NEW YORK — Accessories have led the pack in the fashion world for the last few years, leading to an explosion of newcomers and more space for the category on retail floors.

This story first appeared in the March 31, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

While the sector is always undergoing cyclical shifts, there is one thing that remains constant: women can never have too many accessories. At a time when the economy is sputtering along and apparel sales are struggling, accessories are well poised to continue their run.

“Consumers are not willing to spend a lot of money on fashion right now and accessories are an inexpensive way for women to update their wardrobe,” said Marshall Cohen, co-president of NPDFashionworld, the market research firm. “No one is going to replace their wardrobe each season like they used to and the younger market is using accessories to express their individuality.”

Although overall accessories sales are estimated at about $30 billion, the market is highly fragmented with hundreds of small firms vying for their piece of the pie. While the accessories sector encompasses everything from hats and belts to eyewear and legwarmers, handbags and jewelry are the sector’s largest categories, accounting for the bulk of sector sales at most department stores and large chains, according to industry executives and market watchers.

Other standout categories recently include hats, which have been worn by celebrities and starlets at premieres and events all over town; scarves, which came in especially handy during the cold winter weather in the Northeast, and earrings, a key category in the last year, especially oversized and chandelier styles.

Judging by the many stars wearing large earrings at the Oscars, the category will likely continue to run strong for months to come. Eyewear has also been percolating with activity of late, as a number of high-end designers have entered the category. Among those jumping on the eyewear bandwagon are Coach, Judith Leiber, Bottega Veneta and Stella McCartney.

The number of newcomers getting into all manner of accessories has been impressive. Jewelry has been an especially ripe area for introduction, with everyone from models and celebrities to former homemakers throwing their baubles into the ring.

At the same time, there has been a considerable amount of consolidation in the accessories market. As one of the best performing segments in fashion with some of the highest margins in the business, accessories firms has become an attractive area for acquisitions. Big fashion firms such as Liz Claiborne and Jones Apparel Group have snapped up a number of smaller jewelry and handbag companies, and they are also expanding their existing fashion brands into accessories categories.

Among the brands Liz Claiborne owns and makes accessories and jewelry for are its namesake label, as well as Sigrid Olsen, Lucky Brand Dungarees, Monet, as well as jewelry for Kenneth Cole under license. Under the Jones fold are brands such as Judith Jack, Napier, Enzo Angiolini and Gloria Vanderbilt, as well as licensed Tommy Hilfiger jewelry. Other recent acquisitions include the purchase of jewelry firm Carolee by Retail Brand Alliance, the budding conglomerate that also owns Brooks Bros. and Adrienne Vittadini.

Firms such as Kellwood Corp., Anne Klein and Nautica are also adding more accessories categories in an attempt to build up the lifestyle elements of their brand. Nautica, for example, recently unveiled its first women’s handbag collection, made under license by Wathne Ltd.

At the retail level, stores of all stripes are stepping up their investment in accessories. J.C. Penney, for example, recently decided to get rid of much of its beauty offerings so it can devote more space to accessories. Target and Kohl’s Corp. are among other chains giving the category more room and specialty chains such as Ann Taylor, Banana Republic and H&M continue to boost their nonapparel offerings.

“Every retailer is examining profit centers and looking at pockets of opportunity and funding those opportunities,” said Deborah Rudinsky, merchandise manager for accessories at The Doneger Group buying office. “Accessories are recession-proof products which people use to update their wardrobes.”

Although there are plenty of large and small stores that carry accessories, there are surprisingly few accessories-only chains. Perhaps in response to this, a number of vendors have been aggressively opening their own stores. Coach, for example, continues to roll out new stores under its nameplate, while handbag firms such as Dooney & Bourke, Kate Spade and Furla also have added new stores in recent months. High-end Italian brands such as Bottega Veneta and Ferragamo are also rapidly adding new units on these shores.

Much of the upper-end of the business is now dominated by apparel designers, many of whom have licensed their names into accessories categories. Although designers such as Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren and Donna Karan got their start in apparel, they are among the many firms who have entered accessories via licenses. Runway shows for the past few years have been filled with accessories, as designers seek to present an entire lifestyle, rather than just a new line of clothing.

Some firms are choosing to go it alone. In the last few years, Marc Jacobs and Oscar de la Renta are among those that have chosen to produce their own accessories, joining the ranks of companies such as Gucci and Prada that are well-known for their handbags and other non-apparel offerings.

“I think brands that don’t have an association with accessories are looking at the category more carefully,” Rudinsky noted. “Most firms want to complete their business with head-to-toe offerings.”

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