By  on September 27, 2011

Vivid pops of spring color brightened the booths at the Designers & Agents show, which hosted 275 brands at the Chelsea Art Museum and Starrett-Lehigh Building from Sept. 16 to 18. The show focused on independent boutique brands for the contemporary market so there was lots of variety in the offerings, although key themes in evidence included mid-length cutaway skirts, recycled vintage materials, tunics and plenty of asymmetric draping.

“I continue to look for new lines that aren’t widely distributed so we can differentiate ourselves with our merchandise,” said Christine Campbell, owner of the Crimson Mim stores in Palo Alto and Los Altos, Calif. “The reason shoppers shop with us is that we offer something the majors don’t have. Eventually, the majors do pick up these brands and we have to cycle out of them, but this is a great place to find new labels.”

Among the lines Campbell picked up for spring was Totem handbags, which are fashioned from vintage tapestry and Indian fabrics. “Using the vintage fabrics creates something that is one-of-a-kind, which appeals to my shoppers. It’s also eco-friendly,” noted Campbell.

The retail climate weighed on buyers’ minds, with recent headlines blaring about the European debt crisis, 9 percent unemployment and the potential for a double-dip recession. But many vendors were upbeat on business despite the grim macroeconomic picture.

“Everyone is talking about the economy but we haven’t felt it. Our business has doubled over the past year,” said milliner Eugenia Kim, who’s won a CFDA award for accessories design. Her bestsellers for spring included preppy straw sun hats with bold awning stripes and rope trim, bohemian fedoras with feather details and a Lurex jersey turban for an instant haute fortune-teller or Gloria Swanson look. Many of the hats retail for well over $200 at Barneys New York, Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus, but a lower-priced line called Genie has grown to almost half of the company’s sales.

Also driving Eugenia Kim sales? “When Kim Kardashian wears our hats, they sell out. Nobody cares if Gwyneth Paltrow wears them,” said Kim with a laugh, pointing to magazine photos of the two stars in her designs. “We have a whole book of Kim Kardashian in our hats.”

English designer Tanya Sarne made a splash in the Eighties and Nineties with her draped, romantic designs for Ghost, but exited the company in 2006 after selling it to an investment group with whom she clashed. In 2008, at the expiration of a non-compete agreement, she launched a line called Handwritten, which offers a similar aesthetic to her previous brand. “It’s Ghost with a different name,” said Sarne, indicating to her colorful, gauzy collection. “It’s modern sportswear for the mature woman — I didn’t say old, I said mature.”

Handwritten is fashioned from boiled and dyed viscose that drapes nicely, hiding a multitude of sins. The material doesn’t require ironing, even when packed into a tight suitcase. The collection is given a contemporary twist with ruching, asymmetric draping and drawstring details that gussy up the diaphanous fabrics. “It has natural stretch and fits every shape and size of a woman,” said Sarne of the tops that retail for $160 to $275, dresses for $320 to $500, skirts for $180 to $300 and jackets for $220 to $600.

At Calypso St. Barth, tunics and caftans in silk chiffon, cotton linen and silk doupioni were selling well, with buyers looking for designs with a “wow” factor, said Temma Richman, director of wholesale.

The asymmetric look was stylishly rendered in jersey and parachute fabric at Under.ligne by Doo.ri, the lower-priced contemporary line by the CFDA award-winning designer Doo-Ri Chung. At the adjacent Fallon jewelry booth, it was hard to miss the bold lion-head rings, rams-head earrings and necklaces that married faux pearls with gold-plated bicycle chains, with everything mostly retailing at a pocketbook-friendly $80 to $300.

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