By  on April 18, 2008

ATLANTA — Novelty jackets were the number-one fall item at AmericasMart here, as buyers clamored for special pieces to differentiate themselves among consumers in a weakened economy.

“Buyers are complaining that, with the Internet and department store competition, too much product looks alike,” said Bruce Blaustein, vice president of Tapestry by Arkady, a social occasion line targeting Baby Boomers. “We have to give them new and different.”

Blaustein met with 12 new stores, four from out of the South-east, with most leaving orders at the show.

“These days, a retailer can’t afford to make mistakes,” said Benjamin Belton, owner of Benjamin and Libba’s, a men’s and women’s specialty store with three North Carolina locations. “The biggest challenge is to be creative and find the best ways to spend money for the biggest return on investment.”

With year-to-date sales meeting last year’s figures, Belton cut his fall budget, adjusting inventory to allow for better turns.

“Everybody understands the market is challenging, and they want opportunities to buy new and fresh looks,” he said. “Rather than buying into any one line, merchants have to approach business by pulling together items from many different lines.”

Belton said the new “Baroque jewel-tone colors,” such as magenta and gold, brightened an otherwise repetitive market, as did novelty jackets.

“Everything’s about the jacket,” he said, citing visual appeal in a variety of shapes, textured fabrics, metallic threads, buttons, velvet trim and ruching.

Belton bought from Nanette Lapore, Trina Turk and Milly, citing their good color, texture and fabric.

AmericasMart officials said attendance at the show, which ended its four-day run April 8, was flat with last year, but noted an increase in contemporary product, such as Ted Baker London and Nicky Hilton that were featured at an opening-day fashion presentation.

“We consider [meeting attendance figures] a big victory, given the expense of travel and the horror stories out there,” said Chuck Corvi, project manager of trade shows for AmericasMart. “We’ve substantially increased the number of lines and upgraded exhibit space to attract buyers.”Although accounts of the impact of the economy on business varied, retailers all said they were seeking looks to wow customers.

Stefanie Halperin, owner of Almanac, a women’s specialty store in the Atlanta suburb of Alpharetta, Ga., ordered spring fill-ins, including dresses, halters and tunics. She also bought a few denim lines, including 575 and Habitual, and T-shirts and bottoms to mix and match by Bordeaux and Billy Blues.

For fall, Halperin picked up special occasion dresses from BCBG, cashmere wraps and formal pants from MAG, but was somewhat disappointed.

“The market is too young and trendy, especially for my suburban customers,” she said. “They don’t like Empire waists and swing shapes that make them look pregnant or heavy.”

Halperin lamented the lack of “classic, elegant clothes” in the market.

“Business is horrible and everybody knows it,” she said. “Manufacturers need to stand for good quality product and stop being so concerned with what celebrities are wearing.”

In contrast, Debra McCabe, owner of The Columns, a better-to-bridge store in Forest, Va., said, “Business is good. People aren’t listening to the news reports.”

McCabe bought sportswear with animal prints, textures and colors such as plum and citrine, with leather and button details. She passed on skirts and denim, which have slowed, and sleeveless dresses, a difficult sell for fall. Instead, she purchased leather and stretch pants by Votre Nom, knit tunics by Emil Rutenberg and separates by Alberto Makali and Jon.

Items, rather than matching collections, were the focus for Sonia Says, a women’s specialty store. To bring newness into the store for fall, owner Sonia Steffes bought bright colors in dresses by Randy Kemper and others, and in her biggest category, jackets.

“Jackets are great as fashion items to pair with dressy pants or with jeans,” she said.

Steffes ordered bell-sleeve, three-quarter-length shapes by Bianca, Three Sisters, Penta and Sarah Campbell. As outerwear, jackets have replaced sweaters, in fur-lined, belted, metallic styles from Baxis and Cartise. She shopped for black tie and cocktail dress lines with a “wow factor,” she said, adding that accessories have been her biggest challenge, especially clean, classic handbags, given the plethora of overembellished styles in the market.

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