Byline: Eric Wilson

NEW YORK — Specialty retailers, hard-pressed to find the one-of-a-kind merchandise that can lure customers away from the majors, have a new trick up their sleeves.
They have begun to network — comparing notes on resources and items they sell — to avoid what they describe as a “sameness” at shopping malls and department stores.
Some of the retailers have become more technologically sophisticated, using computers to track which customers are going where and wearing what, and they are beginning to view market weeks and upscale hotel shows as opportunities to regroup and discuss how they can maintain their specialty status.
“Five people can walk into a party with the same dress on. When they are spending $4,000 to $5,000 for a dress, and money is no object, they want to know that what they are wearing is unique,” said Gail Zomick, a principal of the two-unit Village Set, with stores in Highland Park and Skokie, Ill.
“By catering to the customer and trying to give them something special, we’ll survive,” Zomick said while shopping for fall at American International Designers at the Waldorf-Astoria.
The Waldorf show and Designers at the Essex House cater specifically to upscale specialty stores and have become hunting grounds for items their customers won’t see anywhere else. Both shows, which feature mostly out-of-town ready-to-wear houses, ended their seasonal runs over the weekend.
Even though exhibitors said they are reluctant to label any sale an “exclusive,” some said they have begun to partner with specialty stores to customize sizes, silhouettes and colors for specific clients.
“We’re all in Europe together, so we talk,” Zomick said. “The majors are trying to defeat the boutiques, but they won’t.”
Zomick said she networks with Bill Dodson, owner of Lilly Dodson in Dallas, and Daniel Fox, who runs a boutique under his name in Palm Springs, among others. She keeps track of what her customers are wearing to Chicago events to prevent any duplications.
Hammond Dugan, owner of Octavia Inc., a 5,000-square-foot bridge and designer specialty store in Baltimore, said the networking began several years ago and has evolved to a point where buyers compare vendor performance as they pass one another in the hotel hallways.
For example, Dugan heard from other buyers that Essex resource Fathi Due Cashmere’s sportswear and rtw collections had performed well at retail.
“We went into that heavily, and it did perform well. We felt the risk was less, but we probably would not have gone into that so heavily without cross-referencing other retailers for performance,” Dugan said.
There are only a handful of stores left in the country that can handle the risk involved with the high prices of resources at the Waldorf and Essex. Few of them compete against each other locally, so they do not hesitate to share information on vendor performance, Dugan said.
But there is competition among buyers at the shows, and between the two venues.
Fred Hayman has avoided promotions such as trunk shows at his Beverly Hills store. Instead, he has relied on “staying on top of the best, most glamorous of the lines to continue to stay on top,” Hayman said last week at the Essex, where he purchased navy cashmere blazers and neutral safari dresses at Algo Couture of Switzerland.
Hayman did not shop at the Waldorf, but went to Seventh Avenue, placing orders with Chrysoula and Angel Sanchez.
“They are glamorous resources who are really coming up,” he said.
Amy Rich, senior buyer of American designer dresses and sportswear for Dayton’s, Hudson’s and Marshall Field’s department stores, said she encourages “competitive shopping for what is new, exciting and different.”
Rich reviewed the collections of Mark Heister and Sansappelle at the Essex House, but said she does not want to network with other retailers.
Several vendors are instituting policies to help retailers — adding sizes for larger clients, offering to coordinate more trunk shows and computerizing their operations to speed reorders. William Pearson, a Waldorf resource, has booked 138 trunk shows this year, up from 97 in 1996. That’s because “trunk shows don’t carry liability for unsold merchandise,” said Bill Cohn, senior vice president and director of business development.
The Los Angeles-based vendor plans to be fully automated for orders, with two additional toll-free numbers, by May 15, Cohn said.
“I find the particular client that relates to these clothes is not the client handled by the major department stores,” said Jamie Pesavento, who showed at the Waldorf. “The business small retailers are getting is not the same as the department stores are getting because the merchandise is different,” .
Pesavento said he was working with specialty stores by offering exclusives on colors, or by confining styles with certain trims or detachable trains to a specific retailer, “and making it more individual to meet their needs.”
The hotel shows opened their two-week run with a slow start, causing some concern among vendors that their timing was off, but traffic picked up dramatically on the first Sunday, and as many as 25 buyers each day were reported visiting each of several resources.
While only a handful of vendors at the two shows reported significant gains in overall traffic from previous years, a majority of them — particularly eveningwear resources — were buoyed by a vigorous interest in special occasion and luxury dressing. There were 17 resources at the Essex House and 12 at the Waldorf.
“Things must be changing. We’re excited that dresses are getting more opulent,” said Linda Ward, a principal of San Carlin, an eveningwear company based in Denham Springs, La., showing at the Waldorf.
Michael Casey, a San Francisco eveningwear designer also showing at the Waldorf, said he had a 20 percent gain for the season, as did Mark Heister at the Essex House, according to Linda Heister, vice president.
Sarah Reeves, a sales representative for Lily Samii at the Essex, said buyers were more willing to spend on unusual novelty fabrics and were less resistant to prices, because such items cannot easily be knocked off like classic four-ply silk silhouettes.
Brian Winston, sales director for Marisa Minicucci, also at the Essex, agreed there was a distinct interest in luxury this season, citing a wool and rabbit’s hair blend coat that was a bestseller at $1,400 wholesale.
Although many of the buyers were leaving significantly larger orders, a majority of resources said they ended up on par for sales, or slightly over last year, because consolidation throughout the retail industry has reduced the number of buyers in the market.
The retailers surveyed said they had not significantly increased their budgets for fall, but were focusing more dollars on eveningwear and special occasion dressing.
“I’m here for the special occasion business and ballgowns — I have a real feeling for it this year,” Village Set’s Zomick said, adding that she was considering gowns from San Carlin and Pesavento at the Waldorf.
“Their velvets are gorgeous. The customer is tired of the clingy things coming from the runways, and they’re looking for something different,” Zomick said. “All of a sudden she wants something dressy that will make a statement.”
DH’s Rich said her fall budget is flat with last year’s.
“We had a very successful fall, and we don’t want to take any risks. We’re continuing with what’s working now,” she said, adding that she was searching for more ballgowns and special occasion dresses.
Among the fashion trends selling well at the show were:
Tunics and bias-cut silhouettes that emphasize luxury fabrics.
Man-tailored dresses and suits.
Animal prints and novelties such as coupe de velours, burnout velvets and metallic laces.
“A lot of men’s wear influences are continuing through eveningwear,” Rich said. “Paired with metallic silk and beaded influences, I think it’s a great, sophisticated look.”

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