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CHICAGO — The January edition of the Stylemax trade show surprised even its organizers.

This story first appeared in the February 3, 2009 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

With the mood sober but positive, Susan McCullough, senior vice president of apparel for Merchandise Mart Properties Inc., said there was a double-digit increase in attendance compared with last year, but didn’t disclose figures. She credited the rise to more retailers shopping regionally, adding that “some buyers held off on spring [ordering] as long as they could.”

Organizers of the show that ran at the mart from Jan. 17 to 20 “were braced for the worst,” she said. “We were all pleasantly surprised.”

“Everyone understands the challenges ahead,” McCullough said. “Business is hard, but everyone was strangely not complaining. Maybe it was cathartic in a way, getting on with business.”

Allison Wojcik and her mother, Kay Horvath, owners of Whimsy Boutique & Gallery in Chesterton, Ind., which opened in June, placed orders for colorful cotton crinkle scarves from VSA in florals, neutrals, prints, stripes and solid orange and blue, as well as for organic cotton T-shirts and tanks in avocado, violet, pear and white from Ogle.

“We’re optimistic,” Wojcik said about business, noting that sales usually jump in the summer, when many Chicagoans and others travel to and around nearby lake resort towns.

The mother-and-daughter team also picked up tunics, sundresses and short-sleeve jackets in grays, white and taupe from Mystery and colorful spring dresses with floral prints, braided headbands and a lightweight ivory poncho with an olive-and-pink print from Free People.

“We’ve been cost-conscious,” Wojcik said. “But we’re still trying to figure out our age group and what people will spend.”

Her store enjoyed a good holiday business, and she hopes business will continue to grow as the word spreads.

“We’re still getting new customers who say, ‘Did you just open?’” Wojcik said.

Brandi M. Larkin, owner of Favorite Finds in Winamac, Ind., said December sales were down from last year, but not markedly so.

Citing the economy, Larkin said she is more focused on shopping for fair trade products or clothing made domestically.

“People are willing to pay more if they know it’s made here,” she said about consumers at her 2,500-square-foot store, which sells women’s clothing, accessories, home furnishings and baby gifts.

Larkin said she’s more thoughtful about the amount and type of merchandise she orders.

“Customers are still coming in, but they spend less per transaction,” she said, noting that a customer who previously spent $75 will spend $50.

At Stylemax, Larkin looked at cotton zip-up hoodies and long-sleeve T-shirts in orange, brown and purple from Mystery and vintage-inspired jackets with a floral motif in yellow, cream and orange from Nick & Mo.

Julie Berstler, owner of Gotta Have It Inc., a specialty store founded 18 years ago in Dubuque, Iowa, said she is also fine-tuning her buy.

“I’m definitely being more cautious,” she said. “I’ve definitely started buying closer to season, and I haven’t started buying much for fall.”

For spring and summer, Berstler said: “I’m staying away from neutrals. I think people have enough basics.”

She ordered ombré skirts, asymmetric skirts and dresses in bright colors from Zashi and lace camisoles in red, purple, lime and lilac from M. Rena. Berstler also shopped for printed jersey knit dresses from Lily and layering pieces such as scoopneck tops, tanks with lace and basic hoodies in salmon, lilac, white, ivory and black from Last Tango.

“All you can do is be hopeful,” she said. “We’re trying to get a nice variety without ordering a lot.”

Berstler also shopped for white, blue and black boot-cut and trouser-cut denim from Jag Jeans and denim and twill capris in a variety of colors, as well as crinkle, print and solid scarves from VSA. On the dress front, she went with brightly colored and white solid cotton slipdresses and white lightweight pleated flowing tops with cap and three-quarter sleeves from Eucalyptus.

“I’ve been through years where things were tough,” she said. “I know I have to be careful. In other years, I was quick to leave orders. Now I go home and look it over.”


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