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With about 750 brands spread across 300,000 square feet of the Mandalay Bay Events Center, Project Las Vegas was downsized from its previous 550,000-square-foot home at the Sands Expo and Convention Center. The factors were the intentional migration of brands to the new Premium section of MAGIC, as well as the slow economy.

This story first appeared in the February 25, 2009 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Although the trend-driven show was smaller, it still exerted significant gravitational pull on retailers, and traffic was heavy and steady on the show floor, vendors said. Against the backdrop of low expectations, many attendees said the season has proven stronger than anticipated.

“I thought it was going to be a lot worse,” said Jade Howe, founder and designer of Howe, which he owns in partnership with Seattle Pacific Industries. “We actually have more appointments this season than last, and we’ve been busy all day.”

Howe pointed to the appeal of his poly-viscose suits that retail for $250, and other key items such as cardigans and $155 Japanese denim jeans as reasons for the brand’s resiliency in the retail downturn.

“We’re not going to post the same numbers we did last year, but I’m happy with the season so far,” said Eric Kim, founder of Monarchy, a division of Hartmarx Corp., which is operating under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Kim was confident his brand would survive the bankruptcy proceedings and was pushing his new higher-end Monarchy Black label, which features cleaner styles and better fabrics.

At the opposite end, Kim was also hawking an affordably priced label, called Manchester, which was previously only sold to Buckle Inc., but has been picked up by Macy’s Inc., Dillard’s Inc. and Von Maur Inc. department stores. To aid independent specialty retailers, Monarchy was offering 15 percent wholesale discounts to selected partners, with the stipulation that they not lower retail prices.

Monarchy’s high-low price play was echoed by James Hammonds, men’s buyer at American Rag Cie who said the retailer was doing best with high-end luxury product and low-cost basics.

“We’re doing well with really exclusive stuff like Rick Owens Dark Shadow and then cheap, easy basics,” he noted. At Project, some of his favorite brands included two heritage labels: Woolrich John Rich Bros. and Farah Vintage, a label debuting from Perry Ellis U.K., featuring reissues of trouser styles from the Sixties and Seventies.


That kind of unique product is important to independent specialty retailers that have been squeezed by the widespread discounting at the majors, said Sam Ben-Avraham, president of Project and the owner of two Atrium stores in New York and Miami.

“It’s important to have merchandise that isn’t in the department stores,” he said. “My own strategy at Atrium has been to go higher-end. I have loyal customers, and price is not so much of an issue with them.”

Seven For All Mankind was aiming to boost specialty stores with a new line called Premiere 7, which it will offer exclusively to independent retailers, including Atrium, Blue Bee in Santa Barbara, Calif., and E Street Denim Co. in Highland Park, Ill., starting in the fall. Retailing primarily between $174 and $198, the men’s and women’s styles feature special fits, washes and labeling. Unlike some specialty store-only product, Premiere 7 is not priced higher than the core Seven For All Mankind line.

“This is commercially priced product that specialty stores can build volume on,” explained Topher Gaylord, president of Vernon, Calif.-based Seven, a unit of VF Corp. “They don’t want to give all the volume to department stores.”

While some premium denim makers have been cutting prices, Seven is maintaining its positioning. “We think it’s really important to stay above the $150 threshold,” Gaylord said. “Consumers are comfortable with that price, but we need to make them understand the handcrafted nature of premium denim. Our sweet spot is between $160 and $190.”

Seven plans to open nine to 15 new stores in the U.S. this fall, and is aiming to capitalize on attractive real estate deals stemming from the economic slowdown.

“Cheap and cheerful” was the mantra for Fraser Ross, owner of the celebrity-centric Kitson boutiques based in Los Angeles as he shopped for women’s accessories adorned with beads, Buddha figures, crosses and other talismans connoting the Bohemian look. He was particularly interested in wholesale prices that would allow for 300 percent initial markups.

“If the item goes on sale for 50 percent, I’ll still make money,” he said, noting he faces stiff competition from department stores and their discounts.

At Gant, the economic slowdown had a silver lining in luxury retailers who were looking at the contemporary label in a new light. “Some stores that used to look down their noses at us have come calling,” said Ari Hoffman, chief executive officer of Gant USA. “I think there’s a 90 percent chance we’ll be in Saks this fall, and Neiman Marcus is expanding us from five test stores to 10 doors.”

Sweden-based Gant is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year — it was founded in New Haven — and the company plans to tout the milestone in advertising and promotional events this fall. Its marketing spend will be even with last year, said Hoffman.

AG Adriano Goldschmied was another brand bucking the recession. Design director Sam Ku, son of owner Yul Ku, said AG Adriano Goldschmied sales are up 30 percent in 2009 compared with the same period last year, on the strength of its vintage AG-ed line, despite price tags of $225 to more than $300. “We haven’t seen price resistance because what we do is so different,” he explained of the men’s and denim range, which features washes that replicate wear-and-tear of one to 17 years.

True Religion was pushing novelty and fashion offerings, including ripped and torn looks, crystal-studded styles and leather pocket details, in addition to a range of distressed corduroy.

“We have never seen the company offer so much newness on so many levels,” noted Eric Beder, analyst at Brean Murray, Carret & Co. in a research note from the show. “We believe, in a tough economy where the consumer wants material newness, that True Religion will have a variety of exciting offerings.”

At an adjacent booth, denim rival Joe’s Jeans unveiled unisex woven shirts under a new subbrand, The Shirt by Joe’s. Retailing for about $129, with sizes running from XS to XL, the button-fronts are cut in either fitted or relaxed silhouettes, in 65 fabric choices, ranging from plaid flannel to cream cotton printed with small stars. The company is planning to open two new California stores, an outlet in Camarillo this fall and a full-price unit at Santa Monica Place in spring 2010.

For women’s buyers, Paige Premium Denim showcased jeans tinted in turquoise, hot pink and other vibrant colors in collaboration with nail care company OPI. Superdry sold $82 jersey camisoles in bright and light colors to offset dark jeans. MEK Denim customized 18-wale corduroy in dark purple and forest green.


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