Nanette Lepore and Gary Wassner

NEW YORK — Nanette Lepore and Gary Wassner, chief executive officer of Hilldun Corp., the financing and factoring firm, tackled some of the biggest issues facing fashion brands Friday in a conversation at the 17th annual New York Fashion Conference titled, “Trailblazers,” sponsored by Initiatives in Art and Culture.

Among the topics were the highly promotional retail environment; excessive markdowns that occur before the season even gets underway; competition from off-price Web sites and department store Web sites, and the challenges in creating a digital presence.

Lepore said the contemporary customer doesn’t have the disposable income she used to have, and accessible chains such as Zara and H&M have started to affect business. Consequently, it’s important to be more personalized, thoughtful and a storyteller so the customer feels the connection to the brand. That is achieved by a robust digital and social media presence, especially Instagram, as well as making personal appearances in the stores.

“I never did personal appearances, now I do at least six a year,” said Lepore, noting she’ll travel to Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus stores around the country. “Salespeople want to feel connected also. When they have more loyalty, they’re going to do a better job of selling your product,” she said.

Lepore views digital as a necessity, but it’s not easy.

“Digital is really important, and I envision it as the future. You have to pay attention to it and can’t ignore it. It’s been very tough because we’re up against every Web site that also has our brand, and they mark it down. It’s not easy for someone small to establish their own Web site and their own clientele. I’m trying to make more product that’s specific to our Web site and more customization of sizes and lengths and color. That will set my Web site apart from say, Bloomingdale’s and Saks because we’re competing against them,” said Lepore.

She said she’s begun investing in online advertising to bring customers to the site. In fact, she noted that she got 17 new followers in one week who bought something.

Wassner pointed out that there’s much more of a burden on the brand and designer today than there ever was. Retailers are saying, “It’s your problem, not our problem.” He said stores are asking for margin guarantees and sell-through guarantees. “Do you feel that the stores are almost shooting themselves in the foot and alienating the brands that they need?” asked Wassner.

Lepore recalled 20 years ago when she had to take back a 300-piece return from Neiman Marcus when something didn’t fit properly. “I swore I’d never let that happen again. I became a stickler for fit,” she said.

The designer said one of the big problems is that stores aren’t giving vendors enough time on the floor. She said there continues to be the ongoing problem that spring merchandise goes in during December and January, when the customer doesn’t plan to wear it until April and May. “We have to take it back before it even has a chance to sell,” said Lepore.

They both suggested there needs to be a giant summit with retailers to talk about what’s hurting retail sales at full price.

“It’s not changing. Each season we do a special piece for a lot of the stores we work with, and those seem to sell through,” she said.

Speaking personally, she said, she used to buy a few pairs of full-price shoes at the beginning of the season. “Now I’m on and get sale alerts. Everybody’s doing it,” she said.

Wassner pointed to the Web site, which will search all the products, where you can buy them and at what price. “How do retailers compete? By lowering price and marking down? What are our alternatives today?” he asked. He suggested one’s own brick-and-mortar stores, and said more brands are feeling pushed into having their own stores. “Most standalone stores do not make money. They’re for advertising and marketing,” he said.

“I just wish I could go back to making what I love and not feeling the pressure of all these margins agreements and markdown money,” said Lepore.

Wassner asked Lepore how she avoids burn-out, which is a common lament among designers these days.

Lepore said she still gets excited about fashion and now she ships 10 months of the year, instead of 12 months. “It feels like a vacation,” she said. Originally when she started selling department stores, she agreed to ship 12 months a year so they’d receive a stream of products. “It doesn’t make sense anymore. We need less product out there.” She suggested that if you have longer selling periods, such as a six-to-eight-week cycle and cut it down to eight deliveries a year, that would be great.



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