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LOS ANGELES — Recession-weary retailers struggled with slashed buying budgets and shrinking inventories as they sought on-trend pieces at value prices during the Majors Market here.

This story first appeared in the April 8, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The trade show ran Sunday through Tuesday at the California Market Center.

Buyers from chains like Hot Topic Inc., J.C. Penney Co. Inc., Kohl’s Corp., Macy’s Inc., Nordstrom Inc., Ross Stores Inc. and The Wet Seal Inc. trolled the center’s showrooms looking for strong combinations of fashion and value.

“We’re paying very close attention to what’s going on on the sales floor right now,” said Stacy Heric, a buyer for Nordstrom Rack. “Like everybody we’re keeping inventory tight and are budget conscious, like our consumers.”

The economic downturn had a clear toll on business, with traffic at the market slower than usual.

“The scary part is that nobody is being factored anymore,” Pegah Gholian, who has a T-shirt wholesaling business out of the Pink Ribbon showroom. “TJ Maxx and Ross are the only ones being approved for credit right now. For anyone else you just cross your fingers and pray. It’s either that or have unsold merchandise you can’t move.”

Retail consulting powerhouse Directives West saw fewer clients this market than last, and scaled back and shortened its client fashion show Monday to be less flashy, using less lighting and fewer models.

“All our clients have cut back, they don’t need to buy as much because the consumers are not buying nearly as much these days,” said Janine Blain, Directives West vice president. “It’s all about what’s appropriate now, we’re trying to be sensitive to retailers in the current climate.”

Outdoorsy prints like plaids, flannels and buffalo check were among the leading styles at the market, along with skinny jeans and maxidresses.

Buyer Sandra Long from Wet Seal cited trends in tribal prints and materials, color-blocked styles for dresses and tunics and rocker or club looks, which were also popular with other juniors-oriented retailers.

“Dresses are big. We’re looking for some boyfriend styles, too, and definitely plaids,” said Julia Lee, a buyer for Papaya stores.

B. Bronson, a firm that specializes in buying branded off-price apparel and reselling to discount-oriented retail chains, looked to capitalize on the downturn but said competition for bargain merchandise is getting much tougher.

“There’s opportunity for us to pick up merchandise as businesses cancel orders, but it’s a double-edged sword,” said Jerry Michaels, a buyer for the Vernon, Calif.-based company. “Some manufacturers only cut to order now, and some retailers who would have in the past taken an entire lot are picking the very best out and leaving the rest behind.”

One bright spot was denim sales in the junior market. And novelty, along with a bargain price, plays a big role in luring teenaged shoppers.

Yom Yom achieved a marbleized effect on black-and-white jeans wholesaling from $14 to $22.

As skinny jeans have become staples in teenagers’ closets, junior companies are pushing the envelope for how narrow the denim legs can go.

Chinese Laundry, which is owned by El Monte, Calif.-based Vibes Base Enterprises, evolved its skinny style into a legginglike version that features an 11-inch leg opening and is missing a back yoke for a slimmer fit. Sanding and big zipper trim on the front pockets complete the look, wholesaling for $18.50.

For Chinese Laundry’s sister brand, Sweet Vibes, which appeals to a multicultural customer with a fuller silhouette, skinny jeans are equally important. Sweet Vibes opts for 12- and 13.5-inch leg openings and uses more stretchy denim — instead of the mercerized cotton that Chinese Laundry uses — for its jeans wholesaling for $15 and $16.

“The skinny business has been very strong,” said Steve Hagstrom, a vice president at Chinese Laundry, noting skinny jeans make up 60 percent of the business for both Chinese Laundry and Sweet Vibes.

Dresses continue to sell for junior labels, with the maxidress garnering the most attention. Raviya offered $16 halter dresses, enhanced by a paisley print or tie-dyed tiers, with hems grazing the floor. Delicia blended prints of feathers and geometric shapes on a polyester chiffon dress wholesaling for between $21 and $23.

At Passport, however, the tunic took precedence over the dress, as its customers prefer to wear the tunic over leggings. One tunic, wholesaling for $9.50, is cut out of plaid fabric updated with a caustic wash and ruffles.

Like their counterparts in the junior and contemporary categories, vendors in the missy market also emphasized novelty, as exhibited in details such as ruffles, Lurex, animal prints and ruching.

Sisters highlighted an animal print cardigan wholesaling for $29, while Simply Irresistible offered a polyester charmeuse blouse in washed plaid with a ruffled bib for less than $18. Essex garnered interest from retailers with a $34 black tank dress highlighted by leopard-print panels, and also with a $16 shrug that customers in their 40s and 50s could don to cover up their arms. Solé by Morningstar opted for pearls and sequins to accentuate stretch lace dresses wholesaling from $59 to $79. Carducci maximized trends in a $39 acrylic-wool intarsia cardigan that combined a shawl neck, kimono sleeves, shell buttons and novel yarns that faded from purple to black.

Even with the emphasis on novelty, missy brands said price remained paramount for their customers, who usually range in age between 30 and 60.

“They want a contemporary look at a price point,” said Yvette Perez, an account executive at Carducci.