By  on February 6, 2007

PARIS — European sportswear is having a luxury makeover.

To better face fierce competition from fast-fashion chains and an increasingly brand-conscious clientele, contemporary brands at the recent round of apparel trade shows here were upping the luxury quotient, adding more runway-inspired styles and upscale detailing to traditional sportswear.

The Prêt à Porter and Who's Next events at the Porte de Versailles exhibit halls, which wrapped up a four-day run on Sunday, featured a plethora of trendy sportswear and contemporary brands eager to smooth out boundaries between designer labels and sportswear brands. Ultrafeminine silhouettes and styles, especially dresses, dominated the fashion message.

"Brands are offering a new ‘high street deluxe' category with trendy yet affordable styles that provide a bit of the luxury dream and offer an alternative to shopping at Zara and H&M," said Cedric Charbit, general merchandise manager of women's fashion at Printemps. "Streetwear and denim are becoming more feminine. Denim is sliding into the contemporary category and is targeting a more feminine clientele."

Charbit said Who's Next was packed with creative fashion brands with similar product offerings, citing Paul & Joe Sister's as an attractive collection with commercial potential.

"There is a general evolution of streetwear, which is clearly heading toward design and creation," said Luc Bierme, buyer at Citadium, a Paris sportswear retailer owned by retail and luxury giant PPR.

Bierme said retro touches from the Sixties, such as short dresses and cropped jackets, as well as rock 'n' roll influences from the Eighties, like ultraslim jeans and British pop influences, would continue into the fall.

Retailers said they were placing orders, but with a cautious stance, reserving budgets for replenishments and late orders. The majority said their budgets for fall-winter 2007-08 would remain on par with last year's.

"The market is totally changing," said Sally Hilkene, of Churchill, a high-end women's ready-to-wear store in Kansas City, Mo. "Customers are always on the lookout for new brands. We are continuously adding new names."

Hilkene, who plans to increase her budget slightly, said Amsterdam-based Nodresscode offered creative inspirations such as high-waist, wide-leg pants with metallic detailing. She added Sylvie Shimmel to her list of favorites and said that Natacha & Vanessa's dresses were reminiscent of Jane Fonda's look in "Barbarella." Overall, Hilkene said collections had more shine and shimmer than in past seasons.At Who's Next, denim brands were taking a sophisticated approach to jeans. Budding Paris denim label Renhsen boasted a collection of raw denim styles for women made from Japanese selvage denim.

"Customers want clean, unwashed looks and straight cuts," said Mikaël Mouangué, the brand's designer.

Subdued palettes, especially gray and black, set a somewhat somber tone. However, punctuations of blues and violets, as well as delicate trimmings such as leather detailing and fabric-covered buttons, added some sophistication to collections and allowed for more individuality.

High-end knitwear was a key direction. This included Copenhagen-based Munthe Plus Simonsen, which for its Paris debut presented a style-conscious contemporary rtw collection.

"There is a demand for beautiful Scandinavian style and especially knitwear," said Anoushka Gresvig Mac-Crohon, co-owner of Paris-based D Collection Showroom, an agent for the brand in France. "It's sexy, but in a less obvious way."

Refined details such as leather buttons on a slate blue knit jacket for 145 euros, or about $187 at current exchange, at wholesale was a hit among retailers at the show.

The Prêt, which continued to have a section dedicated to so-called ethical fashion as well as a special exhibit on Dutch fashion culture, also offered an array of lavish knits.

"People want luxurious, chunky knitwear and knit jackets with big buttons," said Edinburgh knitwear designer Cameron Taylor, who presented her eponymous brand at the Prêt.

The collection of cashmere and wool styles made from 100 percent Scottish yarn wholesales for 98 euros, or $127, to 295 euros, or $381.

For David Jarmon, president and husband of designer Tara Jarmon, the Prêt is essential for the brand's overall business.

"Our sales are up 30 percent each season," Jarmon said. "The show is a necessary for customers to first view the collection and then continue to purchase throughout the year."

Organizers at both the Prêt and Who's Next said that supporting young designers was a key element in attracting retailers on the hunt for unknown names to round out their collections.

At Who's Next, Marine Miel showed off Suzon et Lena, a colorful line of whimsical knitwear styles, while Margot Milin's namesake collection offered daywear with simple lines and retro influences.Buyers from France, Italy and the U.K. were in full force at the show, and there was strong attendance from Japan and China.

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