NEW YORK — The spring 2003 market was among the busiest and most successful in many years, according to retailers and manufacturers.

In addition to scores of buyers and senior management from major stores, national chains and discounters, the biggest boost came from a strong contingent of smaller specialty boutiques, particularly from the Southeast, Southwest and New England, who have never visited the New York market or were expanding seasonal shopping trips.

A main goal, whether it was a corporate buying group or a mom-and-pop operation, was the quest for fashion merchandise and key items that are different looking and not easily found at regional shows.

The main reason for the hustle and bustle was the stepped up search for newness and products that offer consumers a combination of enhanced value and comfort, as well as a fashion twist that will differentiate stores from competitors. For many merchants, there also was a need to replenish inventories with immediate merchandise following a lackluster market in May.

The number one classification for which retailers had bigger open-to-buy budgets was the young contemporary area in daywear, foundations, underwear, sleepwear, robes and at-homewear.

If there was a complaint, it was the time needed to review and digest a staggering number of collections showcased at Madison Avenue showrooms, as well as two trade shows: the first Lingerie Americas, which exhibited 124 brands and pulled in around 1,600 visitors at the Metropolitan & Altman Building, and the 12-year-old Intimate Apparel Salon at The Millennium Broadway hotel, which showcased 190 lines and drew over 1,300 attendees.

Carol Bigman, owner and producer of the salon fair, said: "We had well over 500 visitors on Sunday, but Monday was a big surprise with steady volume traffic that started at 8 a.m. and didn’t stop all day. Tuesday was no disappointment, either."

A big draw at Lingerie Americas was a trend presentation by DuPont’s fashion director of intimate apparel, hosiery and swimwear, Iris LeBron. The seminar focused on four themes: Aging World, Woman’s World, Multicultural World and Tech World, an imaginative look into how technology affects the way people dress from head-to-toe.

Traffic was continually brisk at each of the three-day trade shows that closed Tuesday, and showroom vendors generally said this was the first time since the boom days of the Eighties that appointments with retailers continued late into Friday. That is indeed a rarity, as stores have traditionally cut back appointments beginning mid-week.This upbeat rally is the result of what a majority of manufacturers have characterized as the optimism of retailers following a tough year where lingerie and related items such as at-homewear have bolstered sagging margins and overall store sales.

Orders are not expected to be finalized for the next several weeks, but vendors said they were generally encouraged by a number of retailers who were revising plans and budgets, assessing which areas to invest more dollars.

Top-booking ideas included:

l Bohemian and peasant looks.

l Microfiber blends that are durable yet have a butter-soft hand, such as Tactel and Lycra Soft.

l Whimsical prints like Hawaiian dancers, strawberries and cherries, licensed characters like Scooby-Doo, and amusing sleep shirt logos such as "Don’t Bug Me" and a reversible "Good Witch, Bad Witch" depending on a consumer’s mood of the moment.

l Pants, whether low-riders, clam diggers, capris or cargo styles.

l The fashion basic, coordinating shelf-bra camis and boy-cut briefs and thongs.

Jeanette Cantone, senior vice president of merchandising and design at Natori Co., said: "Flower Child, Bazaar, White Hot and Tropical were the major themes that were well received. The entire Natori collection was geared to a more modern approach with new pants silhouettes, wide bands, smocking, embroideries and turned-up cuff treatments."

Cantone added that lounge looks in velour, baby terry, French terry and double-sided jersey was a top classification.

Barbara Lipton, vice president of merchandising for the licensed Donna Karan Intimates and DKNY Underwear collections at Wacoal America, said: "Anything with Tactel, any fabric with texture, anything that said ‘touch me,’ was very well received, There also was a very strong feeling about lace going forward."

Lipton said DKNY underwear is a young, contemporary line and "retailers came to us for that."

"We also received very good reaction to the new Donna Karan Body collection of high-tech fabrics that features a moisture management system," she said. "It will be launched at Saks in October."

Regarding the two trade shows, Lipton said: "I loved the Lingerie Americas show. It was like a mini Lyon show where it was easy to work, manage and walk through. I was impressed. But both shows had a lot of traffic. I don’t think one show took away business from the other show because buyers were visiting both shows."Marvin Backer, chief executive officer of Flora Nikrooz Lingerie, said: "The salon show was a very good show for us with many serious buyers. We opened new accounts with many boutiques that had never shopped the show. It’s been many year’s since so many retailers have come to town."

Todd Demakos, ceo of St. Eve., said: "A majority of our retailers have been coming in very happy. I’ve heard some [innerwear] retailers saying they are starting to make plan against full-store plan, which generally isn’t doing well at all."

Richard Leeds, ceo of Richard Leeds International, said: "We were very concerned with everything going on on Wall Street and possible side effects."

However, he said retailers had other issues on their minds and were definitely shifting dollars to merchandise they considered to be more fun and contemporary looking.

"As long as the product was whimsical, amusing and comfortable, it was a winner at this market," Leeds said.

With this idea in mind, Leeds said the firm has signed a licensing agreement for a co-branded sleepwear line called Loony Toons by French Jenny, bearing "The Wizard of Oz" trademark.

"You’re going to see a lot of Dorothy and maybe even the yellow brick road and Toto," Leeds said.

Victoria Vandegriff, executive vice president of sales for the Carole Hochman and licensed Oscar de la Renta sleepwear at Carole Hochman Designs, said: "We really stepped up the Carole Hochman line and added a lot more trims and details and interesting fabrics like piqués, shiny rayon blends, textured stripes and pointelles. We’ve also added cotton gauze and a lot more wovens to the Oscar collection."

David Komar, executive vice president of marketing at Charles Komar & Sons, said two young contemporary sleepwear lines received strong reaction: Planet Sleep, which was recently revamped with "junior-type silhouettes and motifs," and a licensed line called The Girls that features capri and boxer-style pajamas, a chemise, a robe and sleep shirts packaged in clear cosmetic bags. Each item features an illustration and a logo depicting nine different consumers: Spa girl, Wellness Girl, Glamour Girl, Exercise Girl, Yoga Girl, Fashion Girl, Shopping Girl, Cafe Girl, and an exclusive for Bloomingdale’s — Bloomie’s Girl. The illustrations were rendered by Melissa Gittelman.Komar noted that an expansion in satin sleepwear by Eileen West received top marks, as well as lounge items of softly brushed interlock, baby terry and jacquard terry in the licensed Liz Claiborne line. A top-booking style by Claiborne is a knit top and woven capri pants, he said.

Tom Lennon, New York sales manager for the licensed Laura Ashley sleepwear collection and Cypress Apparel unit of Russell-Newman Inc., said: "We were very busy. Every one of our accounts came in, including May Co, whom we hadn’t worked with for a while in New York.

"Intimate apparel business at stores has been very good. Retailers are optimistic, but continue to be conservative. Across the board around the country, there haven’t been any negative revisions of open-to-buy dollars."

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