By  on February 6, 2009

There were glimmers of optimism at the Capsule trade show last month, with vendors and retailers saying sales have been more vigorous than expected.

The show focuses on independent and emerging men's designers with progressive aesthetics, and that niche aspect of their businesses has turned out to be a boon for some in the anemic retail climate.

"My brands are very specific in taste and for an informed customer, and that's really helped my business. We are up over last year," said Lindsay Smith, owner of the L.A.-based Atlas showroom, who was showing four lines at Capsule: Denim & Thread, LnA, Vanishing Elephant and Creep. "What's happened is the easy, sort-of-dumb business has gone away, and it's the retailers with real vision, taste and loyal customers who are succeeding. And it's those kind of stores that still need to bring in fresh, interesting product, because that's what their customer base expects."

Sam Parker, co-owner of the specialty men's store Context in Madison, Wis., echoed those thoughts, noting his shop offers an edited assortment of directional denim and related sportswear to a clientele that is still shopping. Context's holiday sales were up over the previous year, and Parker has increased his 2009 buy over last year's budget. "There's a certain demographic that is still shopping despite the economy. I think really specialized shops like ours have done well, while the more wide-open shops have been more negatively impacted by the economy," he explained.

Context has also benefited from its e-commerce site, which accounts for about 65 percent of total company sales. "We have a big international business, and that's helped offset any weakness domestically," noted Parker.

At Kidrobot, sales are trending up over last year, according to Jennifer Getlan, vice president of sales. "I don't feel the recession. We saw more people than we did last year and opened up six new accounts," she said of the brand, which is currently sold in about 70 U.S. stores, including Barneys New York, Nordstrom, Riccardi and Fred Segal Fun.

However, in a nod to the economy, Kidrobot lowered prices on its apparel, with almost every item priced to retail for $150 or less, down from highs of $195 previously. Getlan added that buyers are waiting longer to "leave paper," or place actual orders. "I have to get my first orders in by Feb. 12, so I'm buying extra units of our bestsellers in anticipation of late orders coming in as the season progresses," she said.

Public School, the contemporary men's brand founded by Maxwell Osborne and Dao-Yi Chow (who is also creative director and vice president of marketing at Sean John), also made a price-point play with a new label called Black Apple that is launching exclusively at Urban Outfitters this fall, followed by other retailers in subsequent seasons. The outerwear-focused line will retail for $150 to $180 and takes Public School's haute streetwear aesthetic that is heavy on buttery leathers and reinterprets it in affordable pleather.

London-based eyewear maker Cutler and Gross showed an array of sunglasses and ophthalmic frames, with classic men's and women's styles reissued this year in eye-catching shades of raspberry, black glitter and even a potato motif, in honor of the brand's 40th anniversary. The company is still owned by founders Graham Cutler and Tony Gross, and sells into about 30 U.S. stockists, including Bergdorf Goodman, Barneys, Maxfield and Cry Wolf.

In total, Capsule, which ran Jan. 19 and 20, showcased about 70 brands at the Angel Orensanz Foundation, a former synagogue on the Lower East Side.

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