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At Pitti Bimbo’s 74th edition this month, buyers and exhibitors were nervous about the European economy, and there was little agreement over expectations for the children’s wear sector.
One positive note came from the international set. While overall attendance took a hit — down to 10,000 from over 11,000 in June 2011 — the number of buyers increased to 8,000 from under 7,000, largely thanks to an influx of foreigners, including Russians (up 14 percent), Japanese (up 80 percent), Brazilians (up 15 percent) and Americans (up 17 percent.) There was a drop in attendance for Spanish, Greek and Portuguese buyers, and a slight dip for Italian buyers compared with the fair’s previous edition.
Though determined to impress international visitors, some exhibitors were guarded about the coming year.
At Marie-Chantal, which dresses children from birth through age 12, boys’ designer Elizabeth Stuff, who has been coming to Pitti Bimbo for the past three years, said she had numerous appointments scheduled but noticed that the crowd was thinner than in previous years. She said buyers were hesitant to discover new labels.
“They’re concentrating more on brands they know,” she observed.
Princess Marie-Chantal of Greece launched the company in 2001, aiming to provide high-quality children’s wear that is “quite fashionable but not necessarily trendy,” Stuff explained. For boys, the fall collection offered brown or green denim and quilted gilets, and for girls, a modern take on classic smock dresses.
Raffaele Mori, owner of Biba, a Parma, Italy-based maker of children’s accessories (headbands, bow ties, belts, neckties), agreed that buyers were risk-averse.
“The desire to take chances is down,” Mori said. “They’re playing it safe. I would do the same if I were a retailer.”
At Petit Bateau, commercial director Lorenzo Moro said Italy was the second most important market for the French brand outside its home turf.
“Petit Bateau finished  with the same sales as the previous year, which for us is a good result” in light of current economic conditions, said Moro. Commenting on Italy’s retail woes, he noted that whereas vendors used to count on a pre-Christmas boost followed by sales, today many consumers wait for discounts before they shop, leaving stores with a lot of inventory.
Moro added that the toughest sectors are large-scale retailers — which are making fewer purchases — and smaller businesses, many of which are closing.
Paolo Marta, a founder of Kukubali, a sportswear brand that showed at Pitti Bimbo for the first time, was more positive, noting buyers from Germany, Austria and Australia had approached his firm, which makes polos, tracksuits and T-shirts. It’s available throughout Italy and in Spain. Kukubali is Swahili for “accept,” Marta explained, and to promote the idea of acceptance and diversity, the brand plays with reversible garments, “giving dignity to the ‘reverse,’ to all that we normally hide, to what we fear or don’t know and cast aside.”
Marta said buyers were willing to take a chance on the brand’s summer collection, partly thanks to the low minimum purchase required: 48 garments, for approximately 950 euros, or $1,253 at current exchange. “We are convinced that it’s the only way to enter the market and allow the end consumer to ‘taste’ our product,” said Marta.
Raffaella Cerreta, scouting trends for her shop Viky V in Sarzana, near La Spezia, Italy, said she had noticed the large number of foreign buyers wandering through the exhibition stands. She did not think the European economic crisis was seriously impacting children’s wear, because “children grow, and you always have to dress them.”
Designer Ermanno Scervino shared Cerreta’s outlook: “The feeling is that it’s a world that isn’t seeing a decline. There’s a lot of enthusiasm,” he said, adding that his company is investing in more product research: “Creativity is important. Intuition is important.” Scervino’s junior collection uses a mix of plaid, checks, lace and fringe in a nod to British rockers from the Sixties.
Gloria Schiavoncini, a buyer from Rimini who has been coming to Pitti Bimbo for many years, said she was disappointed in the offerings. She was scouring the stands for her mother’s stores — Pongo, specializing in sporty styles, and Pinocchio, which carries numerous designer lines for kids, including Giorgio Armani, Dolce & Gabbana and Ralph Lauren.
“It was all things that have been seen time and again,” she said, noting the only real surprise was the amount of color shown. She added that her mother calls the current situation the “worst in 46 years” for retail.
Color and sparkle did abound at the fair, in layered, chunky sweaters and puffy down jackets, or on shoes embellished with crystals or studs. Naturino’s collaboration with Swarovski, which bowed at Pitti, led to blue, red and green lace-ups with tiny crystals, and Petit Bateau showed bright rain boots and ballet flats with polka dots.
Spanish brand Desigual, which is planning a retail expansion in the U.S., showed a new baby line with psychedelic prints alongside a wild array of flashy stripes, floral designs and checks for boys and girls.
Staple Italian designer brands also went for color. Moschino, which channeled the world’s fashion capitals in its lineup, showed a dress with Milan’s Duomo cathedral across the front and Swarovski crystals scattered at the top. Miss Blumarine held a fashion show, presenting yellow ankle boots with glittery heels, as well as shiny high-tops in copper or silver.
In its private showroom, Gucci presented leather jackets in ochre, floral party dresses in deep blue-violet velvet and small ladybug bags. In line with its adult collection, the familiar “G” logo was noticeably less conspicuous, however — perhaps tacit acknowledgement of the tense economic climate.
Raffaello Napoleone, chief executive officer of organizer Pitti Immagine, noted: “There were many high-quality visitors, and despite the predictable fall in Italian attendance — everyone knows the situation in our country is very difficult, consumption is at an all-time low and retailers are finding things very hard — all the top international retailers, boutiques and department stores were there.”