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An exciting trend could emerge from the upcoming spring runway shows — relevance.

That is exactly what stores are eagerly expecting with the onset of the collections, even if they’re buying a lot less inventory. And brands are striving to deliver it, along with lower prices.

This story first appeared in the September 2, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“In the pre-collections, we saw an emphasis on more wear-now products and an attempt to really understand the price-value relationship,” said Joseph Boitano, Saks Fifth Avenue’s group senior vice president and general merchandise manager of women’s.

“I believe we will see some serious fashion down the runway — realistic prices, good quality, beautiful fabrication, a lot of creativity and some very big happy surprises,” predicted Stephanie Solomon, Bloomingdale’s vice president and fashion director for women’s ready-to-wear and accessories. “There will also probably be less fanfare. It doesn’t seem like the right time to overspend on balloons, party favors and fluff. But the biggest relevance will be with reality-based prices.”

Designers appear to be thinking strategically, by merchandising collections with a greater variety of items and price points, while demonstrating less dependence on a classification or two that may have historically sold well. “It’s something we started to definitely notice with resort and spring,” observed Ginny Hershey-Lambert, Bergdorf Goodman’s senior vice president and gmm for women’s rtw, accessories and shoes. “Designer brands are offering a broader assortment so you can buy a great pant or a jacket that refreshes your wardrobe. They know they’ve got to offer individual pieces because that’s the way the customer is shopping. It’s also a better opportunity for pricing options.”

So are accessories, which enable women to perk up their outfits and dresses and forego spending more on new apparel. “Whether it’s an earring or a belt, it’s really important,” Hershey-Lambert said. “We loved it in resort. There were a lot of the pieces that inspired emotion. Lanvin did fruit necklaces with strawberries. Chanel did jelly shoes. Things that are fun, itemy. We want to see the same fun, unique pieces that refresh a wardrobe.”

For months, retailers have been pressing designers for change to better reflect their customers’ lifestyles and, even more, desire to spend less. “It’s one thing to say that you’re shifting more dollars into this category or price point, but you’ve got to make sure the brands are developing the product to be there,” said Ron Frasch, Saks Inc.’s president and chief merchandising officer. “We have been working with our brand partners since last fall to make sure we are covering these categories and price points.”

For spring, retailers will allocate a greater percentage of the overall budget to the highest-margin categories — which include bridge and contemporary women’s sportswear, private label, men’s accessories, women’s shoes and accessories — and to the best performing classifications within each designer or brand.

The designer category, being the most margin-challenged, will receive fewer dollars. If designer merchandise doesn’t move fast and at full price, it gets sharply discounted and becomes unprofitable. For the past year, the designer business has been very weak, elevating the level of caution retailers will take to the collections, which commence Sept. 10 in New York followed by London, Milan and Paris.

Retailers always go to shows with some trepidation, knowing the looks on the runways are usually more sensational than salable, though they still earmark significant open-to-buy to those styles. After buying resort and pre-spring, stores selling designer lines have anywhere from 10 to 20 percent of their spring rtw budgets left to spend heading into the collections, as in the case of Saks, or as much as around 40 percent, as in the case of Bergdorf Goodman.

For designers, the heat is on. They are aware that stores are downsizing their vendor matrix and are taking steps to increase their chances of participating in the runway buy.

“Everyone is working with very strict budgets, but at the same time, buyers want to have a reason to buy. They want to see something special,” said Yildiz Blackstone, president of Luca Luca. “We worked on each item like it is the only item that we will be showing, from the details of the seam to the finish, the type of fabric, the closure of the button.”

Other designers echoed the sentiment.

Zac Posen said the goal is to create a collection of “runway pieces to die for, that are going to find homes, that sort of become the bijou of your selection.”

Peter Som noted, “It’s creating product that is buy-now, wear-now. For a designer collection, each piece has to have a novelty or detail. It’s also about listening to your retailer and working closely with them. At the end of the day, it’s a partnership with the retailer, and understanding what the customer is looking for, then taking that information and giving them that and something that they didn’t know they were looking for. It’s the ultimate dance of commerce and creativity.”

Jason Wu said collaboration with stores is key in these times. “I will make sure I am taking care of the stores,” Wu said. “I want to make sure that product sells through, and to do that, we have to have close communications with the stores. Our sales director is on the road, and I am doing a lot of store events coming this fall.”

Like many of his contemporaries, Thakoon Panichgul of the Thakoon label is mindful of price points without cheapening the line. “It’s being more cautious of prices and figuring out ways to get good prices on special fabrics or pieces we believe in in terms of quality,” Panichgul said. “We put forth every effort with a price consciousness in mind that affects the end price. We are looking at ways of finishing that may not be so costly but are still open to a whole world of ideas.”

And retailers seem focused on what products to buy. “One very strong spring trend is an overall casual ease to dressing,” said Judy Collinson, Barneys New York executive vice president and gmm of women’s. “This is great because people are just not dressing up as much. Clothes that you can wear longer and are more seasonless will be important. The runways are always filled with the most extravagant, innovative part of a designer’s collection. We need this part as well as the clothes that make sense on an everyday level. What we would like to see are fewer exits. I think a 30- to 40-exit show is enough. We only need a few things for this delivery. Women are buying great quality, timeless pieces. They are editing more, buying from designers they love and buying pieces they will use a lot. Right now many seem to love perfect leather jackets, luxurious knits. There are still emotional buys of incredibly beautiful pieces.”

Hershey-Lambert cited abstract floral prints, as well as naturals and neutrals across clothing, shoes and handbags, nautical inspirations and stripes, raffia handbags and espadrilles. She also cited a bohemian feeling of “fun and functionality” and a casual chicness, whether it’s a cross-body messenger bag or a little open-weave boot.

“There is kind of a preppy-punk moment on the horizon,” Solomon said. “It may be a blazer worn with cutoff black denim shorts and neon leggings or sweatpants chopped off as shorts.” She added there is “an Eighties moment” with people wearing “serious” work clothes and changing into something casual for the evening.

“It’s no longer appropriate to wear to work what you intend to go out in. I think you need to change your clothes,” said Solomon.

“We have seen a very big trend toward the softer part of fashion, particularly blouses, soft tops, dresses and knitwear,” said Saks’ Boitano. “Those continue to be very strong drivers of the business. We are definitely looking for more casual. Shoppers are buying that way but we will continue to go after opportunities for occasion dressing. When you approach runway, you always look for the fashion — the exciting, emotional pieces.”


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