By and  on February 20, 2008

NEW YORK — The hotel ready-to-wear trade shows here felt more like watching "Wall Street Week" than "Project Runway."

The Designers at the Jumeirah Essex House show is usually about high-end attire, but all the pricy dresses didn't deter exhibitors and buyers from airing their concerns about a possible recession. Attendees at Atelier Designers and Pacific Designer Collection also had the economy on their minds.

Escalating prices, the financial challenge of carrying European labels and consumers' trepidation about spending were among the worries discussed. However, some of the 17 designers who showed their fall collections at the Essex House insisted there is plenty of business to be done. The four-day show closed on Feb. 11. And retailers' views appeared to vary.

"People from the South are flying on gossamer wings," said Linda Heister, vice president of sales and marketing at Mark Heister. "Customers can't get out of their own way. People on the East Coast are miserable. They say traffic is off and on some days no one comes into their stores. That said, that's not stopping people from ordering. "

Pricing remains an important issue, with some stores complaining about higher costs. Heister noted that many buyers said they are dropping European lines because of the financial squeeze caused by the weak dollar-euro exchange rate. Mark Heister's show standouts included a $720 wool and metallic bubble jacket and a $300 easy-to-tie wraparound halter.

At Kevan Hall, retailers were looking for short dresses such as a $895 side-draped dress and a $790 wool taffeta, said sales director Jeffrey Moss. Responding to the economic strains, shoppers are looking for short dresses instead of longer ones for black-tie events and stores are seeking adaptable styles that can be dressed up or down.

"Short dresses are less inhibiting to buy for the customer," Moss said. "She also wants dresses she doesn't have to think about."

Like his competitors, Hall is game for new ways to reach customers. He will host a runway show and reception Thursday at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American Art in Detroit for 500 to 750 people. Hall, whose most recent collection was inspired by Africa, is being honored by the museum. A trunk show is planned in the days after the event at the Roma Sposa boutique in Birmingham, Mich.Fur designer David Goodman said he picked up three or four new accounts. Offering "super lightweight fur-lined coats," knitted furs and Italian cashmere knits with fur trim are some of the ways he is drumming up business. And he also screens out negativity.

"I don't listen to that," he said. "I believe there is business to be done, you just have to look a little more aggressively, find other markets, look overseas."

Along with recently signing a licensing deal with Isaac Mizrahi, Goodman said he is building his fur business by selling to stores in Europe, Russia and Hong Kong.

Another show resource, Michael De Paulo, said there are hopes that business will rebound after the presidential election in November.

"Buyers are ordering less obvious pieces and less risky styles," he said.

Meanwhile, the Atelier Designers and Pacific Designer Collection trade shows at the Doubletree Guest Suites in Times Square from Feb. 9 to 11 took up four floors and showcased a well-edited selection of vendors. There were a slew of international labels, including Germany's Heide Ost and Mashiah Arrive, and Belgium's Pret a Partir.

In terms of trends, sophisticated textures played a key role for fall, with many vendors offering clothes as interesting to touch as they are to look at. For example, One by One showcased jackets made with a gypsy lace knit and crochet technique that resulted in unusual fuzzy and colorful textures.

Overall, however, vendors said economy-related fears have had an impact on the buying patterns of retailers.

Susan Summa, who produces Atelier, said the economy, coupled with the early market and an overlap with other shows in Las Vegas, had an impact.

"All the buyers I talked to said they were ordering with more caution," Summa said. "They are playing it safe and a lot of designers have responded to that by bringing in extensions of lines at lower price points. I guess an election year always brings some of this anxiety."

Designer Ann McKenna, who also produces Pacific Designer Collection, said, "The traffic has been down from September, but I attribute that to the fact that there was so much overlap with other shows. I think people are going to play it safe, but they will spend money on things with staying power."

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