LOS ANGELES — Retailers at the Los Angeles Majors Market wanted vendors to be daring.

But buyers from major chains, including Macy’s and Dillard’s, said they left the California Market Center last week largely disappointed in their search for creative design and innovation in back-to-school and fall collections from junior and women’s brands. The color palette was familiar — dominated by purple and gray — and so were the skinny jeans, sweater dresses and Eighties-influenced styles that were prevalent.

“I just haven’t seen anything too different” at the three-day show that ended last Wednesday, said Kathy Nguyen, a buyer for Macy’s East.

A period of economic turbulence is “not the time to be safe,” said Mark Galvan, an active sportswear buyer for Dillard’s, based in Little Rock, Ark. “It’s the time to be special. Everybody seems to be playing it safe, and safe doesn’t sell.”

Peter Vahjen, merchandise manager for Dillard’s better sportswear and contemporary division, said when the economy is weak, vendors should aggressively pursue fashion to position themselves to grab larger market share when retail makes a comeback.

“Things that stand out will sell,” he said.

In the current climate, every effort to differentiate a brand counts, even if it’s an affiliation with celebrities who aren’t known for their fashion finesse. As Bongo Jeans’ new spokesmodel, reality TV personality Kim Kardashian signed autographs for buyers, while YMI introduced actress Aimee Teegarden from NBC’s “Friday Night Lights” as the face of its fall ad campaign.

In a fashion show on opening day, Directives West, the Los Angeles-based buying office owned by The Doneger Group, featured animal-print designs from Melanie “Scary Spice” Brown’s sportswear label, Catty Couture, as well as an activewear line from Jillian Michaels, a physical trainer on NBC’s weight-loss program, “The Biggest Loser.”

Celebrities factored into the junior category beyond marketing. Brands noted that clothes worn by the likes of Kardashian and Miley Cyrus, the Disney Channel’s “Hannah Montana,” strongly influence teens’ choices. For instance, the emergence of rocker and biker motifs such as skulls and guitars are “based on the success of Hannah Montana,” said Richard Clareman, president of Montebello, Calif.-based All Access Apparel, which produces brands that include Self Esteem, Belle du Jour and L.A. Kitty.

This story first appeared in the April 16, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Among the few new looks at the trade event were dolman and kimono sleeves, as well as flares and wider legs on jeans and pants. Eco-friendly fashion — particularly Ts and tops made of organic cotton — continued to gain traction with some retailers.

Nonetheless, some styles have become staples in teenage girls’ closets. Take the skinny jean. New York-based Ethanol Jeans, which is making its debut in the denim category with a line wholesaling from $15 to $21, said a popular look was a $16.50 skinny silhouette marked by yellow contrast stitching, bold whiskers and a dirty tint. At Bongo, which is owned by Iconix Brand Group, leg openings measuring 12 inches or smaller were hot.

Clean looks lost out to distressed denim, and gray washes grew in popularity, although there appeared to be a push for acid wash, as well.

“We’re picking up acid and gray wash for b-t-s,” said Emma Dixon, a buyer for Portland, Ore.-based Fred Meyer Stores, a 120-store chain owned by Kroger. “We expect miniskirts will do well for b-t-s.”

Denim brands also experimented with vests, which wholesale for around $14 at YMI, between $12 and $15 at Bongo and $16 at Paris Blues. “Everyone bought into the vest,” said Kimberly Lee Minor, Bongo’s vice president of brand management. “With white shirts and ties being so important, vests are perfect to complete the look.”

Barbara Fields, who heads her namesake buying office, predicted that structured jackets — from double-breasted peacoats and military-style cover-ups to trenches, anoraks and biker styles — would be a major trend for fall.

Z. Cavaricci design director Nancy Tarankow said the City of Commerce, Calif.-based brand was betting on jackets wholesaling from $18 to $30, particularly its novelty blazers. “They merchandise well with floral tops and dresses,” she said.

Junior brand Miss Chievous capitalized on the interest in leather jackets by interpreting a moto-style silhouette in a houndstooth-print French terry with a funnel neck, detachable hood and $30 retail tag.

For vendors hoping to dress the mothers of junior shoppers, novelty was key. Mac & Jac presented its holiday lineup, including an $89.50 double-breasted ivory coat displaying a honeycomb-like weave and a $59.50 raglan-sleeve dress that was dip-dyed to fade from black to blue to ivory. Mac & Jac’s sales director Michele Sachs said discerning retailers sought special pieces. “That’s why we put novelty in our line. Every piece can sell on its own,” Sachs said.

Hong Kong-based Silk Culture tried to stand out with textured textiles. It cut a silk-cotton blend finished to evoke a wood-grain texture into a cuffed wide-leg gaucho, duster coat and wide-leg pant, all wholesaling between $78 and $118.

Creative interpretations of classics helped Gardy, a specialist in sweaters for older women who like what manager David Lam described as “generous” sizing. Lam said buyers were “very cautious” in a slow economy, but liked a $68 black-and-white rayon-nylon cardigan adorned with sequins and beads forming an intricate argyle pattern.

Hamid Derak, who represents Lily and Luii at his namesake showroom, said to hedge their bets, buyers focused on one trend in which they are confident. For example, photos of maxidresses worn by celebrities like Angelina Jolie helped boost interest in Lily’s floor-grazing frocks wholesaling from $39 to $49. Meanwhile, the texture and price of Lily and Luii’s $45 poncho in boiled wool dyed plum appealed to buyers.

Even moms want to look hip in jeans. Karen George said Seattle-based Worn offers a misses’ fit with modern styling and retail prices less than $110. Popular looks included a five-pocket jean with a 22-inch leg opening and a clean, dark wash as well as a trouser with two buttons topping a 9.5-inch rise. “People are more price-conscious,” she said.

— Khanh T.L. Tran, Anne Riley-Katz and Rachel Brown

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