In tough times, Boston specialty retailer Alan Bilzerian orders at least one extravagant piece where, as he puts it, "the ink is dripping off your hand as you write it," he said. This year, it was a 12-layer Yohji Yamamoto halter dress of silk jersey. It retails for $8,500 — and has already sold.
"If I look scared, my customer is going to notice it," he said. "You have to buy out in front. The customer is not going to buy as much, maybe, in a downturn, but if you're in front, she'll buy even if it's outrageously expensive."
Bilzerian and other top Boston retailers said gloomy economic news and the bad exchange rate have been headwinds this season, but business isn't terrible. However, the consumer is more cautious.
"I've never had a price resistance in my store, but it feels like that now," says Louis Boston's Debi Greenberg, speculating that customers' hesitance may be more from mental adjustment than anything else. "They know they used to be able to buy a dress from a certain designer for $3,000 and now it's $7,000. And they're wondering why."
Over the last several years, Greenberg has shifted more of her buying to American labels — probably 60 percent of her floor, she estimated. She's also made a particular effort to keep accessories reasonable, stocking footwear in the $200-to-$400 range, and handbag options under $800, for example.
Labels such as Sari Gueron and The Row have led the way this spring. Greenberg praised Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen's line for its fit and for pieces like a $3,000 cropped stretch leather jacket, and a long racer-back dress, about $300 for jersey and $1,700 for silk. Two of Louis' strongest resources, Dries Van Noten and Marni, continue to do well this spring. She said Van Noten's florals are "wearable, not loud."
"Talk of recession is not a great thing, ever," said Leslee Shupe Korf, owner of Serenella on Newbury Street. Her customer, she added, is "buying to fill a specific hole in her closet." Pieces with multiple purposes — such as a $1,950 Moschino jacket that reverses from beaded black to cream — have sold well. A Versace jersey dress, in nude at $1,740, also emerged as a winner.She's bullish, too, about designer Sophie Theallet's namesake line, which has done well despite the cost (a top goes for about $1,100). "The trick is they're cut well — young without being unforgiving," she said.
Bilzerian, who owns namesake stores on Newbury Street and in Newton, Mass., said he's navigated five or six downturns in 40 years in business. It's not the time, he said, to panic and try to bring in a new customer base. That means that he, like Korf and Greenberg, mostly gave hot, tropical colors and overgrown florals a pass, seeing them as not a fit for well-heeled Bostonians.
"We do a little bit for newness, but it's not our customer," Bilzerian said. "How long can you really wear a printed yellow-and-green tunic?"
Instead, he sold Rick Owens' plonge calfskin jackets, at $2,500, and just about all of Lanvin's dresses.
"The jeans look is so tired. All my girls want is an elegant, easy dress in an unusual color with a pair of heels," he said.
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