By and  on February 19, 2009

Given the dismal state of retailing, contemporary designers worldwide are adopting new game plans, from launching secondary lines to expanding into new geographical markets.

“Consumers across the board are looking at cutting back and when it comes to apparel and dining out, those are a big part of those cutbacks,” said Pam Goodfellow, senior analyst at the Columbus, Ohio-based BIGresearch. “In order to get people into the stores, it’s going to take new ideas and great prices. If consumers are going to feel like they are buying a designer item at a good price, if they feel like they are getting a deal, this is good for anyone and everyone.”

With that said, Abbey Samet, a contemporary and young designer consultant, said designers should be careful about focusing on lowering prices and pay close attention to offering value.

“It does seem like stores are rushing to lower their prices, but I am a firm believer that a lot of customers who used to shop on the designer floors are looking to contemporary now for those edgier brands like Rag & Bone or Elizabeth and James,” Samet said. “Those are higher-priced lines on the contemporary floor, but customers still seek them out in this economy.”

She also said retailers like J. Crew are already catering to the contemporary customer so designers in the category should be focusing on what makes their lines stand out from the rest.

“It’s true that customers are looking more closely at price, but they are also looking to spend their money on a well-made garment that makes them feel special when they wear it,” she said. “Also, designers need to realize, once you lower those prices, you can’t really go back up — at least not successfully.”

For Tony Cohen, launching a secondary line called 2LOVE Tony Cohen for fall seemed like a natural thing to do as his main collection leaned toward more evening appropriate attire. The fact that it turned out to be a lower price range than his main line was a big bonus. The new line wholesales from $93 to $135, where the main collection offers items wholesaling between $200 and $450.

“The main line has evolved into more eveningwear and less of the daywear that stores were asking us to do,” Cohen said. “With the economy in the state it is in, it seemed like perfect timing to launch a collection that people can get more wear out of.”

But, he said, launching a lower-priced collection wasn’t the easiest task when he wasn’t willing to give up the quality fabrics and intricate details he has been using in the main line for the last 12 years.

“We have been cutting very economically, which has helped,” he said. “And I was also careful with my fabric choices. By using viscose twill mixed with silk, for example, it’s half the price of using pure silk alone. The main thing for us has been to not lose those special features.”

The result is a collection of cotton T-shirts trimmed with silk details and cotton silk printed day dresses with pleating and tucking details for which Cohen has become popular. There are cropped leather jackets to be paired with cotton jersey skirts and knit tops. “I see this line as picture perfect for the American market right now,” said the Dutch designer. “With everything changing right now at retail, this line opens up so many more opportunities for us — 2LOVE can sit on a contemporary floor while the main line could easily sit in a designer store. Consumers are not spending $2,000 for a dress anymore. A dress at that price will never fly out of a store, I don’t care what market it is.”

Julie Haus said she knows exactly what Cohen is aiming for. The contemporary designer decided to forgo a runway show during New York Fashion Week this season in order to put the funds toward launching a lower-priced line she calls J/J by Julie Haus.

“Customers of the Julie Haus line have been asking us for special basics,” Haus said. “They want to see their favorite silk dress made in a cozy, easier to wear fabric, so that’s what we did.”

Her new line, launching for fall, includes an array of “special, but affordable basics,” such as with the double-faced rayon jersey dresses with zipper accents and laser-cut hems, feather-weight rayon dresses, silk cotton one-shoulder tops to be paired with a ruffled nylon and polyester skirt or a stretch corduroy legging. Haus said she wasn’t looking to sacrifice quality, but was careful to offer a lot of value in each piece. The line wholesales between $22 and $82, compared with $80 to $400 in the main collection.

“The whole idea is to be able to offer a dress that retails under $200, something that the customer doesn’t have to think twice about buying,” she said.

Sourcing and manufacturing are done in Asia, making it easier for the brand to offer the lower price point.

“It just seemed wiser for us to invest the money into the launch of a line like this,” said Jason Alkire, Haus’ husband and president of the Julie Haus brand. “We will do shows again in the future, but it just didn’t seem right to do one this time around.”

As for contemporary designer Caroline Hedaya, who has been selling her line to stores like Henri Bendel and for the past five years, she chose to launch a capsule collection for fall based not around lowering price points, but rather offering something a little dressier for special occasions.

“Even though the economy is bad, people are still buying for occasions,” Hedaya said. “There are engagement parties, weddings, bar mitzvahs — girls still need things to wear to these events.”

To serve those customers, Hedaya will launch a capsule collection of five dresses at a still approachable price point — there’s a baby pink silk organza and taffeta dress; black-and-white silk wool, velvet and tulle gown; silk flower-printed peplum dress and the “perfect little black dress” made of cotton satin and organza. The collection wholesales from $245 to $400.

Meantime, French contemporary brands are seeking to reduce their dependency on Europe and are expanding into new markets. Some contemporary brands are following luxury’s trail to China, using Hong Kong as their launchpad. Others still see the U.S. market as an opportunity to expand their businesses. For example, Comptoir des Cotonniers opened a New York flagship in the fall, and Zadig & Voltaire plans to open a Manhattan boutique next month.

“From the mass-market to the top designers, everybody’s moving,” said Marianne Romestain, chief operating officer of Comptoir des Cotonniers. “The designers have traded down with their diffusion lines like Athé by Vanessa Bruno and Etoile by Isabelle Marant. On the other hand, entry-price level retailers like H&M has started up COS, Gap is upgrading, and Kookai is trading up. We need to look at everybody.”

While French contemporary labels first expanded to countries bordering France, a new generation of contemporary chains are choosing to bypass Europe and try their luck in newer markets. Fashion Bel Air, Madame à Paris and Manoush are all opening stores in the Middle East or Asia before tackling Europe.

“Our franchisees can open stores very quickly in these very dynamic markets,” said Julien Kouhana, chief executive officer of vintage-inspired label Manoush, which sells jersey shirts at 95 euros, or $150, and fur coats for 690 euros, or $1,090. After opening three boutiques in Korea last year, the label opened its first stores in Romania and in Kuwait this year, while openings in Dubai, Qatar, China and Japan are in discussion.

Zadig & Voltaire’s chief executive officer, Thierry Gillier, which put its U.S. plans on hold after opening its Los Angeles store in 2005 due to the dollar’s decline and soaring rents, said that the upside of the retail market’s downturn is that spaces have become available. The brand will hit the U.S. again when it opens its first New York boutique in October in the Meatpacking District. Gillier said he’s confident there’s room for Zadig in such a mature retail environment.

“The American market needs novelty,” he declared. “All the malls follow the same format. American consumers are a bit jaded.”

The contemporary market offers potential, agreed Ludivine Gregoire, owner of Ludivine, a New York boutique specializing in contemporary names.

“Between Hermès and the Gap, there’s Calypso and Intermix,” she said. “When you go to the Hamptons, you don’t want to have the same dress as everybody else. You want Vanessa Bruno or Les Prairies de Paris.”

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