Buyers and exhibitors at two New York trade shows last week said that during periods of economic stress the best defense is a good offense.

Resources at Designers at the Jumeirah Essex House, which ran May 4-5, said that translates into trying to be more proactive about building their trunk show business. Retailers attending Nouveau Collective at The New Yorker Hotel, said they are being more selective in what they carry, offering layaway plans and versatile separates.

This story first appeared in the May 13, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“Everyone is absolutely concerned about the economy,” said Suzanne Kim, owner of New York-based Stillman Studio, a Nouveau Collective exhibitor. “People don’t have any disposable income. If this is going on in New York, go out to Syracuse and Rochester. It’s a disaster. Clothing stores are boarded up here and there. I don’t know what is going to bring it back or if it will come back.”

Kim said she is holding her own because of loyal customers who want her unusual coats and suits.

Lisa DuFore, buyer for Midnight Sun in Oswego, N.Y., talked about how her employer recently closed Katmandu, another store it owned on the same block. Now Midnight Sun is offering a wider range of merchandise, said DuFore, who was looking for Indian imports and other items that used to be sold at Katmandu. The store is also offering a wider range of price points, starting at $20 for a “fun item,” but not exceeding $100.

“There are fewer people, and people who are shopping are spending less than they used to,” she said. “We’re trying to offer more unique items that are not in more mainstream markets. That is tough to figure out.”

In Saginaw, Mich., Elaine Cook, owner of Elie Divas, has seen a competitor post an “Everything Must Go” sign and another promote 80 percent off its entire store. Cook said she has maintained a strong customer base by sticking with her company’s slogan, “Bigtime Fashion With Smalltime Prices.” She said she was looking for semiformal pieces, dresses, skirts and jackets. “Our regular customers know our prices are fair,” Cook said.

At the end of last year, she started offering repeat customers a layaway plan that has become more popular.

Nancy Shank, owner of DUGO, or Dress Up Go Out, in Minneapolis, said business is running ahead of last year. Focusing on special-occasion dressing has helped keep the cash register ringing. “For a wedding or any other big event in life, they are spending as planned. They have saved up for that.”

Shank, who also hit the Essex House to see Mark Heister, said there is more interest in separates since they are not “one-time wears.”

At the design firm Lourdes Chavez, Chavez’s husband, Billy Busse, said he noted a slowdown in February and doesn’t expect the economy to bounce back until next February. So the company is encouraging stores to stage more trunk shows, which they are inclined to do because they are stocking less merchandise. As a result, Lourdes Chavez expects to have its best year for trunk show sales, with 60 planned.

“We’re trying to get stores to do three trunk shows a year instead of fall and summer,” he said, adding that gives salespeople the advantage of being in contact with customers more frequently than they might otherwise be.

With 30 employees in its Vernon, Calif., offices, the company offers a four-to-six-week turnaround for its garments, which has been a plus with stores, Busse said.

At David Hayes, associate designer Enrique Santo Domingo noted that several out-of-state stores at the show in February skipped the May edition.

With consumers shying away from buying complete outfits, buyers looked for more separates, such as a fox-trimmed jacket and a jacket with silk organza trim, which can be worn with different outfits, Santo Domingo said.

Shopping at David Hayes for suits and evening clothes, Leslie Rigler, owner of Miriam Rigler, a boutique on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, said: “People want something special and they are willing to spend money for something special. Quality is what’s selling.”

Suzanne Hendrix, who handles marketing and design for Linda Cunningham, a Jacksonville, Fla.-based eveningwear resource that also owns two signature stores in Jacksonville and Houston, said women are comfortable spending $2,500 or $3,000 but that is as far as they will go. She said she should increase her prices due to fuel surcharges that freight carriers and UPS have instituted. In addition, sourcing fabric from France has become more expensive.

“In this economy, everybody has to give a little,” she said. “Would you do alterations for free? Depending on the day and that moment in time, I might say, ‘Yes, I would love to.'”

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