By and  on August 18, 2014

At one of the world’s largest gatherings of apparel and accessories trade shows, taking place in Las Vegas this week, brands and retailers are confronting some of the industry’s most pressing issues head on.

Whether it’s climate change, increasing globalization, the onslaught of online commerce, the economy’s failure to fully reawaken from its long slumber or the demand for quick, affordable, on-trend merchandise, strategies for success amid intense competition are emerging at the expos. These include Advanstar shows MAGIC, WWDMAGIC, Project, Pool, FN Platform, Sourcing and ENKVegas; the six that have formed the Modern Assembly alliance (Liberty, Stitch, Agenda, Capsule, AccessoriesTheShow and MRket), and various others such as CurveNV, the OffPrice Show and Women’s Wear in Nevada.

Among the strategies are sharpening price points, producing season-neutral clothing, expanding the assortment available for speedy reorders and adjusting to a casual aesthetic that’s taken hold of women’s wardrobes.

One thing is for sure: At a time when practically everyone with a computer or phone can access global brands from pretty much anywhere, brands and stores are learning they have to differentiate or die. Britton Jones, president and chief executive officer of Business Journals Inc., owner and operator of AccessoriesTheShow, Stitch and MRket, has sensed that the desire for distinct merchandise, certainly a perennial sentiment, is at an all-time high.

“Retailers are really thirsting for new product,” he emphasized. “In fact, I was just talking to one of the best retailers in the country, and he said, ‘What we need to do is really push harder in finding new product.’ [Shoppers] want to discover great resources that they can’t necessarily find online.”

Trade shows are responding to the aggressive push for newness by setting up sections dedicated to up-and-coming brands or specific niches of interest. At MRket in Las Vegas, Jones pointed out that Vanguards Gallery, an initiative aimed at new and innovative men’s wear brands, is doubling in size. At ENKVegas, around 135 accessory brands will be grouped together to enable buyers to easily navigate the accessory options.

“There are a lot of specialty boutiques that come to Vegas, and they are always looking for something new at a [good] price. The accessory brands can fulfill that sweet spot,” said Sunni Spencer, vice president of ENKVegas. AccessoriesTheShow is spotlighting budding accessory brands in a Designer Lab section.

Liberty Fairs is introducing a men’s wear area called Quest with nearly 40 brands that Sam Ben-Avraham, the trade show’s founder, described as better or bridge sportswear brands positioned in between the contemporary and designer segments. A few of the Quest brands are Aspesi, Briefing, Buttero, Duvetica, Esemplare, Save Khaki, Stone Island, Sunspel, Ylati, Pyer Moss, Camo, Olaf Hussein, Laneus, Move, Rico, Skingraft, G-Lab, Sand, M. Cohen, Dita Eyewear and Waterville.

The rationale for Quest comes “from mostly specialty-store demand for fresh product that is unique and has better quality. Specialty stores are always looking for brands that have more narrow distribution and exclusive product. Contemporary is still driving the market, pricewise and stylewise, and it is a lot wider. But right now, there is a very high demand for the bridge price point,” said Ben-Avraham.

Approximately 500 brands will exhibit at Project, and one-third of them will be new to the show. Project president Tommy Fazio strove to improve the organization of brands new and old to improve the experience for the brands as well as buyers.

“The merchandising of the show is really clear. I merchandised it as if I was buying for a department store. When you are looking for your premium denim, it is all in one location. If you are looking for California lifestyle surf brands, they are all in one location,” he said. “There is not a big contrast between Project and [high-end contemporary show] The Tents@Project. It is a seamless transition. It is all about making it easy for the brands and the retailers.”

For buyers searching for elevated swim resources, WWDMAGIC has given those resources, like L Space by Monica Wise and Luli Fama, their own space on the concourse at the Las Vegas Convention Center. Christopher Griffin, president of WWDMAGIC and Sourcing at MAGIC, said, “It is meant to showcase those swim brands that really deserve a platform, and we are going to work to develop it as the show goes on and for next August.

“We have 100 swim brands on the [main] floor, but certain brands always wanted to stand off on their own and, for a while, we were married to keeping them all together,” he added. “But we have realized that as long as they are under the same roof, it makes sense. We think we can build a really strong designer swim area up on the concourse.”

At most of the trade shows in Las Vegas, international contingents of brands and buyers are becoming the norm.

“In terms of attendees, international is a major push. I think our international draw was 15 percent in February. Our shows are really becoming established on a worldwide basis,” said Jones.

Griffin noted, “Globally, people are looking to the U.S. economy. They see it as gaining momentum while the European economy, the Japanese economy and to some extent, the Chinese economy, are in the doldrums. To get growth, they [brands] are coming to the U.S. So, we’ve got Japanese brands coming. We have guys from France, Denmark, Italy and more. Even in Sourcing, we have Haiti, Kenya, Turkey and Vietnam represented. We have countries we haven’t seen at the Sourcing show for a while.”

Arriving at trade shows isn’t the only key to unlocking business Stateside. Peter Heysteeg, chief executive officer of the Dutch fashion company Ilja Visser Group, indicated it takes patience to win in this market. The Group’s brand Ready to Fish launched in the U.S. roughly four years ago and is slowly making inroads here.

“They [retail buyers] see it the first season. They wait in the second season, and in the third season, they buy it,” he said. “People consider these difficult times. I understand where their caution comes from. They have a limited amount of space on the shelf, but we are confident it will be alright in the end.”

Today, Ready to Fish’s largest market is Europe, followed by the Middle East, Asia and the U.S. Five years from now, Heysteeg foresees the U.S. being the brand’s number-two market after Asia.

Even for American brands selling domestically, meeting the needs of retail buyers can be a tough proposition. As ordering inches closer to in-season, pinning down exactly what seasonal collection buyers want to pick up at the Las Vegas trade shows has been getting trickier.

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To help decipher buyers’ intentions, apparel company Karen Kane, which is extending into jewelry with license partner Glamhouse and hats with licensee Bollman, studied buying habits during the Las Vegas shows in February. Michael Kane, director of marketing at Karen Kane, reported, “Fifty percent were buying fall, and 50 percent were buying summer. We have always questioned what we should have at the show and what people are in the mood to buy. We have accounts that like to see a preview at MAGIC and then do their orders later. We have others that write the whole order there. Then, others want to see what is selling in their stores and [order] in-season. When we were planning for the show, we were thinking about bringing less, and we found out that we can’t.”

Since buys can be unpredictable, brands like Ted Baker play it safe and go with a “back to the basics” approach whenever they show. For Vegas, the British clothing company shows variations of its most popular items: shorts, linens and polos.

“They’re really big drivers for us,” said Patrick Heitkam, executive vice president of wholesale for Ted Baker, which is showing at Project. “We do in-stock programs that are seasonal. If we do, say, a polo for one season and we want it again, we’ll change the details a little because that’s what the buyers want.”

Heitkam tailors the buy to the needs of specialty stores, which prefer special pieces that “show more breadth and depth in our collection,” like tailored looks from their sportswear,  and bigger retailers, which “go narrow and deeper in business,” with classics like polos and short-sleeve wovens.

For next season, Heitkam said Ted Baker took Pop Art inspiration from the Fifties and Sixties.

Ron Balatbat, senior designer at denim specialist Big Star, showing at Project, remarked that he thinks buyers will be “writing a lot of holiday and maybe even filling in with what is available for fall” in Las Vegas. To accommodate the current cadence of buying and to capitalize on best-selling products, Balatbat said Big Star is going deeper in the number of styles that are available for reorder on a regular basis.

“In the past, we have always done seasonal product with very little carryover. It seems like if you have something that sells well, you should be able to reorder it even if it is not on the typical seasonal line. We will still have a fair amount of product that will be limited, but we will have a good amount of product that we are going to carry probably up to a year if not longer,” he said.

Peter Leff, executive vice president of wholesale for Tommy Bahama, which is showing at MRket, has shown variations of its signature color prints and resort-focused products.

“We feel like we are in two good cycles with short-sleeve knits that are doing well,” he said. “We’re known for our Hawaiian-type prints and this is the business for us that has been very, very strong.”

Leff added that new for this season, the brand would be moving into tech sportswear, mixing tech fabrics to entice a younger audience.
“We’ve gotten great feedback so far,” he said. “When you think about Tommy Bahama, we’re the older man’s resource. But that’s not who we are as a company — we have diversity and want to appeal to an older guy and a younger guy.”

Business, he said, was steady.

“We are fortunate that we have a loyal following,” he said. “We still get wonderful support in the retail and wholesale community.”

The brand is now sold in 125 retail stores nationwide.

Gloria Brandes, ceo of WWDMAGIC vendor BB Dakota, underscored that it is the “reorder part of it [retail buying] that has changed dramatically. Buyers bring in their initial quantities, and they reorder wear-now clothes.”

Due partially to the wear-now approach and partially to unpredictable weather patterns, collections are becoming far less seasonally segregated.

Brandes said, “We make a lot more transitional clothes. For fall, we will have a lot more light goods, and we are conscious about the fact that we are bringing that to the shows. We are not going to bring a lot of coats. We are not concerned with that yet.”

Francis Pierrel, ceo and president of Lacoste North America, which is introducing underwear produced under license with Delta Galil Industries at Project, dubbed the brand’s spring collection “weather proof.” He expounded that the collection features darker navy and burgundy shades, but also softer baby blue and powder pink shades.

“Depending on how you merchandise, you can give the clothes more of a cold feeling or a warmer, spring feeling,” said Pierrel. “If the weather doesn’t become spring fast enough, we will still give reasons to shop to our clients.”

Of course, the surge in online shopping has had a significant impact on the sorts of goods being presented by brands and the prices of those goods. Kimberley Gordon, creative director of ENK vendor Wildfox, asserted the Web has forced brands to “have more competitive pricing.” One result of that, she said, is Wildfox’s “goal is to have a more affordable sweater.”

Prices for Wildfox sweaters are heading down under $200 from a previous general price range of $200 to $300.

Conair-owned accessories brand Kestrel is banking on its affordable, versatile styles to attract retailers. Malia O’Brien, director of brand marketing at Kestrel, also at ENK, said, “Our customers and buyers want something open to interpretation to use as a beach bag, a diaper bag and to combine with our other pieces to add functions. When you talk about our price points being around $150, it is reasonable because you can add other pieces we have. All of our prints work well together.”

Hobo Bags, showing at WWDMAGIC, is dropping select prices. For example, bags that had retailed at $228 are being reduced to $198, and bags that were $268 are becoming $248. Koren Ray, chief visionary officer for the brand, said, “We have been able to go into our core shapes that we have been manufacturing over and over, and we are offering price reductions. We’re hopeful that this is a way to reach out to our retailers and say, ‘We get it. We are all feeling the pressure, and we need to be offering our final consumers a great value.’”

Nathalie Sears, ceo for the U.S. division of Liebeskind, has discovered that the pricing sweet spot for the German brand’s bags is $350 or so at retail. A pushback from luxury brands — and the lofty prices associated with them — could be an explanation for the healthy performance of Liebeskind’s comparably affordable handbags.

“The young girl is not as attracted to luxury as she was in the past,” said Sears, whose company is showing at ENK. “She’s going toward alternative brands. I know I am. I just think you want a product that reflects who you are. We are saturated with images of big luxury brands, and you want something that is very personal.”

Liebeskind also benefits from a casual sensibility that has been triumphant in many fashion categories.

At Project, Toms is extending its one-for-one philanthropy to handbags. The Los Angeles-based company is unveiling hobos, weekenders, baby bags and other silhouettes retailing from $25 to $298. For every purchase of a bag, Toms will ensure that a safe birth will be provided for a mother and child in need. Besides its current categories of shoes, eyewear and coffee, the handbag collection will hit stores including Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s next February.

Activewear and ath-leisure sportswear that takes inspiration from activewear are the clear victors from the move toward casual clothes and accessories — and brands continue to enter the informal fray.

Karen Kane’s Karen by Karen Kane line, which is dominated by knits and pieces that are under $150, is growing from around 10 to 20 styles a month to react to the hunger for laid-back fashion. “People in general just dress more casually. That’s the way a lot of the stores are saying our customer is dressing,” said Michael Kane.

BB Dakota is marketing a coordinated group of what Brandes named “active-inspired sportswear” with bra tops, jogger pants and knit jackets retailing primarily from $60 to $200.

“We are seeing much greater strength in this casual uniform,” she said. “It’s very compelling. You just want to wear that.”

The loser as a result of the activewear trend has been denim, but denim brands are fighting back. Denim maker DL1961 is combatting the shift toward activewear by incorporating activewear attributes in its jeans.

“Every piece in our collection has a benefit. Either it is 360 degrees of movement, moisture wicking, antibacterial or breathable,” said DL1961 creative director Sarah Ahmed. “Our entire aesthetic is activewear, but activewear that you can wear to work. You can’t wear your Lululemons to work.”

DL1961 is showing at Project.

Despite the ascendance of Lululemon and its companions in the activewear sector, there remain brave brands willing to jump into denim. Artisan De Luxe (also at Project) is expanding into denim for spring with six silhouettes offered in 10 washes. Retail prices run from $135 to $185.

“It’s going from the skinny to the boot-cut to the superflair. The way we did the collection is that the jeans look like old pairs of Levi’s that were found in vintage stores. It’s very handcrafted,” said Artisan De Luxe designer and denim veteran Philippe Naouri.

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