By  on February 25, 2008

LAS VEGAS — The uncertain economic climate may have impacted the mood somewhat at Project Las Vegas, but few would admit to a slowdown in their own businesses. In fact, most vendors struck an upbeat tone for the fall ’08 season, even as economists bandy about the word “recession” and retailers post record-low sales. Large swaths of consumers might not be able to pay their mortgages, but that doesn’t mean they won’t still spring for some retail therapy.

“I think people were a little more cautious generally, but our business was strong,” said Steven Birkhold, CEO of Diesel USA. “We were at Project showcasing the breadth of our product, from our core and fashion businesses to kids, intimates, accessories and bags. We can’t do anything about the exchange rate, which works against us, but our customers see the value in our details, fabric, construction and brand appeal.”

Still, Birkhold noted that he thought traffic on the first day of Project, which was staged here from Feb. 13 to Feb. 15, was much stronger than the second and third days.

At Ben Sherman, business was buzzing, according to Paul McAdam, North American president. The company has even been pushing prices up 10 to 15 percent on improved product. “We have 130 appointments here and have been very productive,” he noted. “Our customers are looking for better quality and more attention to detail. Clean and sophisticated is what is working well for us for fall.”

The British brand’s assortment included shirts with slimmer collars, lots of lightweight knits, cleaner branding and skinny jeans in pop colors like neutron blue. Also garnering attention from buyers was Ben Sherman’s new youth line for boys ages 9 to 16, debuting at retail this fall, which joins its established kids’ collection for boys 2 to 8.

Original Penguin was also touting a new kids’ line, which is being produced in-house and will hit retail stores in June. The Perry Ellis International-owned line is undergoing a makeover, with less of an emphasis on a retro ’70s appeal and a nudge towards modernity. “Vintage is still a part of it, but it won’t be the core of the business anymore. We are about updated preppie,” noted Paul Witt, vice-president of global marketing, showing off the brand’s new argyle branding identity and array of multi-hued chinos.

As part of its update, the company ended its upscale Black Label business to focus on a single Original Penguin collection, and also ended its denim business. “Denim was not our core of expertise,” explained Witt. “We are going to bring in an outside denim brand for our Original Penguin stores.”

Over at Converse by John Varvatos there was relief that the writers’ strike had ended, because it had been causing nervousness among West Coast stores—as Hollywood industry types are key customers of the trendy stores in L.A. With that obstacle diminished, sales have been “solid” this season for the contemporary brand, which marries the sport heritage of Converse with designer John Varvatos’s rock & roll edge.

Pants are a focal point for the brand, and the “Sloppy Chuck” style featured dressy fabrics in a jean fit that is looser at the thigh but slim down the leg, with attached suspenders. Similarly laden with appealing details were a cotton trench coat with nylon hood, a wool overcoat with leather placket and cotton knit vests with jersey linings.

According to Ari Hoffman, CEO of Gant USA, specialty stores were more upbeat about the retail environment than their larger department store brethren—which makes sense given the latter’s large-scale exposure to potential downturns. “Specialty stores seem to be in a much more positive mood,” he noted. “The department stores are walking around like somebody killed their mother.”

One upbeat specialty retailer was Damond Neely, owner of Philly in Miami, located in Miami Beach, Fla. “Business is always good in Miami,” he noted, singling out Prohibit and Robin’s Jeans as hot lines. As for trends, Neely pointed to the fading of skull motifs, more birds in graphics and inside-out seams.

Neely added that one-off decorated sneakers do very well in his two stores. “Adidas, Nike Air Force 1, Prada—anything, we can paint them. People love it,” he said.

On a more cautious note, John Braeger, co-owner of Garys in Newport Beach, Calif., said he’s been conservative this season and focusing on brands that have already performed well for him. Those brands include Bureau and Arnold Zimberg—as well as high-end labels such as Paul Smith, Etro, Corneliani and Ermenegildo Zegna, which do not show at Project.

“Business has been okay, but it takes that very special item to make a sale, since no one really needs anything today,” noted Braeger. “Price is an issue, but if they love it, they’re buying it.”

Carol Rodan and Chris Griffith, co-owners of West Hollywood’s Rodan vs Griffith store, singled out Helmut Lang, Gilded Age, Cavern and Endovanera as favorite picks at the show. “Things are going well, even in a crappy environment,” said Rodan. The duo opened their store last May to showcase their own designs but are adding other brands to “test their customers.”

Orlando Godwin, who is planning to open a men’s store, called Swagga 360, on March 1 in the Clinton Hill area of Brooklyn, was on the lookout for “something fresh.” On his first visit to Project, he was most interested in Earnest Sewn, Antik Denim, Indian Rock Culture, Maison Bibliotheque and Triple Five Soul.

For retailers looking for the biggest fashion bang for the buck, Kill City had some of the most appealing denim at the show. With everything priced to retail for under $110, the L.A.-based brand had jeans in eye-catching marble, acid and tie-dye washes in fits like Junkie, Mod and Garage. “We like playing with treatments, but it isn’t trashy,” explained Paul Roughley, senior designer at Kill City. “There’s a European influence, and the fits are slender, but we’re trying to broaden our reach this fall.”

Launched two years ago, Kill City is stocked by such retailers as Urban Outfitters and American Rag, and it is sold out of the Proper Fools showroom. “This is where the economy is going. Our prices allow everyone to buy our product. We’re not elitist,” noted Drew Bernstein, founder of Kill City and CEO of The Original Cult, which sells punk rock apparel.

Sharp pricing and loads of style were also the selling points at Scotch & Soda, Holland’s hipper answer to Abercrombie & Fitch. Every one of the brand’s garments is carefully laden with details and selling points, such as faux layered styles like polos attached to hoodies, sweaters attached to blazers and scarves attached to tops.

At William Rast, the label founded by Justin Timberlake and Trace Ayala, a more sophisticated stance was on view, courtesy of a design overhaul by Paris68, the consulting firm founded by Johan and Marcella Lindeberg. Nylon jackets with updated logo treatments, spiffy blazers and rocker vests showed some of the hallmarks that made J. Lindeberg a success earlier.

Another standout at the show from a style perspective was Modern Amusement, the neo-preppie brand owned by Mossimo Inc. “Our whole thing is being an alternative to what’s happening in premium denim,” explained John Moore, creative director at the Santa Monica-based label. For fall, that means windbreakers so lightweight they’re sheer; featherweight, engineer-stripe cardigans with tape slot buttons; and sweaters with lower, scooped-out necklines to allow more of the woven underneath to show. The company’s ultra-clean jeans verged on a trouser look, with their hook-and-eye closure and lack of any visible hardware.

Modern Amusement was also showing its first women’s collection, its first home product—an $85 scented candle—and its first overcoat, a herringbone wool style with leather piping detail.

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