By LAS VEGAS — In the midst of scorching heat at WWDMAGIC last week, buyers and vendors had one burning question: What’s next after "hippie whoredom?"

Amid wide concern about the saturation of the look of overtly sexy peasant shirts and treacherously low jeans, many groused that a lack of innovation could lead to price wars.

"There’s too much follow-the-leader right now," observed Stephen Brown, vice president of sales for tops resource Fang. "We’re in an item-driven cycle. But people aren’t paying enough attention to coming up with distinctive items."

Brown, whose revenues have mushroomed to $54 million, said he asked a neighboring exhibitor to stop displaying styles he claims are direct copies of Fang’s line.

One tiny booth, which was gone by the WWDMAGIC’s third day, boldly boasted in a sign, "We can knock anything off."

"We came out looking for something new and we’re a tad disappointed," said Bill Wakefield, president of Wakefield’s, a six-unit junior chain based in Anniston, Ala. "If I wasn’t clear about [whether the look was saturated] before, I’m clear now. I’m either going to wait for the price to break or I’m going to try some new things."

Among the fresher candidates: girlie blouses with masculine, lean cargo pants. Khaki-tinted denim is new this go-round, replacing the redder "dirty" washes of recent seasons. Lucky Brand emphasized destroyed finishes with nicks and rips, while Earl Jean experimented with "pinched" wear marks to create irregular creases — rather than fan-like whiskers.

Blouses either go vintage in bandanna or handkerchief prints, or romantic with ruffles, trailing chiffon and billowing sleeves.

Suede, primarily synthetic, got top billing in early spring collections in shirts, jackets or as a denim accent. To wit, Dollhouse’s suede butterfly-back jeans, which drew high praise from Gadzooks’ president and chief merchandising officer Paula Masters. "They put the right details into their denim and the customer appreciates it," she said.

Despite news of a third consecutive decline in consumer confidence and a bleak fourth-quarter outlook, buyers were optimistic. Most claimed business is up, some between 10 and 30 percent, this year over last."They’ll all say that," said Elizabeth Pierce, a retail analyst at Wedbush Morgan Securities, who walked the show. Still she admitted:"You’ve got to give [the customer] something new and she’ll be immune to price. The problem is the peasant-prairie look is a one-trick pony."

Some buyers said back-to-school sales have been "just OK" and pointed to a selling season that’s sliding later in the year. "The problem is if retailers get scared and break price, it’s a war nobody’s going to win," Pierce added.

If anything was clear, buyers are working harder for their dollars. "We’re focused on listening to the customer, speeding up deliveries and getting new resources," said Ira Russack, owner of Canal Jean Co., with two stores in New York. "We’ve revamped our entire floor to become lifestyle instead of brand-focused."

For some, having trends first — no matter how daring — is key. Juanita Sperry and Michelle Garcia, buyers for Bisou Bisou, fill in 30 percent of the manufacturer’s stores with "glamour, drama and sex." They picked up crocheted dresses meant to be worn over jeans.

While retailers were concerned with lean-and-mean inventories, eBay trumpeted an online solution at a seminar and kiosk. On Sept. 20, the San Jose, Calif.,-based online marketplace will unveil its "big lots" tool, which allows sellers to list items in quantity — 1,000 blouses at $10 for example — and sell it by the piece to individuals or in bulk to the trade.

EBay reps said they met with more than 1,500 manufacturers and small-to-medium retailers at the show. Sales rep Danielle Levy listed Sears and Macy’s West as eBay clients. "It’s just a matter of time before we get more large retailers online selling directly to consumers."

Marcy Messer, owner of misses’ boutique The Classy Peacock, in Bridge City, Tex., said she’d consider eBay as a way to dump leftover inventory, particularly from lines requiring minimum orders of 12 or more of one item. "We’re a small town. We’ve got one high school," she said. "I’m looking at eBay for the end of the season. Instead of marking it down 75 percent, if you can get more [online], you wouldn’t lose the profit."EBay wasn’t the only company looking to kindle new relationships. Guess Inc. returned to the Las Vegas Convention Center after a six-year hiatus so it could reconnect with specialty stores, said chief operating officer Carlos Alberini. The brand, focused on its own retail expansion in recent years, booked 170 appointments in hopes of wooing specialty stores back.

"We wanted to tell the world we believe in the wholesale business," Alberini said. "There’s a big universe of smaller accounts and that’s historically been a very good business for us."

At the bustling board sports section, Op introduced its new junior line, now licensed to The Ray’s Group. The Costa Mesa, Calif.,-based importer already produces Op’s girls and young men’s apparel. Now it has refocused juniors as "a true board sport brand," rather than a denim-based collection, said The Ray’s president Jim Stark. Significantly younger in this incarnation, the line features glittery T-shirts and Hibiscus-printed frocks.

Stark estimated the category will do roughly $10 million this year. "We’re going for a similar look to Roxy at a more moderate price."

Nearby, the street-savvy conclave known as The Edge drew 160 exhibitors who are reluctant to emulate any mainstream label. Goods there ranged from fetish suits to T-shirts bearing messages such as "Preppy Sucks" to velvet and studded pleather. Popular items ranged from sweet cherry-printed lingerie from Fluffer to recut LAPD parole officer shirts from Los Angeles-based Try Me. Apart from specialty-store buyers, a Wal-Mart contingent prowled the aisles looking for something with a mass hook.

Several buyers said they were lured by the prospect of bargains. "I’m looking for cool accessories at affordable prices because these designers aren’t as established," said Jillian Rydell of Pinnacle Beach Boutique in Malibu, Calif.

Swimwear increased its real estate this go-round. About 40 vendors, mostly Cal-based, turned out to gain brand visibility among domestic and international buyers.

"There’s no pure swim buyers here. We mostly see them at ASR and in Miami," said Howard Greller, managing director at Waterfront Design Group, which makes Rampage and Gloria Vanderbilt Swim. Yet, he noted that although he only does 2 to 4 percent of total business at WWDMAGIC, "it’s the visibility that has intangible value."Banded halters with low-rise bottoms in denim, suede, ethnic-embroidered solids, crochet and updated tropical prints garnered the most interest. Ellyce Zolt, a partner at Ronnie Nathan & Associates, a multiline showroom in the California Market Center, was pleased with buyer turnout.

"We’re seeing accounts from Florida and Alabama, people we don’t see at California shows," she said. "And they’re leaving paper."

With international traffic back to pre-Sept. 11 levels, vendors reported these retailers were hungrier than ever for U.S. designs. Sales rep Gregg Pellegrini, who took five booths at WWDMAGIC, said the farther the store traveled, the more they bought. "I had a store from Trinidad that bought almost every style," he said of chiffon dress line Dina Bar-el. He also collected orders from Japanese, Dominican and Mexican retailers.

Not only retailers, but some exhibitors flew halfway around the world to connect with the U.S. market. Chinese producers, braving the crowds with little English, hoped to sign private label deals. A contingent from Turkey also hoped to connect with midsized manufacturers looking for package programs, as well as lobby sympathetic ears about decreasing controls on Turkish fabric imports.

Korean-American producers, massed near the back of the junior category, complained about rubbing elbows with the same price-conscious competitors from Los Angeles.

"We’ve been asking to be put in another area, but our [show] reps tell us it’s organized by price range," said Suzanne Chung, designer of Pamplona 8 pm. One upside, Chung pointed out, is the grouped resources attracted specialty chains like Wet Seal, Contempo Casual and Charlotte Russe.

Intrigued by the growing Hispanic market in the U.S., about 100 retailers crowded into a seminar to hear Christy Haubegger, founder of Latina magazine, talk about a population that’s now larger than Canada’s entire citizenry.

She singled out Bebe, Macy’s West and Sears as businesses that have made great strides with this market.

In fact, during his Wednesday presentation during the Goldman Sachs retailing conference at the Plaza Hotel in New York, Sears chairman, president and chief executive Alan Lacy noted, "We have a very strong position with Hispanic customers." Sears has identified over 200 stores that serve Hispanic markets and already has bilingual signage and sales associates. He added that the retailer is working toward bilingual signage in all its stores."Just making dressing rooms bigger to accommodate strollers and children can make a difference," Haubegger said, noting the group is family oriented. In a question-and-answer session afterward, retailers voiced concerns on how to advertise to Latino youth.

"Hispanics are much more likely to use brands as badges," Haubegger said. "You don’t have to put fruit on someone’s head, use donkeys or sombreros to reach us. Cue us with fun Spanglish or music."

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