A jacket from Two Ten Ten Five and dress by Pete & Greta, both divisions of Johnny Was.

The vulnerability of the U.S. economy dictated a key theme of the fall market at FashionCenterDallas here, as buyers exercised caution in searching for key items and strong value.

DALLAS — The vulnerability of the U.S. economy dictated a key theme of the fall market at FashionCenterDallas here, as buyers exercised caution in searching for key items and strong value.

“The hardest thing to do is buy enough that you are covered, but not too much,” said John White, owner of John White Ltd., a 25-year-old men’s and women’s specialty store in Hattiesburg, Miss. “It’s like being on a fence, and there’s alligators on one side and lava on the other. You’re either going to get burned or you’re going to get bitten.”

Many buyers were nervous because business was off in March, said Brad Hughes, whose showroom represents brands such as Lafayette 148 and Nicole Miller.

“We are telling them to spend money on what makes them money and buy those labels deeper and own them, and that way you have a partner,” Hughes said. “It’s the only way, and it calms them down.”

However, there are areas of strength in the economy of the Southwest, particularly in Texas. Several retailers at the four-day market that ended March 30 reported solid business, as did the Dallas Market Center, which operates the wholesale venue within the World Trade Center.

“Attendance numbers were good and order writing was steady, perhaps due in part to our region’s continuing economic strength,” said Cindy Morris, chief operating officer of the DMC.

“Business is very steady and stable,” said Kathi Lake, owner of J. Winston, an upscale store in Amarillo, Tex. “In Amarillo, the economy is actually pretty good. I won’t go crazy for fall, but I’m certainly not going to cut back. There is a lot of newness in color, the new three-quarter-sleeve jacket, the pencil and full skirts and lighter-weight fabrics.”

Carol Peretz, who shows her namesake eveningwear line and the Twisted sportswear collection at her corporate room, said, “Most of the buyers are saying it’s tough, but a few of them are saying it’s booming and they’re the ones who bought adventurously. I hear from stores in Texas, Louisiana, Georgia, Florida and Illinois at this market, and [they say] business is there, but it takes so much more effort to make the sale. Customers are not doing as much impulse buying. It has to be special.”

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

Buyers praised the diversity of silhouettes and the colorful fall palette of jewel tones and ombré treatments. Bestsellers included tailored sportswear collections in luxurious fabrics, knitwear layered over denim, full skirts, item jackets and eveningwear in shiny fabrics or studded with chunky jewels. In dresses, drawstring necklines and Seventies-inspired blouson styles gained ground. An unusually large number of lines also offered spring styles for quick delivery.

“There is something for everybody,” said Alice Hinton, owner of Pastiche in Nashville. “We are searching mainly for item-driven pieces that are unique and colorful at a good price point. We are paring down [inventory] because the last several years in the South have been so warm and spring is bigger for us.”

Penta’s emerald bell-sleeve jacket appealed to Hinton, as well as Teri Jon’s terra-cotta ombré dress with a full skirt and Donna Morgan’s metallic gold brocade fitted tank dress and matching coat.

Brothers Tome and Francisco Ares picked up spring and fall party dresses for their 12-store chain, Boutique Maria Isabel. Based in Mexico City, the company has 10 special occasion stores throughout Mexico and two in Barcelona.

“We are looking for very particular suppliers to negotiate exclusivity and then we buy in quantity, like 1,000 pieces,” Tome Ares said.

Francisco Ares selected a fall black knit blouson dress with short sleeves from Max Studio, as well as a white, yellow and turquoise print shift with a drawstring neckline for immediate delivery.

“This is the first time that the economy in Mexico is not dependent on the U.S.,” Tome Ares said.

Knitwear, skinny pants and tunics over leggings topped the list for Alex Bratton, contemporary buyer for Balliet’s in Oklahoma City, who found a new label of layered knitwear called Rhys Dwfen. She shopped with Balliet’s owner DeDe Benham, who had more mature customers in mind.

“There are so many things for young customers, and we are looking for nice dresses and cocktail [attire] for women who want their arms covered,” Benham said. “Tapestry is a new line that looked good and addresses that.”

One Texas retailer came up with a new product to cover overexposed cleavage in low-cut tops and dresses. Marla Ross, owner of Adelante in San Antonio, introduced a cropped stretch tube at Moxie showroom, which attaches to bra straps.

Called Chickies, it’s available in black or nude for $15. Ross said she received 120 calls for the product last month after it was featured on a lifestyle TV show in San Antonio.

Another innovative product shown at market was a stick-on backless bra from Sassybax LLC. The Very Bare bra, made of microfiber nylon, spandex and silicone glue, wholesales for $33 and is sized AA to DD. It was featured in the February issue of O, The Oprah Magazine, and could do $5 million in first-year sales, said Lorraine Chambers, vice president.

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