By  on September 14, 2005

ATLANTA — The mood at AmericasMart's August show was upbeat, with buyers focusing on early spring sportswear and social occasion goods.

Lawton Hall, the Mart's senior vice president, said that the show, which ran Aug. 25-29, was relatively unaffected by Hurricane Katrina. While storm warnings may have kept some buyers from Alabama and Florida at home, out-of-territory retailers compensated for them, he said. Officials were pleased with the turnout, although they didn't provide specific numbers.

Business was especially strong in social occasion and prom areas, which are always spotlighted in August, but traffic appeared steady throughout the building. The National Prom Association, based in Jefferson City, Tenn., reported that 100 buyers from 60 member stores attended the show, including an awards ceremony for stores and vendors. Prom retailers said color and Hollywood glam-inspired looks still drive sales, but noted new trends, such as short dresses, asymmetric skirts and more muted color.

Contemporary sportswear and ready-to-wear vendors said buyers sought novelty looks to compete with department stores and big specialty chains.

Mark Garland, owner of a sportswear showroom, reported the best August show since 1997, partly because of a new showroom and additional lines. Shopping for early spring, buyers left strong orders, he said.

Skirts were a dominant spring trend, with more variety in silhouettes, including longer lengths. Highly embellished looks mixed fabrics, sequins, netting and embroidery, paired with basic tank tops or T-shirts. Cropped tops, shrugs and short blazers topped premium denim, which shows no signs of slowdown, according to buyers.

Herman Heinle, president of Gus Mayer, a Birmingham, Ala., specialty store with a Nashville location, shopped for a spring overview and bought holiday novelty knit tops with subtle embellishment from lines such as Alberto Makali.

Looking to build a new contemporary dress department Heinle bought Laundry, ABS and Nicole Miller, which have all performed well. Bridge sportswear is also a growing, though not "typical department store bridge," said Heinle, who bought opening price resources like Yansi Fugel and young designer lines at higher price points.

In premium denim, Heinle strengthened core lines Seven For All Mankind and Citizens of Humanity, and shopped for hip new resources such as Switch USA and Antique Denim."Gutsy, cute clothes, nothing plain," was the mantra of Lu Harris, co-owner of Certain Things, a specialty store with two locations in Raleigh/Durham, N.C.

Harris bought skirts, which continue to perform for spring, in all lengths, shapes and variety. Intent on educating customers to wear glitzy embellished skirts both day and evening, Harris bought Basil & Maude, her number-one line, and Loco Lindo, Haven Bleu, Lily and Nally & Millie. For spring, she added more longer textured skirts. In tops, she opted for tanks and T-shirts, white blouses, cashmere sweaters or jean jackets.

In jeans, she ordered Womyn, Christopher Blue and Rosner, and for sportswear, she wrote & Trousers and Drama, two bestsellers for her store.

Sabra Thorpe, owner of Sabra Bridal & Formal in Oklahoma City, shopped with a 20 percent budget increase over last year, with plans to expand the store.

"Prom is big in the South. Teens, and their parents, spend more here," she said, adding that sales spiked after her store was featured in a prom documentary on MTV aired in May.

Her biggest challenge, in both bridal and prom, is competition from Internet discounters.

"Girls come in and shop for the dress they want, then go price-shopping for it on the Internet," she said. "We waste a salesperson, and it's impossible to carry all sizes. We have to focus on unique, private and exclusive lines, and service to create a total prom experience."

She bought long gowns from Tiffany, Precious Formals and Niteline, and searched for new silhouettes, such as short dresses with asymmetric hems from Xcite. She picked up a new line, Terrillie, and bought Dina Bar-El for its salable looks and good price range.

Focusing on large-size sportswear and special-occasion dressing, Merrideth Colwell-Shea, owner of Merci Woman in Atlanta, scoured the market for the same quality and fashion offered in the regular-size market.

"There aren't enough labels and it's frustrating," she said. "Manufacturers pay lip service to it, but the category isn't really progressing."

She said Karen Kane, Lafayette 148, Misook and Linda Lunsford had successfully addressed the large-size customer for sportswear and career dressing. For young-looking social occasion dresses with sleeves, a difficult search, she bought Montage.

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