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LAS VEGAS — Play it safe, but not too safe. That’s the strategy of retailers at MAGIC here as they navigate the recession.
This story first appeared in the February 18, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Although some stores reported a slight thaw in consumer spending — even selling some early spring merchandise at full price — they’re watching their inventories and expenses.
For men’s and women’s, the quest for value was driving retail orders.
“We’re seeing traction at the lower end, where we’re offering value, and the higher end, where we have newness,” said Steve Lawrence, general merchandise manager of men’s wear for J.C. Penney Co. Inc. Merchandise that is selling offers “salable newness, nothing tricky.”
Lawrence was shopping MAGIC for items that fit that bill, including argyle sweaters that were “understandable, but not what everybody already has.”
Overall, Lawrence said he was “optimistic” about fall, not because he expects a surge in business, but because retailers are “better prepared” than they were last year.
Kevin Morrissey, gmm of men’s for Macy’s East, searched for hot items and new classifications. “Customers respond to new ideas,” he said. “We’re looking to add some twists to our core items.” He expects fashion outerwear, woven shirts and fleece to connect with customers for fall.
Scott Collins, gmm of Downtown Locker Room, said sales rose almost 4 percent in January and are up more than 40 percent in February. Although shoes continue to drive sales, apparel is up 13 percent. He attributed the rise to a focus on proprietary lines from vendors such as Coogi.
He sought outerwear in “layering weights,” vests and bottoms that are “a little more tricked up,” such as those with extreme washes or distressed details. The young men’s and juniors chain is not cutting back on orders and is willing to take risks. “If we’re wrong, we’re going to be wrong with conviction,” he said.
Scott Norris, gmm of The Men’s Wearhouse Inc., reported that the company’s suit business was robust, albeit driven by a buy-one-get-one-free promotion. He also said there were no plans to cut back on purchasing. “We have large buying power and we’re looking to take advantage of that with quantity.”
For fall, Norris anticipates suit sales will be strong, along with dress shirts and pants. On the sportswear end, he revealed that Men’s Wearhouse is converting its MW Tux stores (formerly After Hours) to Men’s Wearhouse & Tux and will add denim, T-shirts and a little tailored clothing to appeal to the younger customer who shops in these stores for his rental tuxedo needs.
Retailers shopping the condensed show at the Las Vegas Convention Center looked for updated classics that will offer customers “the right mix of newness and familiarity,” said David Wolfe, creative director of The Doneger Group. “This is the time for tried and true trends. The trick is to refresh and tweak them.”
For men, that includes hybrid sport coats, muted plaids, argyle sweaters, vests, military-inspired outerwear, bright colors, cardigans and subtle details. For young men, extreme washes, Eighties and Nineties prints, transitional jackets, rugged country influences, plaid hoodies, V-necks or Y-necks and exploded graphics are expected to be strong for fall.
International buyers were walking the convention center.
“We are looking for fitted T-shirts, smaller sizes because the bigger styles don’t fit many people in Japan,” said Manabu Shirakana, a buyer for Nano Universe in Tokyo. “We’re especially looking for casual, L.A. styles.”
Dresses, particularly in colorful prints and dyed batik, were still a big category, especially long maxidresses.
Most buyers were reluctant to place early orders, but many said they would buy small quantities before the end of the show. They were looking for retail price points well under $100, with $60 or less being the most desirable.
“At $50 or less, people just pick up what they like and buy it. At more than $50, they’ll think twice about it,” said Wendy Litowitz Frederick, whose store in Charleston, S.C., caters to tourists.
In response to retailers’ concerns, several vendors lowered prices even at the risk of shrinking profit margins. Denim brand STS Blue dropped the top range of its jeans to $98 from $120, and sister brand See Thru Soul reduced its price to $68 from $78. XCVI, a casual contemporary clothier from Los Angeles, offered what it dubbed incentive groups, which cost 30 percent less than the regular line. “Retailing around $100 right now is key,” said Chris Myers, a sales representative for XCVI.
Still, some companies believed consumers would shell out money for something unique. Brazil’s Colcci trimmed a cropped fake fur bolero with gold buttons for $200. PRVCY Premium sprinkled paisley-shaped leather appliqués and nail heads on jeans retailing from $220 to $240. Plus, Los Angeles denim brand Modern Blend launched for fall with jeans adorned with leather appliqués, Swarovski crystals and neon threading, retailing from $132 to $205.
Bright colors dominated the palette, from fuchsia and tangerine to marigold and poppy red. There were some advocates of neutral hues, including Los Angeles’ Ryu, which chose peach for its dresses spruced up with ruffles and fringe.
Novelty was prevalent. For its new men’s line, loungewear label PJ Salvage printed images of eggs and bacon on $36 flannel bottoms. Nelli, a contemporary line based in San Diego, enhanced its flirty frocks with heart prints, polkadots, citrus tints and watercolor-inspired splashes.
Indeed, some retailers didn’t bother with basic looks. Casendra Bowen, owner of Bottoms Boutique in Anchorage made her first shopping trip to WWDMAGIC in a quest for jeans and shoes, particularly “something that’s flashy and modern,” she said. In addition to distressed treatments, she also preferred light washes.
Terra Holmes, the owner of Metro Skin boutique in Edmond, Okla., was on the hunt for summer maxidresses, and crystals on hats, jeans and shirts because the embellishments increase the chances of making a sale in her store.
In the men’s market, Premium at MAGIC, a new showcase at the remade, remixed and remodeled MAGIC Man, won early approval Tuesday for its mix of established vendors such as Nicole Farhi and DKNY and new finds like Sand, a Danish clothing company, and Paris-based Hoon.
Hoon, which sells hip leather blousons and cropped cashmere peacoats for temples of Parisian cool such as Colette, made its U.S. debut here. Handmade and trimmed in gold, the jackets, which top out at $3,000, aren’t exactly recession-friendly, but their tailoring and fresh designs prove that special pieces at luxury pricing still have a place in this market. “We want to make perfectly beautiful things,” said designer and founder Adrien Haddad.
Most other exhibitors on the first day of MAGIC espoused a more practical approach, emphasizing trend-focused apparel and competitive pricing.
Contemporary sportswear vendors aren’t the only ones focusing on price. Lee Terrill, president of Phillips-Van Heusen Corp.’s neckwear division, said $85 is the new sweet spot for better lines, down from $130. At the department store, $24.99 is “critical” this year. “We’re not changing prices, but just focusing on those brands that are more favorably priced,” Terrill said.
In the juniors section of MAGIC, vendors showed spring and summer styles, often excluding fall, and retailers placed immediate orders for reasonable offerings covering the variety of trends, notably bohemian chic and grunge.