CHICAGO — Value was more pivotal than ever at StyleMax, Chicago’s largest women’s apparel market. The weakened U.S. economy loomed large as Midwest buyers ordered fall fashions.

This story first appeared in the April 22, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“I’m a lot more selective than what I used to be,” said Erikka Wang, co-owner of Akira, a group of six women’s and men’s specialty stores in Chicago. “Everyone’s being more cautious.”

Wang scouted for dresses, still an in-demand category in her stores, considering cashmere-feel sweater dresses and wrap dresses from BCBG, long dresses from Laundry by Design, and silk chiffon dresses and cinched-waist hooded embellished jackets from French Connection.

Seeking to generate more business for buyers and vendors, market organizers held StyleMax, which ran for four days through April 8 at the Merchandise Mart, in conjunction with the National Bridal Market here.

“Everybody has been pretty upbeat, but if you don’t get excited about fall you shouldn’t be in the business,” said Susan McCullough, senior vice president for Merchandise Mart Properties. “If there are issues in retail here, it’s the weather.”

Earlamae Dahlby, owner of Feminine Fancies in La Crosse, Wisc., which carries sportswear from Picadilly, Fresh Produce and Bala Bala, also features bridal, special occasion and prom gowns, as well as bridal jewelry and tuxedos. She ordered painted sweatshirts with ribbons and buttons from Stick Chics, red, black, taupe and turquoise silk and cotton novelty jackets from Bleu Bayou, and cream, khaki, coffee and blue embroidered cotton separates from Nomadic Traders.

Bernice Burg, who for the first time sold her lines at the fall StyleMax rather than from her showroom at the nearby Apparel Center, reported strong sales.

“We were slammed for three days,” she said, noting that her lines attracted more regular and first-time customers. “We did have a successful show, but we have to work harder and smarter. Our buyers never complained about business, but they were more cautious than usual.”

For Burg, lines such as Fashionista, Fibers and One Girl Who have performed well, along with an eco-friendly label called The Pursuit of Harmony that features corn and bamboo scarves, cardigans made from soy and surprisingly soft corn and bamboo sweaters.

Michelle Brown, Pursuit of Harmony’s designer, said more buyers indicated that customers were requesting eco-friendly items.

That trend is one StyleMax organizers are trying to build upon. The trade show devoted a 2,000-square-foot “lifestyle” space to eco-friendly apparel, spa-inspired clothing and spa-related gifts such as candles, lotions and flip-flops. McCullough predicted that area and its assortment will grow.

Burg agreed, stating that fall’s more sophisticated looks complement the economic times. “Fall is not going to be trend driven, but clean and recession proof,” she said.

“It’s more a luxury driven, polished season,” said Susan Glick, vice president of fashion and marketing for Merchandise Mart Properties, pointing to the strong presence of velvet, brocade, organza and lace. “It’s a much richer season with an easy bridge for holiday.”

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