CHICAGO — With expectations low, Stylemax, the largest women’s apparel market in the Midwest, fared better than anticipated as turmoil engulfed the financial markets.

This story first appeared in the November 6, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Amid concerns about business, some vendors reported brisk sales and attendance was almost on par with last year.

Buyers at the trade show that ran Oct. 18 to 21 at the Merchandise Mart here cautiously placed orders, with some noting that add-on sales from accessories were boosting their bottom line in the face of a slowdown in clothing sales.

Deanna Millhouse, buyer for Geneseo, Ill.-based GWK Enterprises, which runs a collection of six women’s specialty stores in Illinois and Iowa called Four Seasons, described overall business was fair, with sales of Spanx bras and shapewear representing a highlight.

“We’re holding our own, but our Spanx business does nothing but continue to go up,” she said.

Millhouse said she was initially concerned about how higher priced items such as the $62 bra or $72 Slim Cognito midthigh bodysuit would perform in her stores, a few of which are in small or rural towns. But she need not have worried. Her stores, which now each have mini Spanx shops, sold out of the bras immediately and they continue to perform well, with about 80 sold in September, she said.

In October, the Four Seasons stores, which range from 7,000 square feet to 15,000 square feet, sold about 1,000 units of Spanx merchandise, equating to an estimated $29,000 in sales.

Although sportswear sales have been soft, sales of accessories — Spanx, scarves, handbags and jewelry — have been up.

“That part of our business continues to grow,” Millhouse said. “With accessories, because of the price point, you can have some fun.”

At Stylemax, Millhouse ordered matching knit hoodies and lounge pants in novelty prints from Produce Co. and silk, polyester and pashmina-style wraps and scarves from Sue Cox.

“We’re shopping conservatively,” she said. “It really has to be a great item for us to buy.”

Karin Berger, owner of the Karin Berger Ltd. showroom, said “business is very item driven,” pointing to a popular silk print dress from Walter with an exposed back zipper.

Berger, who sold a handful of lines from Johnny Was and Love & Liberty to Spanx, said she mostly encountered traditional buyers placing orders and did not pick up as many new accounts as usual. “We’re seeing our regular customers who have confidence in the product and the lines,” said Berger, who added that casual knit jackets, dresses and tanks from Fluxus continued to move well.

Susan McCullough, senior vice president of apparel for Merchandise Mart Properties Inc., said she was pleased with the show — given the economic realities.

She did not disclose attendance figures, but said they were better than expected because more buyers may have elected to shop closer to home, rather than spending the money to travel to New York.

“Our numbers [of buyers] were down slightly, but some people had record shows,” McCullough said. “And we were so poised for the worst.”

Retailers “were buying cautiously but that’s OK,” she said. “We want them to be healthy.”

Business at Phoebe & Frances, two women’s speciality stores in the affluent Chicago suburbs of Winnetka and Lake Forest, Ill., remained healthy despite the financial crisis. Shoppers there have not needed to pull back as much, said one of the owners, Nina Buscemi. Noting that the downtown Winnetka store is near a Starbucks, Buscemi said young mothers continue to meet friends at the coffee shop and then come by and spend $200 to $300.

“Lately I’ve heard customers say ‘my husband’s going to kill me, oh, well,’” said Carrie Hopma, another owner, adding that overall sales at the stores are up from last year.

Buscemi ordered cotton vests in army green, navy and black from LA Made, one-shoulder cotton dresses from Bobi and a collection of separates from twill shorts to dresses, lingerie and long flowing bohemian style tie-dye skirts from Free People.

The retailer, which carries girl sizes 7 to 14 at its Lake Forest location, also stocked up on T-shirts and dresses from Three Dots, one of its best selling lines, ordering cowl-neck dresses, twist-front tank dresses and tie-dye tube dresses. Customers love that they can dress the pieces up or down, Buscemi said, noting that the Three Dots dresses, which retail from $120 to $148, often sell out within a week.

Phoebe & Frances also introduced casual separates by Chicago-based Blake Standard in September and watched those pieces sell out within the week. Buscemi ordered more from the line, including a military-style zip-up cotton jacket in crimson, gray and black. She also shopped Stylemax for Joe’s Jeans, picking up cropped ankle-length looks, boyfriend jeans, distressed and ripped shorts and basic denim styles.

Emily Helfrich, owner of Cinnamon Boutique in Chicago, said business has been on par with last year, excluding the later weeks of October in which she saw sales slow.

“I’m careful about my price point here,” she said, noting that she bought deeper into her lower-priced lines such as Tulle.

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