loungewear. Girly Girl bowed a year ago, smack in the middle of the dot-com bust, and somehow remained unscathed. “We’re in the heart of Silicon Valley and yet there are so many people here who aren’t being affected, at least not yet,” she said. “We hear about it happening, but we haven’t seen a drastic drop.”

Melissa Davis, owner of The Cherry Tree in Kalispell, Mont., said diversification and customer service is the name of the game at the contemporary store. “It’s kind of a guessing game right now and we’ve been going out of our way to put dollars toward personal mailers, birthday clubs, men’s night [during which they shop for their wives] and quarterly newsletters,” said Davis. “It makes a big difference.”

Davis is setting her open-to-buy between 5 and 8 percent lower than last year, “to leave more open for reorders to keep us on track. It’s better to be underbought than overbought,” she said.

Sharon Segal has notched double-digit increases. But finding new designers who offer “something other than cargo” will be her challenge at WWDMAGIC. “We like stuff that has character and quirkiness,” Segal said. The store’s Cataldo was one of the few who had predictions for fall: Forties-inspired dresses and skirts with an emphasis on polkadots and utilitarian chic. As for activewear, she said, “It’s going to get a lot more sporty.”

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