Do women want pieces or outfits? The debate continues for vendors in thegallery.

In addition to marketing diverse collections, the 10 or so vendors in “thegallery,” a pavilion situated in the sportswear and dress category at WWDMAGIC, each have their own business flair. Some are offering consumers full collections while others are slanted toward items. However, each vendor is retaining a laser focus on the styling of its goods and, for the many who have moved manufacturing overseas, on managing faraway production.

COLLECTIONS VS. ITEMS

Just as the fashion pendulum swings from more casual to dressy and back again, so do consumers’ appetites for entire looks versus that perfect item to spice up their wardrobe.

But vendors looking to stay ahead of the curve see the consumer headed in different directions on this. Or perhaps it’s that consumers are looking to different lines for different things.

“I’m seeing a return to outfits — people wanting to buy three, four, five pieces that intermix,” said vendor and retailer Judy Phillips. “You can item them to death.”

Phillips operates 10 J. Phillips better specialty stores and is co-owner of Spanner USA, which distributes the Canadian-designed sportswear line of the same name in the United States.

“I have a pretty affluent customer base that’s pretty savvy and pretty trendy,” she added.

There are some who feel differently, though.

“The market’s very item-driven and that’s where we’re going,” said Laurie Ratner, national sales manager for the Alberto Makali tops division. “It’s not about suits anymore. It’s not about collections. It’s really more item-y.

“I hear from my retailers that customers come in and they’re just browsing and they’re not looking for anything specific,” she said, noting the customer ends up picking up one item. “I don’t think they’re shopping for collections anymore. They’re just updating their wardrobe.”

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORLD

On the glitzy front end of the business, hot trends strut down a runway that stretches from Milan and Paris to New York and Los Angeles, but the back end of the business, production and sourcing, has also become a global enterprise, with much of the action happening in Asia, half a world away from the showrooms.With lower labor costs, huge capacity and improving quality in the Far East, most firms have moved at least some production to the continent and have had to figure out how to make the long-distance relationship work.

Ted Dziena, vice president of U.S. sales for contemporary firm Conrad C, said the firm does about 60 percent of its production in Asia, a percentage that has increased lately.

“We’re implementing better systems within the company to have better quality control as well as more hands-on people to watch our business overseas,” he said. “You have to have that or else you’re really putting your life in someone else’s hands. When you’re here and everything’s being done over there, you have to have eyes and ears over there.”

INCREASED EXPOSURE

Citrine, a Montreal-based marketer of dresses and related separates, wants to get its name into the minds of consumers — and generate a 20 percent sales increase.

“Citrine’s media budget for 2005 is $1 million,” said Mitchell Hops, chief executive officer of J.S. Group, which owns the name. “We will be placing ads on taxicab tops and bus shelters and in national and international magazines. The Citrine brand is in constant growth.”

In addition to the consumer marketing effort, the company is also solidifying the brand image it presents to buyers, relocating to a new showroom in New York.

“Citrine has moved to the new showroom to create a home that is more reflective of the attitude of the collection, which is to dress the modern, fashion-forward woman,” he said. “The showroom’s clean lines and modern looks reinforce this feeling, along with giving additional space to house the growing collection.”

The showroom is also designed to make buyers’ lives easier, with space to relax, check e-mails and make phone calls.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Sales and marketing and sourcing are all vital elements for any manufacturer, but the bottom line for fashion vendors really is the appeal of their product.

“Our business this past spring has been the best it’s been in probably the last eight years,” said Matt Sirota, division president at better dress firm Maggy London.Sirota owed much of that success to the product. “We’ve been very on-trend this season with our colors and our classifications,” he said, adding that feminine suiting was a particular success.

No matter how great a look, though, one hit does not a fashion empire make, so the secret is not just being on-trend, but also being diversified.

Sirota described the dress firm as two-dimensional, going after an updated, classic customer with Maggy London, which has an average wholesale price of $64, and a more modern clientele with London Times, which wholesales for $29 to $44.

Retailers have also become more demanding, while retaining a willingness to spend more for a product if it helps set them apart and satisfies their shoppers.

Donna Morgan, fashion director of her signature dress line, said department stores have become more particular as of late. “They’re really looking to update and to offer the customer a little bit more interesting variety,” she said. “There seems to be a little less emphasis on price and a little more on quality and having the right trends.”

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