By  on February 25, 2009

With about 750 brands spread across 300,000 square feet of the Mandalay Bay Events Center, Project Las Vegas was downsized from its previous 550,000-square-foot home at the Sands Expo and Convention Center. The factors were the intentional migration of brands to the new Premium section of MAGIC, as well as the slow economy.

Although the trend-driven show was smaller, it still exerted significant gravitational pull on retailers, and traffic was heavy and steady on the show floor, vendors said. Against the backdrop of low expectations, many attendees said the season has proven stronger than anticipated.

“I thought it was going to be a lot worse,” said Jade Howe, founder and designer of Howe, which he owns in partnership with Seattle Pacific Industries. “We actually have more appointments this season than last, and we’ve been busy all day.”

Howe pointed to the appeal of his poly-viscose suits that retail for $250, and other key items such as cardigans and $155 Japanese denim jeans as reasons for the brand’s resiliency in the retail downturn.

“We’re not going to post the same numbers we did last year, but I’m happy with the season so far,” said Eric Kim, founder of Monarchy, a division of Hartmarx Corp., which is operating under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Kim was confident his brand would survive the bankruptcy proceedings and was pushing his new higher-end Monarchy Black label, which features cleaner styles and better fabrics.

At the opposite end, Kim was also hawking an affordably priced label, called Manchester, which was previously only sold to Buckle Inc., but has been picked up by Macy’s Inc., Dillard’s Inc. and Von Maur Inc. department stores. To aid independent specialty retailers, Monarchy was offering 15 percent wholesale discounts to selected partners, with the stipulation that they not lower retail prices.

Monarchy’s high-low price play was echoed by James Hammonds, men’s buyer at American Rag Cie who said the retailer was doing best with high-end luxury product and low-cost basics.

“We’re doing well with really exclusive stuff like Rick Owens Dark Shadow and then cheap, easy basics,” he noted. At Project, some of his favorite brands included two heritage labels: Woolrich John Rich Bros. and Farah Vintage, a label debuting from Perry Ellis U.K., featuring reissues of trouser styles from the Sixties and Seventies.

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