The contemporary crew is keeping inventory tight, cutting prices and tinkering with designs in order to maintain a competitive edge.

Jitters about an impending war with Iraq and frustration with a lackluster economy are forcing contemporary vendors to rethink their business plans, from their collections’ overall design aesthetic to pricing strategies. Going into fall, contemporary resources are cutting prices, overhauling their image and speeding up deliveries. And in addition to keeping a closer eye on the bottom line, designers at contemporary labels are increasingly aware of the importance of keeping merchandise fresh and eye-grabbing among the sea of competitors in department and specialty stores.

WHAT YOU WANT, WHEN YOU WANT IT: Vendors are constantly seeking ways to keep costs down and one way they are achieving this is by producing exactly what is ordered, when it is ordered. "We’re going per order and not keeping any stock," said Viviana Gabeiras, designer and vice president of Miami-based Petit Pois. "We keep the fabric on hand, but only cut as our customers ask us to do so — they will continue to buy conservative, instead of taking on too many adventures. Because we produce everything on-site, we can control overheads and cut costs. And if we can lower prices, we do."

Firms based north of the border are in a similar predicament with buyers, as well. "People are definitely holding back," said Anita Bacic, president of Toronto-based The People Have Spoken. "The dollar is dropping daily, and our customers are not ordering too far in advance. Normally, by this time, summer would be in the bag. But our customers haven’t even ordered yet. That means that we have to then work like crazy to make things happen."

Last-minute production and deliveries, however, impede efforts on the part of vendors to keep costs down. "It doesn’t help, as we can’t make things as cost-efficiently as possible," Bacic said. "Because we anticipate these problems, we almost have to pad our costs. It’s not drastic, but it’s definitely a factor."

At Los Angeles-based Lili Rose & Jessie USA, production costs have been lowered. "We wanted to increase volume and maintain our quality, so we are using different techniques," said vice president of sales Isaac Armony. "We are pushing on our end to lower costs as much as possible, so we can give the customer a better price. Today, when we build a product, the main person we think about is the end-user, the customer who is going to pick it up off the rack. And we feel the market is not going to support high prices."

CONQUERING NEW TERRITORY: For some vendors, altering an established design aesthetic is beneficial since it allows them to capture new groups of shoppers. "We have tried to use new materials, new yarns, a new type of knitting," said Alex Perrey, manager for Los Angeles-based Sofia Perrey. "We are known mostly for evening dresses and special occasion wear, but we have included other things for regular customers, as well."

Eric Shargani, president and chief executive officer of Mon Chateau Inc., the Los Angeles-based distributor for Vertigo, said the brand’s crossover appeal is key in securing a stronger foothold in the marketplace. "We are trying to have a range of customers so we don’t limit ourselves to a certain age group," he said. "In the past, we may have lost customers as they get older, while gaining younger ones at the same time. Now, we are going toward the ones we might lose. We are trying to be somewhere in between." Forthcoming collections, said Shargani, could be worn by anyone between the ages of 18 and 50, and would be "tri-dimensional." He added: "It’s not just about a jacket or suit or pants, but about all sorts of different merchandise, like long coats or bustiers."

But Harveys, a maker of contemporary and intimate apparel based in Orange, Calif., prefers not to tinker with its established look. "We have found our true focus and our niche," said spokeswoman Nicole Petersen. "We have to set precedents as designers, but do our best to forecast what will be selling well. For us, it’s all about a strong, curvy collection. We are going for the ultimate girlie, and concentrate on having a definite image and brand recognition."

STYLE VS. SUBSTANCE: Los Angeles-based label Mica has observed that novelty pieces are appealing to trend-hungry shoppers. "We have found that we have to be very novelty-driven," said designer Kim Holbrook. "People will pay more money as long as it looks like it’s worth it. Nobody is interested in run-of-the-mill dresses." That translates to poplins, sateens, appliqués — in which interest has already been strong. "We have to continue finding things that will make the shopper want to spend $150 or $200 on a dress. We have to give them something that nobody else is offering."But at Sisters, another Los Angeles-based resource, the realities of a sluggish economy and the finicky shopper have affected how far its design team will push the envelope. "We’ve found that if we stick to a more basic category, rather than anything too fashion-forward, it’s an easier sell," said account executive Rebecca Eslamboly. "We’re designing a little less over the top, and a little more in wise selling pieces." This direction will translate into "color and more color," Eslamboly said, replacing the taupes and other neutrals that have dominated fashion in recent seasons. "That’s what retailers are asking for," she said, "so that’s what we’re going to give them."

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