NEW YORK — High anxiety could well describe the overall mood at last week’s early fall market.

A heightened sense of pressure was mainly because of a cautious approach by retailers regarding orders for fall 2003, which generally will not be completed until December and January. After Thanksgiving, stores will be able to evaluate the status of this year’s holiday business and determine what brands and products will be key next year.

The pressure to pique buyers’ interests with new products and fabric treatments, as well as promotional and marketing ideas, did not stop major stores and smaller specialty operations from buying immediate merchandise for holiday 2002 and spring 2003. But while orders were brisk for holiday and spring goods, the downside was that severalstores continued to buy narrow and deep or in limited quantities.

The somber economy, however, did not affect after-hours events, which included Playtex’s Bra-way fashion show and cocktail party at ABC’s Dateline studio at Times Square, and Kellwood Co.’s retirement cocktail party and dinner for its Biflex unit’s Frank Darmante and his son Dale at the 101 Club at 101 Park Avenue. There also were cocktail parties for the showroom openings of three French brands — Huit at 183 Madison Avenue, and 6ixty 8ight and No Romeo Lingerie at 490 Broadway.

Regarding product, fashion teamed with function and comfort continues to be the driving force, particularly a new breed of microfibers from DuPont’s family of Lycra spandex and Tactel and Soft Comfort Lycra.

Other key ideas include:

Repositioning traditional brands like Playtex and its sub-brands, including Thank Goodness It Fits, into a contemporary product in one cohesive theme.

Unique products, like hand-painted silk robes by Ying Li, novelty flannel pajamas with kitsch motifs like a map of New York City by Nick & Nora, marabou-trimmed sheer baby dolls by Loungewear Betty, and a "Create Your Own Bra" concept with various pads and interchangeable straps by Fashion Forms.

An extension of comfortwear with classic licensed characters, such as "The Wizard of Oz" line of sleepwear by Warner Bros. that will be co-branded with the French Jenny and Jenny Girl labels, and will feature motifs of Dorothy’s ruby slippers, Toto the beloved pooch, and sloganslike "There’s No Place Like Home" and "Toto, I Have A Feeling We’re Not in Kansas Anymore."Romantic-looking bridal gowns and coordinating robes lavishly embellished with lace by Priamo, Flora Nikrooz and Eileen West at Charles Komar & Sons.

Elaborate and ornate daywear items like camis, slips, thongs and tap pants featuring allover lace, re-embroidered lace trims and appliqués by Claire Pettibone.

A continuation of spa-inspired items, including cotton terry low-rise pants and stretch rib tops bearing words like "Relax" by Love Letters, and cotton terry bath wraps by Stan Herman at Crowntuft and Anne Lewin at NAP.

Richard Leeds, chief executive officer of Richard Leeds International, said, "There’s definitely a renewed interest in classics and a resurgence in retro feel-good merchandise. That’s why we’re doing ‘The Wizard of Oz’ collection."

Susan Pink, executive vice president of sales at the firm, said reaction has been strong to the "The Wizard of Oz" concept because it provides a "no-brainer" visual display platform of a Yellow Brick Road for in-store shop concepts. Pink added that response has been good to a new "jump-short" silhouette — an all-in-one short and cami.

Eileen West, designer of the sleepwear that bears her name, said buyers liked a new hangtag designed to look like a gift card "with a little story about the product."

"Newness, and especially color, have been very good for us. We’re trying to add a little push of color for every delivery," said West, noting that sky blue has been a top-booking color.

Ann Deal, president and owner of Ventura, Calif.-based Fashion Forms, a novelty bra and accessories company, said, "Retailers are hungry for margins. They are definitely looking for newness, for something to take them through this economic mess. And they are buying anything that’s unique."

At the Intimate Apparel Salon, Steve Abrams, managing director of the Nick & Nora label at Shady Character Ltd., noted, "We had some good meetings. All of our regular customers came in to order deliveries for February, March, April and May. Some people also came in for fill-ins for December."

Judy Sell, national sales manager of Bronx-based XiXi, a dual-purpose line of at-homewear and sleepwear that bowed at the Intimate Apparel Salon, pointed out that smaller stores want to see what kind of inventory they’ll have after the holidays before committing to next year."I have a feeling they’ll be needing goods in January," Sell said. "I got positive vibes from the retailers who came to market, even though business hasn’t been terrific."

Judy Vella, president and designer of Soul Sister, a contemporary sleepwear resource in Upper Montclair, N.J., concurred that retailers are, for the most part, "taking smaller steps right now. Some major department stores are even ordering holiday goods for immediate deliveries. But everything has generally been good for us, and we opened 15 new specialty store accounts. That’s the sector that’s growing for us."

Indeed, opening new accounts was the order of the day for many vendors.

Ying Li, designer of the Ying Li silk daywear and sleepwear collection at Lineo Studio, who showed for the third time at the Intimate Apparel Salon, said, "I opened six new accounts and have a potential five or six more. A lot of buyers wanted to see the merchandise, go home and study their budgets before making any decisions."

And Monni McCleary, designer and owner of Manhattan-based Loungewear Betty, said she opened 10 accounts at the salon.

"I started my company in May, and it was the first time I’ve ever shown at a trade show. It was worth the effort. I heard the same thing from every retailer who stopped at my booth: ‘We’re looking for something different, something to jazz up our boutique.’"

Regarding the future for the Intimate Apparel Salon, show manager Carol Bigman said the new partnership with German trade giant Messe Frankfurt Inc. will "keep the show cost-effective for exhibitors, will make it more focused, and of course, compete with the French show, Lingerie Americas."

As reported, the first combined Intimate Apparel Salon-Messe Frankfurt show will be staged in the North Pavilion of the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in August. The salon fair will stage its last freestanding show at the Broadway Millennium Hotel in March.

Elly Ahn-McCloud, trade fair manager for Messe Frankfurt, said, "When we launch a show, we usually do it in stages. I think we can learn a lot from Carol and we are looking to her to take the [salon] up another level. We will be aiming for more German and Austrian brands, as well as more international brands. A lot of colleagues around the world have said they will support us."Ahn-McCloud said details regarding cost structures for exhibitors have not yet been made final.

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