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Challenges for Buyers, Vendors at L.A. Market

Economic conditions dictate cuts in orders and budgets.

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LOS ANGELES — Amid the gyrations in stocks and fears of a prolonged recession, buyers and vendors at the spring market here searched for new and versatile looks as they coped with reduced orders and budgets.

This story first appeared in the October 22, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Caution and frustration were evident during the market at the California Market Center, New Mart and Cooper Design Space that ended Tuesday.

Many retailers trolling the showrooms said they were taking a wait-and-see attitude before committing to any purchases.

Some buyers looking for items to reinvigorate sales lamented a lack of novelty in the lines.

“I’m seeing the same items repeated over and over; it’s the same lines and shapes in different colors or different fabrics,” said Monir Jalili, president of Irvine-based La Monir Collection, which does the bulk of its sales online. “Being an Internet-heavy retailer helps, but I have to have it all now because my customers won’t budge on what they want, which is hard when you’re trying to be conservative with inventory.”

Lorren Rhea’s contemporary store, Rocks n’ Knots in Baton Rouge, La., has suffered because of a double hit — the economic slowdown and Hurricane Gustav. Rhea wrote just two orders on Friday.

“The magnitude of all this is crippling, and it’s a ripple effect,” Rhea said. “The financial markets combined with the devastation of Gustav meant we were closed, with no revenue, for almost two weeks.”

However, beyond the discussion of financial woes, jumpsuits, rompers and shorts as well as tie-dyed fabrics, neon colors and other Eighties influences were among the spring trends.

In a testament to how the eco movement is evolving into a permanent — and trendsetting — fixture of the apparel industry, Designers & Agents introduced Green Market, an auxiliary show highlighting 65 environmentally friendly and socially responsible brands. Green Market, held at Cooper Design Space in conjunction with D&A, aimed to offer more than organic Ts.

The Green Gallery showroom in the Cooper space also had an environmental focus.

“I found some of the eco-friendly brands like ecoSkin were quite sophisticated and they didn’t look or feel like what you typically think of as green,” said Kelley Patrick, who manages retail at the Cordevalle luxury spa in San Martin, Calif. “That’s key in the higher end of the market.”

Risto Bimbiloski, the Paris-based line named after the designer of men’s knitwear for Louis Vuitton, found an audience for $220 hand-crocheted tunics punked up with zippers and plastic clips. Los Angeles’ Peligrosa said it received good responses for less expensive items, such as $22 T-shirts or higher-priced pieces like $158 banded dresses made of organic cotton. Seattle’s Prairie Underground offered basics with a twist, such as $110 cloaked hoodies that can double as dresses.

Casey Larkin, designer of the six-month-old San Francisco label called Mr. Larkin that made its debut at Green Market, aimed to elevate eco fashion with vintage embellishments — such as beads dating from the Fifties and paillettes that were created in the Thirties — on organic cotton, milk fiber and plant-dyed silk chiffon. One particularly striking piece was a $290 sleeveless dress that gathered at the knees.

After seasons of simplifying details in the regular contemporary category, designers again adorned clothes and bags with embellishments. Kitson ordered Jocelyn Inc.’s $39 washed cotton gauze scarves trimmed with colorful tassels.

As the prevalence of ombré and tie-dye proved, the more color, the better.

Foley + Corinna stitched handbags out of tie-dyed leather, while Tony Cohen caught buyers’ attention with a $220 silk minidress that highlighted different gradations of pink on the handkerchief lapel.

Retailers favored versatile looks, such as Julie Haus’ $190 black cotton coat whose sleeves and skirt could be zippered off.

“There’s a lot of fashion for the money,” said Cynthia O’Connor, who represents the Houston-based line at her namesake bicoastal showroom.

Designers also sensed a swing of the fashion pendulum back to skirts. After an absence of skirts in last spring’s collection, MiH Jeans offered three mini styles — an A-line version, a sporty number and a swing style stitched from multicolored panels — wholesaling from $80 to $240 for next year.

That’s not to say dresses didn’t have staying power. At Mason, the top sellers were slinky dresses, from a $125 one-shoulder jersey dress with an attached arm cuff to a $190 style with a ruched skirt and zippers splitting open the racer-back straps.

At the Brighte Companies trade show at the California Market Center, exhibitors reported that buyers, unnerved by the possibility of a deep recession, were canceling orders, slashing inventory and purchasing close to the season.

“People are starting to panic,” said Erin Biggers, head of sales for handbag brand Lockheart. “We are sticking with our [store] base, our tried and true right now.”

In order to coax buyers to order, vendors at Brighte suggested that goods represent value or stand out.

Basia Polowska, designer of the jewelry line Basia, said her substantial necklaces, especially those in the $150 to $155 wholesale range, were gaining traction, although some buyers had thought them too fashion-forward in seasons past.

“The market has changed, and people are looking for unique pieces,” she explained.

In accessories, value came from offering a variety of materials. At jewelry brand Azaara, designer Josef Arzili pointed out a pair of ball earrings that could be made in diamond and gold for $1,500 wholesale or cubic zirconia and sterling silver for $65 wholesale. And handbag brand Alexis Hudson touted a roomy tote at $240 wholesale for nylon, $310 for solid leather, $400 for stingray and $425 for embossed cobra.

“We really have done a good, better, best in terms of price point,” said Alexis Hudson co-founder Emily Ironi.

Medium-sized shapes — for example, messenger bags at Shih by Stephanie Lin, structured bodies at Jalda and foldover styles at Linea Pelle appeared dominant in spring collections. While vendors stressed that standard colors such as black and beige continued to be strong as buyers stuck to the classics, orange and blue tones were making headway.

“Orange is the new yellow,” said Kelly Boyd, operations manager at Shih by Stephanie Lin, a Beverly Hills-based handbag company that launched belts for December deliveries.

Despite the gloomy mood, a few retailers in the luxury end said their wholesale shopping price range was largely unaffected by market conditions.

“Though I always look for good value, right now the big-ticket items are still selling,” said Patrick of the Cordevalle luxury spa. “Accessories and fine jewelry are doing really well.”

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