FGI Panel Can’t Escape Retail’s Dour Forecast

John Mendes had little patience on Monday for trend talk of boyfriend jackets, accessories that can be spotted blocks away and absurdly high heels.

With retail in sharp decline, Plaza Too owner John Mendes had little patience on Monday for trend talk of boyfriend jackets, accessories that can be spotted blocks away and absurdly high heels.

This story first appeared in the November 11, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

At the Fashion Group International’s panel discussion at the Time & Life Building in Manhattan, Mendes, who was seated in the audience, said, “Actually, it’s very hard to listen to all of this because October has been a bloodbath. And I totally believe by the end of December a lot of people will not be standing, including one major department store. What’s actually happening out there is all the wealthy people have simply stopped walking through the door.”

Moderator Simon Doonan, creative director of Barneys New York, acknowledged, “Everyone who is in retail and fashion right now is seeing what you described as ‘a bloodbath.’ We see it, we feel it. We’re all doing expense cutting. It’s really terrifying. But I think my job is to sustain the idea that fashion is exciting and glamorous. We really need to do our best even if sales are plunging — and maximize what [sales] they might be.”

Afterwards, Mendes and Stacey Pecor, owner of Olive & Bette’s, talked about how more of their customers are trying to barter because of the drastic markdowns at department stores and better specialty stores. “All they have to do is go online. Even all the stuff that hasn’t even come into the [department] stores is on sale,” Pecor said.

But she won’t negotiate price with shoppers. “We’re a full-priced store. We don’t do that.”

Mendes added, “It’s not ‘Let’s Make a Deal’” at his nine-store chain.

During the discussion, Mendes stressed the need to connect with consumers in a meaningful way, whether it be through the election, a holiday or another experience that resonates with them. Earlier, Doonan noted that Barneys New York is planning a so-called hippie holiday with products and store windows that celebrate the anniversary of the peace sign and the breakthrough year of 1968.

For the first time, the Madison Avenue flagship will celebrate the unveiling of its holiday window displays with a sidewalk celebration on Nov. 16. “We’re doing a lot and they are things that are accessible to people, and we feel really communicate to people and that goes beyond fashion,” Doonan said. “And I think that is very important, conversing with customers as well as bigger things in culture that they are hearing about.”

The panelists were: Linda Dresner, president of Linda Dresner Inc.; Bloomingdale’s vice president and fashion director Stephanie Solomon; Neiman Marcus accessories director Sondra Wilson; Vogue fashion news and features director Sally Singer, and In Style beauty director Amy Synnott.

Solomon said price is playing a bigger role and stores should tout the range of prices they offer. Dresner said a mix of high and low is needed to entice shoppers. “Otherwise you have a dull atmosphere and I don’t see why people would even want to come through the door.”

Singer added, “With editorial, again, we have told all designers that we are not going to show the extreme ends of a collection.”

Earlier, Singer noted magazines are more willing to show less expensive designer items. In Vogue’s December issue, the Index section will have designer items retailing for $500 or less — something the magazine requested. Price is also coming into play with young designers who started out in contemporary sportswear. Many have “inched” their prices up as a way to be taken more seriously, but “we keep telling them to keep their prices down,” Singer said.

Asked about ideas to get people shopping, Solomon said, “The word ‘escape’ comes to mind immediately. Bloomingdale’s is always a place to escape. They should not feel the pressure to buy something. That’s not the point. The point is to be entertained, to learn something,” she added, pointing to the 40th anniversaries of Woodstock and the moon landing as upcoming tie-ins.

“Because of the change that is going on in the White House, everyone has a sense of freedom. People are going to find their own way and look themselves and not feel so pressured to look like someone else. It’s the mood of hope, confidence, let me find my own way — just as Barack Obama has done,” Solomon said.

When an audience member asked panelists to name a few must-have accessories under $200, Wilson was hard-pressed, but Solomon jumped in, “Shop at Bloomingdale’s — we have tons.”

But Doonan left attendees on an upbeat note. “When war broke out, Quentin Crisp went out and bought 10 pounds of henna. You don’t get it, do you? It means when times are tough, you have to be even more fabulous and more glamorous, and you have to rise above it,” he said.