By and and  on August 31, 2011

Stores across America are starting to behave more like their fast-fashion counterparts.

At the massive WWD MAGIC trade show in Las Vegas last week, it was easy to confuse Main Street retailers with Forever 21 titans as talk turned to speed to market, homing in on the best price points to drive volume, jumping on current trends and drawing customers to stores again and again with infusions of the latest merchandise. The changing retail business model — spreading as the persistent economic doldrums force retailers to adjust or die — relies on ready replenishment, a sharp eye for trend spotting, a deft hand for markdowns and a willingness to take manageable fashion risks.

“As a buyer, you have to be quicker,” said Dana Young, an independent buyer and consultant for Patchington Inc., the 22-unit designer resortwear retailer based in Clearwater, Fla. “We are going on and off of vendors quicker. That seems disloyal, but the truth is we are trying to be as fresh as possible.”

Manufacturers responded to retailers’ demands by priming the production pump and keeping prices down. At Odessa, Fla.-based seamless apparel specialist Tees by Tina, business manager Stephen Goldfield said retailers can put in an order on a Tuesday and often have it by Wednesday. The company manufactures in the U.S. “We have shifted the responsibility of cost in inventory from the retailers to ourselves,” said Goldfield. “Most retailers order from us on a replenishment basis.”

Seven For All Mankind is launching a streamlined revision of its replenishment program next spring. The Los Angeles-based company is focusing on 10 fits in two to three washes, in comparison with about 15 fits and up to nine washes offered in the past. The changes in the replenishment program follow a move earlier this year to bring some apparel manufacturing in-house from contract factories. “It’ll be reserved for our faster, closer-to-market products,” said Seven For All Mankind president Barry Miguel. “The more we can control our destiny, so to speak, the better.”

Select items that were truly novel commanded premiums, but retailers for the most part didn’t budge from their price comfort zone. They said customers have been trained to expect a lot for a little and, even if shoppers wanted pricier products, the bleak job picture means they can’t spend much or are afraid to. “We look for price just like the customer does,” said Sharon Gewertz, chief executive officer of Beacon’s Clothing in San Antonio. Arlette Stobbe, owner of Bella Mia women’s clothing store in Plymouth, Mich., said, “We are still hesitant to go up in price. We’d be willing to buy more at a midrange price point rather than go up to a higher price point.”

Fred Eslamboly, president of Fredini Corp.-owned better-to-bridge women’s brand Sisters out of Los Angeles, which was showing crochet and lace tops for spring, said he cut prices by a third to hit $30 or below wholesale or roughly $60 to $70 at retail. At the same time, Sisters expanded the number of styles by 50 percent. Eslamboly noted the changes shrunk the brand’s margins by around 30 percent, but ended up increasing its business by two times over 2010 and three times over 2009. At L.A.-based Emme Inc.-owned tops resource Rain, president Simon Adot reduced prices 15 to 20 percent. “Everyone’s price conscious right now, even the high-end people,” he said.

Retailers’ price sensitivity isn’t the result of recent events, but an ongoing strategy to cope with prolonged economic stagnation. Although the latest stock market volatility and nagging high unemployment spooked retailers, it didn’t scare them so much that they slashed their budgets dramatically. In fact, most retailers reported they’d order about the same or more holiday and spring products — what they were predominantly hunting for at WWD MAGIC — compared to last year. “I for sure bought more at this show than ever before,” said Nicole Campos, owner of four Bling women’s clothing and accessories boutiques in Kansas. “This show will help us have a strong fourth quarter.”

Tired of playing it completely safe, retailers planned to dip their toes into new brands, albeit with caution to carefully steer clear of duds. XCVI banked on retailers trying new things. The L.A.-based company introduced the brand Nola Z with prices ranging from $34 for a T-shirt to $109 for a silk dress that Randa Allen, a consultant with the L.A. firm Trend Chasers who assists XCVI’s product development, described as for customers that are getting “younger not by age, but by attitude.” She estimated 100 to 200 stores would pick up the brand by the end of the year.

Retailers “are being extremely careful about what they bring in,” she said. “Someone that is starting a new line without great support or a great team, they would think about it more.”

Heart of Prêt was full of brands new to the U.S. vying to get a reception from American retailers. The section at WWD MAGIC featured up to 30 brands that regularly show at France’s Prêt à Porter Paris. Diana Disante, who handles sales at the LifeStyle Showroom in New York, said retailers were bringing in the French brands she exhibited, including Fred Sabatier 3660, Caty Lesca Paris and 2026, to set their stores apart. “They have a certain style and a certain look that you can’t get in the U.S.,” she said.

Denim brands were actively unveiling relaunches, line debuts and revamped branding. At ENK Vegas, Paige Denim showed a bold, modern logo to replace the feminine, earthy branding that it has used since its founding in 2004. The Culver City, Calif.-based company also dropped the word “Premium” from its name and changed its men’s label to Paige Denim from PPD. DL 1961 collaborated with former “Dancing with the Stars” co-host Samantha Harris on superstretchy midrise skinny jeans retailing for $178 in its holiday lineup.

Over at Project, which teems with denim brands, Mavi launched a higher-priced subbrand called Mavi Gold for spring 2012. Retailing for $138, or as much as 57 percent more than the main line, the jeans are made of stretchy Tencel and come in six different styles, including skinny jeans and low-rise bell-bottoms. The inaugural collection also includes a Tencel shirt and a blazer cut out of rigid denim.

Mek Denim brought back its founding designer, Marc Bellaiche, after a five-year absence. He refreshed the L.A.-based brand for spring 2012 with clean designs that departed from Mek’s signature look characterized by heavy embellishment and Western influence. Though it retained saddle stitching on some jeans, it introduced new styles such as green linen shorts with tonal embroidery on the back pocket.

Prvcy Premium, owned by Overland Park, Kan.-based Omni Ventures Inc., is banking on celebrities to help its relaunch next spring. After hiring Ali Lohan, the 17-year-old sister of troubled starlet Lindsay Lohan, to model in its spring look book, it flew “The Fighter” star Mark Wahlberg in to visit its Project booth on Aug. 23. Norco, Calif.-based Prvcy said it plans to use a celebrity in its new ad campaign next year. Wholesaling for between $74 and $84, the jean collection includes skinny jeans in 15 different colors, shorts and waxed leggings.

Underscoring the status of the Las Vegas trade expo as a men’s stronghold, some prominent denim brands opted to wait until ENK’s Fashion Coterie trade show, which starts Sept. 18 in New York, to show their women’s spring lines. J Brand displayed only its resort collection, whereas Diesel didn’t bring its women’s line to Project at all.

New lines are critical because Campos, whose Bling stores rapidly churn through merchandise, and her fellow retailers emphasized that boring stores are the enemy of success. To enliven their sales floors, they gravitated to color, texture and prints, and fashion brands — from BCBGeneration, MM Couture by Miss Me, Vigoss, Karen Kane and Nic + Zoe, among many others — obliged them. “The jewel tones are nice,” said Gewertz of Beacon’s Clothing. “You can bring in a shot of color and brighten up the store.”

Still, retailers didn’t dive headfirst into the edgiest trends. Asymmetric hemlines and cutouts were among them in women’s clothing, and swim brands at WWD Magic Sponsored by ISAM also stayed on top of trends. Swim, which has traditionally lagged apparel in terms of chasing trends, presented ready-to-wear trends more quickly than in seasons past. However, buyers were careful not to get too aggressive lest they alienate their customer base.“Retailers are scared to jump into too trend-forward items,” said Joo Kim, associate creative director of Miilla, a year-old young contemporary line from Los Angeles. “Our buyers are looking for things that can go for a broad customer base, [such as] a top that can go with a woman in her 20s, 30s and 40s.”

PROJECT

Mood: Unlike previous seasons when many orders were for items that could be delivered immediately, buyers at the latest Project show were eager to shop for spring. At contemporary label KAS New York, which showed an array of silk maxidresses and long skirts, 70 percent of the orders were for spring, reversing the ratio from last February’s show, where 70 percent of the orders were for immediate deliveries.

“People are excited,” said KAS founder Kirat Anand. “They want to look forward [to spring].”

Key Trends: Novelty denim, whether it’s achieved by color, animal prints or wax coatings. Palette of dusty hues and pastel tints. Jean jackets. Long lengths for dresses and skirts. Sheer, flowing fabrics.

Show Buzz: Acknowledging that trade expos aren’t just about placing orders, Project tried to enhance retailers’ experiences. One endeavor was a women’s fashion show directed by eBay Fashion creative director Andrea Linett in collaboration with Nolcha. Among the trends highlighted on the runway was flirty femininity, as seen in Brigitte Bardot-inspired looks from Twenty8Twelve and Joie. G-Star Raw gave a full retail experience to buyers by building denim displays in its booth with furniture, shelves and storage spaces that copy the decor in its branded stores. The displays were part of the Amsterdam-based company’s Q-Store program, which allows retailers to customize their shops in a ready-made format.

Best in Show: Current/Elliott applied leopard and boa prints on $80 denim pencil skirts that were dyed muted hues of red, gray, cream and tan. Seven For All Mankind adapted colorblocking to denim with dark blue trim on light blue denim and jean shorts sewn with white waistbands. Joe’s Jeans took the colorful stripes from Baja blankets to enhance miniskirts, shorts and denim jackets, wholesaling from $55 to $90.

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