WWDMAGIC Emphasizes Value and Caution

Buyers reluctant to take chances for spring.

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LAS VEGAS — Retailers were on the hunt for bargains at WWDMAGIC, which kicked off here Monday, and vendors tweaked their assortments to convince the cost-conscious group they are doing more for less.

This story first appeared in the August 26, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“We have found some great deals,” said Deborah Meltzer, a buyer who handles misses’, plus-size and junior apparel at Gabriel Brothers, the privately held Morgantown, W. Va.-based chain of roughly 115 off-price Rugged Wearhouse and discount Gabriel Brothers stores. “The regular-price merchandisers are selling what they have at great prices.”

Buyers for boutiques across the nation said they were relying on proven merchandise and avoiding prices that would prompt sticker shock. Most were either filling in holes in their fall and holiday lineups or scouting while holding off orders for spring wardrobes.

“We are being a little more moderate pricewise,” said Cathy Lagorio, co-owner of women’s boutique Wish List: A Fashion Lounge in Stockton, Calif. “Anything that is over $200 is very difficult [to sell].”

Ahmed Abraibes, owner of Clogs-N-More in Portland, Ore., who was searching for shoes and mother-of-the-bride dresses, concurred that price was crucial. “I need to keep value in mind for our customer; it’s what people are looking for right now when they do actually come to shop,” he said.

Kathy Kulesh, a buyer for boutiques at the DC Ranch Health Club & Spa in Phoenix and Scottsdale, Ariz., characterized herself as uncertain about her buy. “We are all kind of seeing where the market is going. I am definitely not taking many risks,” she said.

Several exhibitors in the young contemporary and contemporary sectors benefited from retailers’ interest in combining the latest trends with moderate prices. Max & Cleo, the dress brand owned by Vernon, Calif.-based BCBG Max Azria Group, said business grew 30 percent from last year. Among the styles Max & Cleo presented at WWDMAGIC were a $63 sleeveless plaid wrap dress and a $55 purple strapless frock tied on the side with a bow.

Rousso Apparel Group, the New York-based sportswear firm that holds the license for Oleg Cassini and markets the junior coat line Coffeeshop, introduced contemporary coat label Latte by Coffeeshop. Wholesaling primarily from $50 to $80, Latte by Coffeeshop courts 21- to 50-year-olds who have sophisticated fashion tastes but limited budgets. “The girl still wants to look good, but doesn’t want to spend $400 for a top-brand coat,” said Mary Shawn DeGaetano, an account representative for Latte by Coffeeshop, which will soon hit shelves at Macy’s and Nordstrom.

Paul Astuto, a national sales manager at tops resource Tresics, which is owned by Los Angeles-based Damo, said Tresics’ business has held up due to its ability to provide T-shirts wholesaling from $2 to $8 with quick turnarounds. He estimated the vertically integrated company has a “500,000 unit flow at any given time” to fulfill the immediate needs of junior and specialty stores, under pressure by the demands of fast fashion to give customers trendy items at dirt-cheap prices. “We can feed the fire,” Astuto said.

Zova L.A., an eco-friendly label based in Newport Beach, Calif., went as far as giving buyers a 10 percent discount on all orders placed at WWDMAGIC. Zova L.A. president Deanna Hodges said the promotion, which was introduced at the expo’s last run in February, encourages buyers to buy more at the trade show. Indeed, she recalled that orders jumped 30 percent at the February 2008 show from the August 2007 event. “You have to give [buyers] something to incentivize them to choose you,” she said.

With retailers reluctant to experiment in this risk-averse marketplace, Desiree Langager, a sales representative for Montebello, Calif.-based junior denim brand Celebrity Pink, said they will aggressively stock up on any goods that have been moving. She pointed out, for instance, that junior retailers have stuck to skinny jeans even though wide-leg varieties have percolated through the contemporary segment. “It is going to take her [the junior customer] a while to catch on to that,” she said.

Perhaps the most popular silhouette in dresses was the floor-grazing maxi. South Korea’s Jessi, which is launching in the U.S. for next spring, presented an $88 printed silk number with a tiered skirt, and Los Angeles’ Nina Austin highlighted a $169 electric blue evening gown dazzling in huge rhinestones.

Across several categories, versatility emerged as a major trend. Twofers — or pieces that appeared as if two different items were combined into one — were highlights of the dress category. In addition to maximizing the fashion by integrating two seemingly disparate trends, the twofers also helped emphasize the message of value. Case in point: In a vintage-meets-nautical frock wholesaling for $35, BB Dakota merged a royal blue high-waisted skirt accentuated with gold buttons and an orange top spiced up with white ruffles.

In juniors, tunic-length shirts were prevalent at vendors, including Easel, Tresics and Kanvas. “You can wear it as a dress and also with leggings. It is more efficient,” said Jenny Oh, a sales representative for Los Angeles-based Easel.

Prints remained a staple, as seen in oversize florals in Irvine, Calif.-based P.J. Salvage’s beach line and plump sparrows at Australia’s Mink Pink. What’s more, a bright palette — deep purple, salmon pink, canary yellow and kelly green offset by black and white — reigned in contemporary apparel and junior denim.

Even the plus-size category received a jolt of color. Anathea France, which is owned by France’s Didier Parakian, made its debut at WWDMAGIC’s contemporary section with 80 styles for spring, in a black-and-white palette popping with hits of lime green and orange.

Although the overall mood was dour at the fair, there were a few bright spots such as international retail, which has benefited from a favorable exchange rate with the U.S. dollar, and television retailing. “This year, I have an increase in business and I don’t think lots of people can say that in retail [stores],” said Pamela S. McCoy, an on-air host and designer for TV shopping network ShopNBC, who came to WWDMAGIC to check out trends.

Moreover, Tadashi Kingusa, a Japanese retail buyer, said, “I have noticed a lot more Japanese people here today at least. The timing is good because prices are good for us.”

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