Seeking Uniqueness

A softer economy might be causing retailers to look again at their open-to-buy budgets.

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Retailers shop Project to find new and different lines they haven’t seen before.

This story first appeared in the February 7, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

A softer economy might be causing retailers to look again at their open-to-buy budgets. But store owners and buyers agree that they are saving as many dollars as they can for Project, where they hope to find lines they’ve never seen before, and source categories other than denim. The key, they say, is to balance innovative and avant-garde finds with pieces that can be a guaranteed success.

“We’re going to be cautious with what we’re putting in our store buying going forward,” said Diane Merrick, owner of the eponymous Los Angeles boutique. “Because of everything going on — from the economy to the writers’ strike — we want to offer basics that are the best of the best.”

Specifically, she’ll be sourcing “good-quality Ts, new denim lines, leggings and great dresses,” but says she will want to leave behind “a lot of the baby-doll dresses and sparkles.” Instead, she is confident that top sellers for next season will be classic pieces with an updated, modern twist.

“I’ll be looking for things that are all about comfort — wonderful, delicious, cozy clothes that you can wear day and night.”

Previous finds for her at Project include Line, a cashmere collection, which has done very well in her store. She says she will be shopping Pool, Project and MAGIC concurrently.

“You can fill a store in three days with anything and everything from those shows,” she said.

Many buyers will at least take a peek at Pool and MAGIC while shopping Project, just to get a sense of what’s on offer. Fred Levine, owner of the M. Fredric chain based in Agoura Hills, Calif., says Project is where he goes to seek out “the meat and potatoes for contemporary apparel, especially contemporary men’s.

“Since we have taken a pretty lofty position in the retail men’s market, we need to scour the floor at Project to find the best of the best,” he said. “Noteworthy is Project’s success at gathering the most complete collection of the latest and greatest in the men’s contemporary market — both in premium denim and in collections and item tops and bottoms.”

While Levine says he will be seeking out new lines, he also is counting on his current vendors to show new and fresh collections.

“I am not narrowing in on any particular needs since it’s sometimes better to go in with an empty slate and a full open-to-buy to score on something novel that just catches your eye,” he said.

The cutting-edge nature of the show continues to be a draw for retailers.

“There’s always something new there,” said Jaye Hersh, owner of Intuition in Los Angeles. “There are always people waiting to launch there, and I’m all about finding something I haven’t seen before.”

Hersh has found belt and other accessory lines at previous Project shows, as well as interesting Los Angeles designers — a category she likes to support. Because hers is a women’s boutique and much of Project is men’s driven, she is especially keen to source men’s lines that might be bowing a women’s collection.

“I like to go there really open-minded,” she said. “Project is historically denim and T-shirt driven, and there will always be people trying to reinvent the wheel. But our business in particular has a very loyal customer who comes to us to find out what they’re supposed to wear next. They wear jeans every day and are not interested in denim lines that are already overexposed.”

Trends-wise, she’ll be seeking out items that are darker and cleaner, with lots of wide-legged and trouser styles.

That Project is offering more than just denim makes it all the more appealing. Randy Brewer, general manager of Villains in San Francisco, said he wanted to “find some things that aren’t denim.

“We definitely want to move more strongly in the direction of dresses, skirts and nice jackets,” he said. “And you can’t help but buy on trend because every single trend in the world is there.”

He’s previously sourced jacket line Penfield and a women’s collection called Cassette at Project, both of which have been proven sellers for him. He goes in armed with a “game plan,” essentially a floor plan of exactly who he wants to see. But he tends to write up his orders afterward instead of on the spot.

Buyers say they have learned to be quick and efficient when working Project, especially if they want to check out MAGIC and Pool, as well.

“I’m fast,” said Jana Adler, women’s buyer at The Lounge in New York. “I walk through, see something I like, grab the info and then follow up later.” She will single out brands whose showrooms she doesn’t get a chance to visit, and says she is often “pleasantly surprised” by what’s on offer.

“Every show, you hope to find something really great and new,” she said. “I’m focusing on fit because that’s what customers really notice. Stores are so inundated these days, but customers know what fits well and that’s always what sells.”

Because of the breadth of what’s on offer, retailers say they can nail any trend — be that dark washes or light, skinny jeans or wide.

“We’ve been doing really well with skinny jeans, so I’m hoping to find some more of those,” said Jeff Barnard, owner and buyer of the JMR stores in Utah. “Our denim business has been really good for the last few months, mostly due to the skinny jeans, which our customer is buying and wearing with boots.”

He will be checking in with the 20 or 30 brands he already buys, and says it’s helpful to see them all under one roof so he can compare who is doing what.

“Also, I’ll be looking for five or 10 new lines to bring in at this time of year. I like things I haven’t heard of yet, and it’s great to network with other buyers to hear about what’s new. You can usually feel a buzz at a particular booth.”

Like Merrick, Jackie Brander, owner of Fred Segal Fun in Los Angeles, is saving her dollars for something hot, new and interesting.

“I try to save money for new, unknown vendors,” she said. “I love the excitement of bringing in something that no one has yet.” She will be sourcing pieces that are “feminine and girly, earthy and soft,” which are a takeoff from last season’s Seventies- and Eighties-inspired trends.

“Project has everything for me,” she said. “It is an extremely well put together show. I spend days going up and down the aisles and usually go back around to make sure I didn’t miss anything.”

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