By and  on September 10, 2009

A focus on value, strength in denim and an encouraging retail outlook among men’s buyers and vendors were key themes at the Project show in Las Vegas.

“Retailers seem much more optimistic for the future,” Oscar Feldenkreis, president and chief operating officer of Perry Ellis International Inc., said at his company’s Original Penguin booth. “August seems to have been a much better month than planned and hopefully that momentum will continue.”

Diesel USA chief executive officer Steve Birkhold pointed to “signs of life” among economic indicators and for retail sales, but noted that “opening price points is where the action is.”

Diesel booked more than 125 appointments with retailers during the three-day show, which ended Sept. 3 at the Sands Expo & Convention Center. Birkhold said underwear, footwear and bags were trending strongly for the denim company because they gave consumers the chance to buy into the premium brand at affordable price points.

Sam Ben-Avraham, president of Project, said the mood was markedly more positive than at the February show.

“Everybody is out of the shock stage they were in back in January and February,” he said. “To be honest, I was really worried back in February. People were not sure what was going to happen. I think the picture is much clearer now, and we can see the landscape and who is going to survive and who isn’t…everyone is making their moves to improve their businesses and get through this.”

Ben-Avraham, who also operates the influential Atrium specialty stores in New York and Miami, said credit is the biggest issue facing the industry.

“Everybody is focused on credit as none of the banks or factors want to take chances now,” he said. “People are using credit cards, but it’s not possible to pay for everything within 30 days. I’m cutting deals for my own stores with vendors for house credit rather than going through factors. It’s not a great situation, but you have to do it. Right now, cash flow is crucial.”

Ben-Avraham added he is cutting his own vendor lineup to focus on the best performing brands in his stores, which include Prps and Nudie. However, he’s still looking to bring in new brands to inject novelty and energy on the retail floor. For spring, he will add Aviator Nation, a California-casual brand of vintage-inspired T-shirts and hoodies, to his merchandise mix.

Other promising new brands at Project included Hope and Glory and Riviera Club. The former offered clean, simple denim in novelty colors such as muddy brown or beige, as well as drapy cotton-polyester tanks and T-shirts in a static print. The larger Riviera Club collection was inspired by famed surfer Bunker Spreckels, and featured inviting hoodies, plaid shirts and even shorts in soft, gauzy cotton double-faced fabrics. The line was cofounded and designed by Joe Sadler, a co-founder of the Coexist label.

Gauzy wovens were also a highlight of the Converse by John Varvatos collection, where shots of color livened up the usually monochromatic palette of the label. Shorts were a strong seller for the brand this past summer, so the category was showcased on mannequins, in cutoff baby cord and core khaki styles.

Keds president Kristin Kohler Burrows said the economy had touched almost every part of her business, from merchandising to supply chain.

“We’re seeing more interest in immediates and less willingness to buy advanced goods,” Kohler Burrows said. “We’ve had to alter our supply chain to get product to market faster.”

The company’s booths, one for Keds, the other for Pro-Keds, were busy as buyers shopped key styles, including retro-style high tops in solid-colored leather and subtle branding. “Fashion is still important,” she said. “The economy just makes you smarter.”

The economy prompted some vendors to reconsider the way they evaluate new styles.

“Usually when a style doesn’t sell we’ll take it out of the lineup next year, said Spiewak creative director Dan Hendricks. “But last year was such an anomaly that there are some pieces that didn’t move as well, but that I believe in, like shorter field jackets and vintage workwear looks, that I brought back for spring.” In addition to its iconic military pieces, Spiewak showed strong nylon parkas and Windbreakers as well as a vibrant blue color palette.

Slim fits, white and gray denim and an amped-up collection of plaid shirts, graphic T-shirts and raw-edge shorts were the focus of the men’s True Religion lineup. The company also showcased its new licensed eyewear collection from Revolution Eyewear, which retails from $180 to $230, and features polarized lenses that cut glare.

Eric Beder, an analyst with Brean Murray, Carret & Co., was upbeat on True Religion, writing in a research note: “We believe it has a key opportunity to become even more of a force in the somewhat basic premium denim market, as we believe bellwether Seven For All Mankind has continued to reel under disruptions and a management exodus.”

Seven For All Mankind’s sales have dropped this year as True Religion’s climbed. Several executives from the VF Corp.-owned brand have joined True Religion, Beder said. True Religion stopped using factors to finance its business in July, which Beder attributed to “an expression of confidence, material net cash on the balance sheet and a commitment to further drive its own destiny.”

However, the Seven For All Mankind booth was busy with buyers, who sized up a range of washes, from clean rinse to highly destroyed.

“Men have been slower than women to gravitate toward the supervintage looks,” said Rosella Giuliani, vice president of merchandising and design at the Los Angeles-based company, a division of VF Corp.

To help win customers back, the brand is offering more options on the bottom end of its price range, while not lowering its entry-level price point of $159. A new superslim men’s fit with a 14.5-inch leg opening was put into the mix this season, along with a slouch fit with a slim leg, Liberty-print shirts and crinkle wovens.

Price was top of mind for buyers such as Cerise Lacock and Scott McElmury, owners of the Seattle boutique Ian. “We used to do a lot higher prices, but we’ve been introducing a lot lower price points,” Lacock said. “People still want to shop, but they don’t want to spend a fortune. A brand like Rogues Gallery, which lowered their prices, has been selling much better for us now.”

Lacock and McElmury planned to pick up Democracy of Nevermind and B.D. Baggies at Project, the latter a relaunch of an Eighties American label now made by upscale Italian firm WP Lavori in Corso. “I think people who have a nostalgia for the brand will buy one shirt and then keep coming back for more,” McElmury said.

After eliminating denim from its assortments for several seasons, Original Penguin added jeans to its lineup in clean, straightforward five-pocket styles. A new suit program offered sharp styles at accessible prices, with jackets retailing for $250 and pants for $125. The company had lowered prices several seasons ago and positioned the brand as an entry-level play to the contemporary zone.

Vendors across Project revealed a desire for styles from previous decades, with references ranging from the Sixties to the Nineties. Maui & Sons, the brand that helped define Eighties beach style with fluorescent graphics, is celebrating its 30th anniversary with a spring collection dedicated to archival classics. Standouts included graphic T-shirts and a group of volley-length swim trunks in bright colors.

Eyewear firm Linda Farrow’s stable of designer collaborations showed a move away from Buddy Holly-worthy heavy acetate to thinner and rounder frames that John Lennon might have liked. Tortoiseshell was still a major item, but the pattern was enlarged in the Raf Simons collection, a range that also included a winning pair of gray ombré matte aviators. Mixed materials also seemed new, as in the black acetate frames with light bamboo temples in the Linda Farrow Luxe collection.

Accessories buyers could also find an appealing new bag line at the Evisu booth, where the Japanese denim brand, now headed by global ceo Scott Morrison, partnered with Italy’s Mandarina Duck on a line of nylon bags with denim trim. Pull tags in the form of fish lures referenced the brand’s moniker, which comes from the Buddhist god of prosperity.

Limited editions and capsule collections were the focus at Adidas, including a partnership with Lucasfilm for a range of official “Star Wars” apparel and footwear. Attention sneakerheads: cue up for the Stormtrooper and Yoda high-tops now. Beyond “Star Wars,” there were progressive performance pieces in the Tokyo Tech range; hipster graphics on the collaboration with artist Eric Bailey, and vivid colors on the World Cup collection. The booth was a clear indication of the growing reach of athletic companies into the fashion and streetwear scene.

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