Growing Up Contemporary

By many accounts, the contemporary customer has grown out of baby-doll dresses and cutesy T-shirts. This coming fall, designers appear to be growing up with...

NEW YORK — By many accounts, the contemporary customer has grown out of baby-doll dresses and cutesy T-shirts. This coming fall, designers appear to be growing up with her.

This story first appeared in the February 19, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

At the Designers & Agents show, sophisticated textures and chic knitwear dominated the trends, with offerings ranging from long cashmere cardigans to fine-gauge knit and chunky cable-knit separates and dresses.

The show, which ended its run Feb. 11, featured 236 collections, up 5 percent from last February’s fall edition. Over the course of three days, the show at the Starrett Lehigh Center and the Chelsea Art Museum brought in some 2,077 retailers, up 0.5 percent.

Even as the contemporary category continues to grow, some retailers and vendors at the show conceded that consumers are giving more thought to their purchases, and many cited the ongoing fear of an economic downturn and possible recession as a reason for the behavior.

That said, it didn’t dampen spirits at D&A. Tess Enright, owner of Tess & Carlos, which has three units in the Boston area, said, “I am always looking for something different here. We liked Giorgio Brato, which had amazing textures. Dresses continue but they have to be more ladylike. If I see one more long cardigan….I love them, but it’s the same old.”

Stacy Albert, a retail consultant who walked the show’s floors on behalf of such stores as Ruth Shaw in Baltimore, and Solo Boutique in Tuscaloosa, Ala., said she always finds interesting resources at D&A. “Knitwear is big, more so than ever this season,” she said. “I liked several of the knit lines. I liked Organic, which had such a luxury fabric and youthfulness, and Brochu Walker, which also had great knits.”

Robin Mizrahi-Sartini, co-owner of the Scarsdale, N.Y.-based Pamela Robbins boutique, said business is “uneven,” although she still plans to open a second store, at 1,500 square feet, in Scarsdale in May. However, she admitted that “people are very insecure. They may have the money, but they are more conscious.”

Many vendors at the show agreed. Vicenza, Italy-based Transit Par-Such offered cool sportswear in prewashed fabrics, which can be easily packed and unpacked and is machine-washable. Owner Matteo Cozza said customers are being smarter than ever about their purchases. “When they buy, they are looking for real value,” Cozza said. “They understand quality and will spend after a personal evaluation.”

Top sellers included a wool linen knit coat for $342 wholesale, a cotton viscose elastic long shirt for $225 and a jacquard linen and viscose coat for $225.

Cozza added that customers increasingly are looking for pieces in transitional fabrics. “They don’t want heavy-looking things,” he said. “Much of it has to do with the weather, and they are not looking for one big jumper or heavy-looking pants.”

At the show, the eco-friendly Stewart + Brown line showed an expanded repertoire, moving from a T-shirt and bag line to a well-rounded sportswear collection, including looks such as hemp silk and hemp jersey dresses and Tibetan yak knit separates. Top sellers included an organic French terry cotton sweatshirt dress for $93, and a yak fabric sweater tunic for $192. Co-founder Howard Brown said the green movement continues to attract new buyers, even as the economy turns south.

“We added many new accounts,” he said. “People are still buying, but they are buying smarter. [With the green movement], there was some suspicion from people in the beginning, but they are now starting to connect the dots. Our buyers are digging deeper with information, and are asking serious questions. People are being more conscious about their fashion choices, which for us, of course, is wonderful.”

Audrey McLoghlin, designer and owner of Los Angeles-based Aude, cited a rise in foreign buyers as one of the reasons for the show’s success. “We had a lot of international customers, more than at any other shows, particularly from Japan, [South] Korea, Brazil and England,” she said.

New to the show was Brochu Walker, which was launched for fall by Lisa Brochu and Lauren Walker. Brochu previously designed for such companies as Joie, American Eagle, Abercrombie & Fitch and Chaps Ralph Lauren. Walker, meanwhile, was a national sales director at YaYa. The two Los Angeles-based executives met in May and decided to launch a line suitable for their personal needs. Wholesale price points ranged from $26 to $380, and bestsellers included a double-layer reversible tissue cashmere top for $193 wholesale, an orange cashmere cardigan for $211 wholesale and a vest with a ruffled front detail for $350 wholesale. According to Walker, the duo projects to have wholesale sales of more than $3 million in the first year.

Also at the show, Anthony Nak and VPL presented secondary collections as part of the CFDA@D&A initiative. The exhibition launched the program with the Council of Fashion Designers of America in September, allowing two CFDA members to show at a CFDA co-branded booth at the events in New York and Los Angeles. Jewelry line Anthony Nak presented its newest collection, 0108 by Anthony Nak, and VPL designer Victoria Bartlett brought along the VPL Two diffusion line.

Anthony Nak created the 0108 line just for the show, and named it after the day the CFDA called about its participation. The collection features silver looks at wholesale price points of $100 to $690, as opposed to $900 to $25,000 for the company’s 18-karat yellow gold designs. “The response has been phenomenal,” said co-designer Anthony Camargo, adding that, based on the success at D&A, he and his partner, Nak Armstrong, plan to build on the diffusion line. “We now see a great opportunity for a diffusion business,” he said.

Ed Mandelbaum, who coproduces the show with Barbara Kramer, said, “All the stores are out shopping, but there’s definitely caution in the air. People are writing orders, but they are also taking more notes, it seems. Thankfully, this end of the business is where the growth has been, so I don’t think we will be affected by the downturn.”

Kramer noted that many booths offered more sophisticated and tailored wares, and that accessories had a strong showing, “which is also a sign of what is happening,” she said. “When the economy is tough, they may not buy new investment clothes, but they want to freshen up what they already have.”