Byline: Georgia Lee

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The changing tastes in southern dressing were apparent at the latest edition of Florida Fashion Focus, one of the newest regional markets.
Moving away from the traditional “c.c.c.” creed of the South — clothes that work for ‘church, cocktail and cemetery” — buyers said they now want “comfort, contemporary and casual” looks. Soft, easy-care fabrics in knits, microfibers and lightweight washable silks with fresh color are winners, particularly for Florida lifestyles, said buyers.
And despite a long, hot summer and sluggish sales, Florida retailers bought aggressively.
Expecting millennium hype to generate holiday, cruise and early spring business, buyers stepped up to the plate for dramatic eveningwear, contemporary sportswear and expanded swim and resort collections.
Above all, though, as is customary at the regional markets, buyers demanded newness and novelty to distinguish their specialty stores from department stores and give consumers a reason to buy. A wide variety of pant, skirt and sleeve lengths added interest to silhouettes, while embroideries, sheer touches and novelty details updated looks for cruise and early spring.
Attendance at the four-day event, which ran through Aug. 9 at the Broward County Convention Center here, was down 7 percent from last year’s inaugural show. Southern Apparel Exhibitors, a sales organization formerly based at Miami International Merchandise Mart, launched the Fort Lauderdale show a year ago to draw mainly domestic buyers, as the Miami International Merchandise Mart put a growing focus on Latin America.
Officials said the event fell short of last year’s kick-off, which drew big crowds of curious buyers. Florida’s off-season summer doldrums, combined with an early show date, also contributed to less traffic, as did aggressive marketing by competitive regional shows, said a spokesman.
Exhibitors totaled 275, up from 252 a year ago, with more swimwear, resortwear and better-priced goods. Future shows will target more out-of-state buyers, from both East Coast states and the Caribbean.
Exhibitors, despite less traffic, sometimes met or exceeded last year’s figures by targeting Florida specialty stores with contemporary, casual looks rather than basics.
David Eagle, an Atlanta-based multi-line exhibitor, reported a 25 percent sales increase, although traffic, by his count, was down 40 percent.
“Anything soft, new, novel and fun sold, while anything traditional or too misses’ looking didn’t work,” he said.
Sarah Miller, principal, Rick & Sarah Miller, a multiline sales firm, said traffic declined 30 percent from last year, while sales decreased from $180,000 last year to around $160,000 this year.
“The show dates were a little early, and Florida retail, always slow in summer, is suffering more now from the heat wave,” she said. “Still, we had big orders for holiday, in anything with novelty and embellishment.”
Focusing on Florida, the show has added more resortwear and a new swimwear area. Around 35 swimwear sales firms, all members of Miami-based Swimwear Association of Florida, exhibited here for the first time.
Swimwear sales representative Jack Blum, who is the SAF president, said tighter collections and good timing resulted in more order-writing here than at Miami’s July swimwear show. Buyers sought new lines as well as solid companies that could guarantee deliveries.
“Retailers are concerned about manufacturers’ stability, and they’re looking for new resources to replace them,” said Blum. “For the first time, buyers are more concerned about guaranteed shipping than making deals.”
Lynne Greene, owner, The Sunshine Shop, a St. Augustine, Fla., swim and sportswear specialty store, shopped mostly for contemporary and misses’ lines, leaving orders with 15 swimwear lines.
“The timing is perfect. Lines are tightened up and well formulated,” she said. Looking to grow designer, contemporary, separates and large sizes, she bought large-size swimwear from Christina, Gabar and Jantzen, and contemporary/designer looks from Anne Cole, Cole of California and Adrienne Vittadini.
“While big names are important, designer looks and fabrics are just as important, especially to baby boomers,” she said.
Nancy Cook, owner, The Twig Shop, a Vero Beach, Fla., specialty store, shopped for fresh color and newness, in washable fabrics. Describing the show as more resort-oriented than high fashion, she bought swimwear, along with casual sportswear by Cotton Stuff and Willow. She bought contemporary pants from Trousers, sweaters by Joseph A. and lingerie by Flora Nikrooz.
Shopping without a fixed budget, Cook said she had steadily spent more money here, due to an increasing number of distinctive lines.
Andrea O’Brien, owner, Lounge Lizards, a Fort Lauderdale better women’s specialty store, also sought unusual lines and novelty looks. “We want sexy clothing — nothing boring — that gives women a great look and a little money left over in their pockets,” she said. Spurred by millennium madness, she bought heavily in glitzy eveningwear for holiday, from Casadei, Betsey Johnson, Jo-Jos and Peep. Despite a slow summer, she bought big in preparation for in-season events such as an October boat show that draws 800,000 visitors to Fort Lauderdale.
Helen Hasty, owner, Helen’s, a Winter Haven, Fla., better-to-bridge store, noted more exhibitors, and increased her buy accordingly, for soft, easy dressing in washable, bright fabrics. She bought a variety of skirt and pant lengths from lines such as Entracte and Krazy Larry. She bought eveningwear for New Year’s Eve parties from Tadashi and Joseph Ribkoff, bags from Shariff, jewelry from Lordane and hats by Eric Javits.
As a small-town retailer, she sought lines offering exclusives to avoid duplication by competitors. She applauded manufacturers for lightweight fabrics and color that are essential for Florida buyers.