By  on February 9, 1994

SAN FRANCISCO -- Retailers scouted the summer market at the Fashion Center here last week looking for good deals -- affordable merchandise to help them weather this area's rocky economy.

Many favored natural fiber fabrics in items wholesaling at under $50. Although the center's fashion shows featured baby-dolls and short slips, most buyers said they were sticking with longer dresses.

The four-day summer market ended Feb. 1, with attendance up about 2 percent over a year ago, according to center management.

Among those reflecting the West Coast's economic problems -- which seem to affect a wide variety of pastimes -- was Sandy Andersen, owner of Kokopilau, a women's boutique in Eureka, Calif.

"We are in a depressed area dependent on fishing and logging, two industries that are going downhill," she said. "Our customers are more discriminating and they want more timeless things. We are being pickier, too."

Andersen said she was looking for long floral-print rayon dresses and vegetable-dyed cotton knit sets. With a flat budget, she shopped for merchandise at $20 to $50 wholesale and ended up ordering from her regular resources -- Ruff Hewn, Olive and Putumayo.

Another set of economic problems was noted by Joanell Hall, owner of Lorene Scala, a misses' boutique in Santa Barbara, Calif.

"Business is tough," she said. "Most everyone in our area is in the aerospace research industry. They are being laid off. Those who have money are hanging on to it. They are uncertain about the costs of mandatory health care and new taxes."

Hall said she was looking for inexpensive items to mix with more upscale sportswear. She shopped price points of $13 to $100 wholesale.

"Dresses are moving slowly right now," she said. "I'm doing best with small sportswear groups -- cotton shorts and sweaters; palazzo pants and vests in cotton gauze, silk and rayon."

Pat Goehring, owner of P.G.'s Boutique in Sonora, Calif., also searched for clothes in washable natural fabrics, especially rayon. Her shopping list included long romantic dresses, jumpers, vests, wide-leg pants and long straight skirts at $30 to $50 wholesale. She favored shades of sage and soft plum and ordered goods from Putumayo and Cut Loose.Linda Gonsalves, owner of Linda Rene's Boutique in Newman, Calif., set her price ceiling at $100 wholesale. In business only since last July, she reported a slow December. The retailer ordered gauzy dresses to layer by Papillon, cotton knit shorts by Action Gear and palazzo pants. She also favored Joseph Ribkoff, a novelty sportswear and dress resource with low minimum requirements.

Gonsalves added, however, that she was disappointed by current trends. "Tent dresses are fine if you have a good figure, but they are fattening on older ladies," she said.

Lorraine Howerton, buyer for Seasonality, a women's boutique offering a color consulting service in Benicia, Calif., said vests, crocheted items and long dresses continue to perform for her.

"Naturals are hot right now," she said. "People with summer and autumn coloring can wear them, especially if they pair them with a colorful blouse or scarf. Naturals are selling better than white."

On the subject of short dresses, she said, "They are darling, but they don't hide figure flaws."

The buyer reported a flat to slightly lowered open-to-buy.

Brighter notes were sounded by some buyers with out-of-state businesses. Beth Munkres, owner of The Main Page, a boutique in Grand Junction, Colo., noted she had doubled her budget for April-through-June deliveries and shopped for goods at $55 to $200 wholesale.

"Business is very good," she said, noting she was one of the few high-end boutiques in her area. "A lot of Californians are moving into town. In September, I tripled the size of my store to 6,000 square feet."

Exploring the Fashion Center for the first time, Munkres favored silk, cotton and rayon neutral-colored sportswear by Karen Kane and batik prints in neutrals, blues and greens by Red's Threads. She also discovered several new accessories lines, including the silver, copper and brass jewelry by Whitney.

Lisa Barbash, buyer for two boutiques, Fine N Funky in Tahoe City, Calif., and Concepts in Reno, Nev., said her budget was up too, by as much as 20 percent in certain categories such as casual dresses and pants. Shopping price points of $20 to $150 wholesale, she looked for vests, drawstring pants, knit tops and apron dresses in neutrals and shades of blue and green. Barbash also ordered some tie-dyed shrunken T-shirts and Leon Ma's natural-colored sportswear.

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