By and  on August 22, 2012

LAS VEGAS — The ongoing blossoming of color was the dominant trend story at the trade shows here this week, set against a darker backdrop of continued concerns about the retail climate and overall global economy. Independent specialty stores face stiff challenges as consumers remain cautious about spending and larger retailers drive sales via price promotion.

Vendors and buyers alike repeated the drumbeat mantra that compelling product, as ever, remains the key to capturing shopper interest and dollars. For spring, that meant chinos in eye-catching hues; a return to authentic destruction detail in denim; innovative technical construction like heat-sealed seams in outerwear; unexpected button treatments and prints on tailored sportcoats, and a steadfast march toward slimmer, more flattering silhouettes in all categories.

“Retail is difficult but it’s all about product. You have to be trend-right, color-right, with a great hand feel. It’s like trying to hit a grand slam in baseball,” said Jeff Rudes, chief executive officer of J Brand. “We talk to retailers all the time and they say traffic in stores has been off. But I think the season hasn’t opened up yet and people will be in stores after Labor Day and there should be a very healthy fall business.”

J Brand delivers on an early calendar to have its merchandise in stores before competitors, shipping fall product in July. “First in, first out, is what I always say,” said Rudes of the strategy. “We want our seasonal goods on the floor when there isn’t a lot of newness and we stand out.”

Several of the big denim brands were reporting banner years on the strength of capturing market share from weaker competitors by growing sales within existing accounts and adding new categories to their assortments. Hudson Jeans will improve sales by 25 to 30 percent in 2012, said ceo Peter Kim at the ENK Vegas show. Across town at Project, AG Adriano Goldschmied is set to increase sales by almost 50 percent this year, according to Sam Ku, vice president and creative director of the brand.

“Nordstrom has been killer for us. We’re growing by adding new categories like chinos and dressier fabrics in five-pocket fits,” said Ku. However, in a nod to the shifting tectonics of global denim production, Ku noted that high-end Japanese and Italian mills have been shuttering in the face of competition from China, Southeast Asia, Pakistan and Turkey. “Japan and Italy have the best fabric and development and it’s not the same as China,” he observed ruefully.

Hudson Jeans, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, is focused on expanding via its existing accounts, said Kim. “Our second quarter was a little slow but the third quarter is shaping up nicely and we’ll have a strong year,” he said. “Our men’s business is on fire and will be up 50 percent this year. We’re concentrating on getting better sell-throughs at all our accounts, through marketing, special events with individual stores and sales contests for the salespeople who sell our product.”

Issues of concern to Kim include the stagnant economy in Europe and a rash of independent specialty store closures in the U.S. In Europe, Hudson’s distribution partners are reporting slower payments from their retail accounts, which in turn is pressuring their own cash flows and payments to Hudson. Stateside, Kim said about 120 specialty stores, mostly in women’s, have shuttered their doors in the past 18 months — meaning Hudsons’ specialty store base has shrunk about 20 percent. However, Hudson sales have increased 10 percent to the channel as stronger stores have taken share and boosted their buys.

“It’s robust for the people who are doing the right things and it’s tragic for the people who aren’t,” said Mark Werts, owner of American Rag, of the current retail landscape. “There’s no room for error and you have to earn your stripes every day.”

To that end, laser-printed houndstooth patterns on jeans for guys were a fashion novelty at Seven For All Mankind, while new skinny fits and colored denim were expected to be core sellers. “In this kind of economy you have to excite the consumer. The color phenomenon from this past spring is going full throttle into fall and next spring. Not every guy has his red jeans yet,” said Barry Miguel, president of the brand, a division of VF Corp. The company plans to open three more North American retail stores this year and nine more in 2013, adding to its current base of 44 stores on the continent.

Lacoste is set to post a total sales increase of about 12 to 15 percent this year in the U.S., said Steve Birkhold, ceo of Devanlay US Inc., which holds the apparel and accessories license for the brand. The company showcased its youthful Lacoste Live label at Project, which is set to expand to 22 shops-in-shops in Macy’s doors this fall, while launching into women’s wholesale in the spring under the Lacoste Live Femme name.

“Fashion basics are working for us. True fashion product is not doing as strongly, so we’re learning that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” observed Birkhold. “People are really looking for their favorite Lacoste product in new colors and slimmer fits, which are doing incredible for us.” Among the updates to the classic Lacoste polo are women’s styles that feature its iconic crocodile logo winking its eye.

David Katz, senior vice president and chief marketing officer at Randa Accessories, which showed at MAGIC, dubbed the overall mood in the market as guardedly upbeat. “It varies by channel and distribution, but if you look closely at consumer spending trends, unemployment is strangling discretionary spending, particularly at the mass and midtier stores,” he cautioned. As a result, promotions continue to be rampant as consumers hold back on buying while waiting for the best price.

Heath Golden, ceo of the Hampshire Group, whose Scott James line was showing at Project, sounded another judicious note. “I think a lot of people are overly exuberant,” he warned. “I believe business will continue to be promotional in a lot of channels and we need to offer great value to get customers to buy.”

For him, that translates into offering a blend of performance and fashion at a compelling price point. “The term price-value is overused in our industry. It’s more about execution than anything else. I feel positive about the future, but I just wonder what the sell-throughs are going to be. We need emotional factors to get people to spend,” said Golden.

For many brands, color is a central part of that motivational merchandising strategy for spring, most noticeably in bottoms, as men become increasingly comfortable with the trend. At Haggar, colored bottoms have expanded to between 10 and 18 percent of sales for spring, up from 1 to 2 percent a couple of years ago.

“The color explosion is so key,” said Tim Lyon, president of the Haggar Clothing Co., which showed at MAGIC. “Men’s wear has been crying for it. Retailers are more open to it and most men are willing to try it.”

Lyon pointed to the upcoming presidential election as a wild-card factor. “In an election cycle, there are always concerns about the third quarter. With both parties, all you hear is that if you vote for the other guy, the world is going to end, so that’s bound to have an impact,” he said.

Ronny Wurtzburger, president of Peerless Clothing, which showed the Tallia brand at Project and the Peerless licensed brands at MRket, said color and updated fits will drive spring sales. “Retailers are all buying fashion,” he said. “And color, color, color.”

Wurtzburger noted that most stores already execute in-stock programs for blue, black and gray suits and sport coats. Now, they are aiming to build by adding fashion pieces that provide a jolt of interest on the selling floor. Fashion linings, fancy buttons, a mixing of patterns and slimmed-down silhouettes, as found in Tallia, provides that new element, said Wurtzburger.

Terry Pillow, ceo of the Tommy Bahama Group, which showed at MRket, said it was the busiest show in the brand’s history. Hicks Lanier, ceo of the brand’s parent company, Oxford Industries Inc., added, “On a macro basis, there’s nothing but bad news, but fortunately for us, we’re doing quite well.” However, Oxford’s Ben Sherman brand has been negatively impacted by the economic issues roiling Europe, he noted.

Don Kerkes, president of Tommy Bahama men’s wear, said retailers are responding to the company’s modern Island fit in shirts, a category that has been expanded for spring. “It’s slimmer than what we’ve been doing for 20 years, but it’s not too slim. We’re not walking away from our core customer, but we’re broadening our demographic,” he noted.

In dress shirts, Dan Saidel, executive vice president of the dress shirt division of PVH Corp., said the company’s retail partners are feeling positive about current business. By offering splashes of color and updated patterns, he expects the outlook to continue into spring. Smaller check patterns, shorter collars and narrow cuffs on dress shirts are among the newer design trends driving spring business for the shirt giant.

At the Capsule show, designer Ian Velardi pointed to sensible pricing as a crucial aspect of establishing a new business. “I think there’s always an opportunity when you’re making quality product and you’re strategic about pricing,” he said of his line, which encompasses sport coats for $795, outerwear for $495 and pants for $245. “I want to grow a business, not just make nice samples.”

Velardi’s collection of smartly crafted men’s staples with a measured dose of fashion sophistication has been picked up in its second year by Saks Fifth Avenue, Scoop, Park & Bond and Liftluxe.com, following a first-year exclusive at Barneys New York.

Also new to the men’s market at Capsule was a new line called Craft Mrkt from sourcing giant LF USA. Designed by Anthony Caputo — who is also the design director for LF USA’s private-label collection, 611, at Saks Fifth Avenue and Sons of Intrigue line at Macy’s — Craft Mrkt includes a lineup of vivid novelty pants from India in hibiscus, paisley and camo motifs, as well as printed silk shirts from China and boldly patterned blazers from Turkey.

At the PGA Expo, Desane Blaney, executive director of the Association of Golf Merchandisers, said business at most public and private resorts this year has improved, due primarily to great weather. “Sales stopped in August because it was too hot,” she said. “But before that, it was off the charts.”

Fashion trends include a continued strong presence of tech fabrics, but cotton is coming back, as the heritage trend seeps even into the golf market, added Blaney. Color is also finding its fans, as everything from pink and orange to lime green and royal blue livened up the aisles. “Silhouettes in golf have gotten slimmer, as well. But we have to be careful not to alienate our core customer by slimming it down too much,” said Blaney.

Chris Heyn, chairman and ceo of Summit Golf Brands, which includes Fairway & Greene and Zero Restriction, said the golf industry has rebounded in the past year from its previous downturn. “People have seen a new energy. Inventories are in line and the key vendors are showing great product. This is our best advance bookings for spring in three years,” he said.

Quagmire Golf was having success with innovative items such as reversible shorts and boardshorts that can be worn both on and off the course. “With the big players like Nike and Adidas out there, small companies have to differentiate,” said company cofounder Bobby Pasternak.

Ralph Dunning, designer of the Dunning Golf collection now being offered under the Greg Norman Collection umbrella, has divided his spring line into classic and modern offerings to appeal to a wide range of customers. In both categories, however, technological fabrics such as an interface stretch pique have been popular.

“The golf industry is very healthy,” he said. “There’s a lot of excitement about the game and what’s going on in clothing. And young kids are into the whole classic trend and that’s good for golf.”

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