By  on April 29, 2009

Amid the recession, more buyers turned out for Chicago’s March Stylemax trade show than last year, market organizers said.

“Attendance is trending up, which is amazing,” said Susan McCullough, senior vice president of apparel for Merchandise Mart Properties Inc., who did not release specific figures for the four-day market that ended March 31 and featured fall fashions. “Who knew? I’d like to think we’re doing something right, but I don’t know why. It may be kismet.”

But, McCullough noted, “If you’re a retailer in the Midwest, fall is really important. It’s for all the marbles.”
That, in turn, translated to more optimism and excitement on the seventh floor of the Merchandise Mart. “It is way more positive than I expected,” McCullough said.

The fact that Stylemax coincided with the National Bridal Market Chicago, which took place on the Mart’s eighth floor, added to the energy in the building, with some bridal buyers shopping Stylemax for lingerie, special occasion wear and accessories.

“There’s some crossover, not a tremendous amount,” McCullough said about holding the two trade shows at roughly the same time. “There is no reason not to do it.”

Many retailers, however, altered their buying to match the economic trends, with some ordering more accessories and less apparel.

Karen Lang, owner, and Tricia Durkin, buyer, for Trousseaux in Hinsdale, Ill., shopped for cleaner lightweight leather handbags from Viva, wallets and handbags from Lotus as well as jewelry with a spiritual or personal meaning, such as charm bracelets from Cousin Claudine, and dressier T-shirts from LinQ.

Accessories, the pair said, continue to be a strong category at the 1,000-square-foot lifestyle specialty store, which stocks home furnishings, gifts and apparel. That’s because jewelry, in particular, continues to be an easy sell for women shopping for gifts or a pick-me-up purchase for themselves, Durkin said.

To counter the economic forces, Trousseaux may buy items such as T-shirts and modify them with monograms or embroidery to differentiate the product. Lang also has tightened staffing, spent more time on the phone with her accountant and kept a careful eye on margins. “Every month needs to be a profitable month,” she said.

At About Face, a salon and boutique in Mequon, Wis., just north of Milwaukee, owner and stylist Kelline VerBeke said she has reduced the amount of apparel she buys, noting that shoppers are looking for more inexpensive guilt-free purchases.


“It’s got to be something that cheers them up,” she said, explaining that while the more affluent area has not been as hard-hit as others, more women are reporting their husbands have recently lost their jobs.

In turn, VerBeke shopped Stylemax for easy impulse buys suitable for a variety of ages and body types, including wraps, scarves, jewelry from Alexia Crawford, cheaper handbags and hair accessories for prom and weddings from Pin & Tube. Although the salon and boutique has sold higher-priced $350 handbags from Hobo, those are taking longer to sell than less expensive goods.

“Everyone likes to feel like they’re getting a deal,” she said, “and at lower prices, people don’t have to think about it as much.”

In Milwaukee proper, owner Jenna Shultz opened her women’s and men’s boutique called Flaire in October as the stock market began to plunge. At first, she played her buy safe, ordering more conservative styles, but then realized her shoppers responded to more fashion-forward pieces. 

As a result, Shultz placed orders at Stylemax with 2b. Rych, a new line at the market, for pine green blouses with rose details and front pockets, silk cropped jackets with beading details and ruffled leather jackets.

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