TOURING THE TRADE SHOWS
GETTING SERIOUS ABOUT FALL
Byline: Janet Ozzard / Anne D’Innocenzio / Rosemary Feitelberg / Karen Parr
NEW YORK — Specialty store buyers from around the country converged on the battery of trade shows held here this week, looking for the ammunition to give them staying power as they fight an increasingly difficult battle at retail.
The action was generally steady, sometimes reflecting an uptick in business being felt in their stores. While the ever-growing trend to casual dressing showed no signs of abating, buyers looking to fall often showed a taste for luxury items as well, as long as they could offer their customers a touch of something different.
Individual reports follow from the four major shows — Fashion Coterie, In-Style Works, New York Premier Collections and Showroom — that ran from Sunday through Tuesday.
Buyers were enthusiastically looking for new fall trends at Fashion Coterie.
The trade show covered seven floors at the Plaza Hotel, with about 335 lines in designer, bridge and contemporary apparel.
Fall ideas getting a play from retailers included lots of knitwear with texture, in such yarns as chenille and boucle, often mixed with metallics for some shine. Other key attractions were velvet, tie-dyed, crushed or burnout, as well as plenty of stretch for sportswear items such as shirtjackets, fitted shirts and slim pants styles.
In addition to the usual offering of neutrals like black, taupe, navy and gray, colors included shades of red from tomato to burgundy, blues from turquoise to indigo and lots of brown.
Another trend is fake fur, used for outerwear or as a trim for knitwear. While solids are still the majority of most businesses, retailers and vendors reported growing interest in patterns ranging from small, embroidered florals to men’s wear-inspired stripes and plaids.
Valentina Goldenberg, designer sportswear buyer, and Nancy Roberts, bridge sportswear buyer, were shopping for Doneger Group, a buying office here.
Knitwear and knit dressing, they said, are the predominant trends of fall sportswear. Among the key silhouettes are elongated bodies, jackets, sweater coats, belted sweaters and fur trim.
“It ranges from very funky to very elegant,” said Roberts. “Outerwear is also tremendous.”
“Skirts are longer, from mid-calf to ankle-length, but still slim,” noted Goldenberg. “The slim pant, usually a flat-front, is still doing well. The boot-leg is becoming more of a stovepipe with a very subtle flare.”
Shirts are another key item, said Goldenberg, in stretch lace, burnout velvet and other fabrics “with some interest.”
“There are a lot of opulent fabrics for fall,” added Roberts. “Embroidery, burnout velvets, silks.”
Color trends include camel as the top neutral, “the whole palette of red,” and olive, said Roberts.
“But you can add orange or bright blue to make those pop,” added Goldenberg.
The buyers noted that their stores have been asking for daytime dresses that are appropriate for work, unlike many of the bare slipdresses that were shown for spring. Beverly Mehl’s gray wool dress with fake fur neck and cuff trim was one good example, they said.
Catherine Johnston, owner of Ruthie’s Run in Lake Placid, N.Y., was looking for fall styles and “new direction.”
“I don’t buy a lot of designer-price things, but this tells you the direction the market is going,” she said.
Knitwear continues to be important for her customer, she said. “There’s a lot of chenille, a lot of brown, a lot of zippers,” she said.
The other key fabric is velvet. “I think velvet will become part of everyday wear for my customer,” said Johnston. “It already has in New York, and I think it will happen this year up where I am. Those pieces accent the basic black suit — a chenille scarf, a velvet shirt.”
Johnston said she would increase her open-to-buy for fall, although she didn’t know yet by how much.
Stacey Pecor, owner of Olive & Bette, which has two stores — one in Burlington, Vt., and one here on the Upper West Side — was previewing fall and looking for new styles “that will make us a specialty store and set us apart from the department stores.”
Pecor said, “We have some customers who come in weekly, so we have to have a constant flow of new things.
She said that Vivienne Tam has been selling very well for her.
“We sell it as we’re unpacking it,” she said.
For the most part, she said her business is driven by items, such as boot-cut pants, item T-shirts and sheer voile shirts. For fall, she said, colors such as brown, sienna and black will be key trends.
Business has been strong enough that Pecor said she’ll be increasing her open-to-buy 30 to 40 percent over last year and is thinking of opening a third retail unit here.
Cricket Krug, owner of Mr. Goodbye’s in Houston, was shopping for sportswear ensembles at Firmament, a contemporary-price line.
“I buy looks, because that’s what my customer wants,” she said, pointing to a blue windowpane shantung long jacket, slim pants and apple green shirt worn by a Firmament saleswoman. “But my customer has started to buy things as items, so I buy for that as well.”
Krug said she was looking for color, such as tones of blue, garnet, red and brick.
Among the exhibitors, chenille yarns in crochet openwork vests with novelty metal buttons were selling well for Lianne Barnes, according to Karen Erickson, a partner in Showroom Seven, which represents the designer.
Included in the Showroom Seven complex was Anna Sui, where buyers were going for sueded velvet separates with topstitching and novelty sweaters in earth tones with Lurex yarn and fake Mongolian fur trim.
Betsey Johnson was doing well with tie-dye stretch velvet separates in eggplant, green and orange tones.
“There’s major interest for fall in textures, like printed velvet, stretch denim, fuzzy faux furs,” said Kim Hingley, national sales manager for Betsey Johnson.
At Joop, vice president Daniel De Costa said the company was getting orders for a glen plaid stretch group that included a short dress, a miniskirt, a shirtjacket and flare pants, as well as jeans styles in animal print, velvet and fake pony fur.
Aiming to spice up their spring and early fall stocks, retailers scouted In-Style Works for sheer looks, novelty knits and knee-length hemlines.
About 500 contemporary resources displayed their lines at the show, held at the Hotel Inter-Continental, up from 340 a year ago. The show, which is in its 13th edition, featured an area for cutting-edge young contemporary resources, such as To the Max, a new division of BCBG; Content; Brannan Studio, and Et Vous.
The show also officially launched its first Web site, which features current trends and look books from the exhibitors as well as reviews of all the past shows. It gave buyers the opportunity to review and preview lines prior to the show and during.
Meanwhile, the mood was mixed among buyers.
There were some like Rita Van Sickels, owner of the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, store that bears her name, who said she was “having a tough time” with her business.
Van Sickels said she expects a flat year. “It might have been the cold, snowy weather,” she said, “but consumers were just not getting out to buy. I think they were spending money on traveling, not clothes.”
She noted that she has stepped up the number of in-store events, including trunk shows, to get her customers into her store. As for placing orders at the show, she said, “I’m just taking notes.”
Van Sickels said she was looking for casual looks, such as slim pants and long skirts. She noted that she particularly liked the slim pants from Bianca.
“Everyone seems to be waiting for sales,” said Ruth Wales, owner of NJB, a store in Greenwich Village, here. She added, “I haven’t really grown my customer base. I’m just depending on repeat customers.”
Tying in with the sheer trends, Wales bought lace dresses from such show resources as Favolosa and Hendris, both represented by JFK Sales.
Then there was Joan R. Rotman, who owns Rotman in Westport, Conn. “Business is very good,” she said. On top of her list was knitwear.
“We’ve really increased knitwear for fall. It is a very easy sell,” she said. Rotman said she was interested in buying items, not picking up coordinated sportswear. Among the items she picked up were novelty cotton and silk sweaters from Victoria Watson.
For the most part, buyers were clear about what they were looking for.
Betsey Jenney, owner of two stores that carry her name, one in Brookline, Mass., the other in Boston, was focused on knee-length hemlines, a trend that is now being marketed in the contemporary and junior areas.
“I am really going deep into that new length,” she said “The shorter hemlines were quite hard to sell to my conservative banker and lawyer clientele.” She picked up double-breasted wool twill suits in the new length as well as mohair three-quarter coats from Lino Catalano, a resource from Montreal.
Marissa Marquez Giovannone, owner of Little Shop, Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, was also into knee-length looks. From Bianca, she picked up blouses and dresses whose sleeves hit at the elbow in the new length.
She also bought flat-front men’s style pants from Wyt of San Francisco.
Connie Siegel, owner of Excessories, Dallas, said that she was looking for “fitted looks.” “I’m really into waist definition,” she said.
She picked up sheer, lingerie-inspired tops with skirts and jackets from Tina Hagen. She also bought some sweaters from Marigold, represented by Susan Bonomo & Co.
For the most part, vendors were pleased with business this week.
Keeping busy was Miami-based designer Alvin Valley, who was showing off his knit silk dresses and cotton and Lycra spandex tops to buyers.
“The traffic has been good,” said Valley. “We have picked up a couple of new accounts.”
The designer said he was looking to develop a Northeast account base at the show.
Lisa Green, sales manager of Marina Rossi, a three-year-old firm based here, noted that the pace was slow on Sunday but picked up a little Monday and Tuesday. Items that did well included stretch cashmere jackets, burnout looks, waxed jacquard jackets and faux stretch leather jackets.
“The traffic wasn’t great, but I did pick up some new accounts, and I got a chance to see some major department stores,” said Green.
Casual looks in easy-care fabrications were the main concerns of buyers shopping the 13th edition of the Showroom show at the Rihga Royal Hotel.
Retailers were booking immediate goods as well as looking to fall, with a definite preference for soft dressing. The big question among many retailers, however, was how to boost sales in the face of the consumer’s emphasis on casual dressing and the lower price tags that often accompany these looks. In addition to the continuing search for lesser-known labels that aren’t too vulnerable to discounting and offer fresh ideas, stores said they were trying to think up new ways to relate to the customer.
Typical of the search for new strategies among retailers, Karen McCullough and Beverly Poerschke, owners of Gumbo, a 2,000-square-foot store in Houston, said that next month they will kick off the store’s first series of what they call “staying healthy” seminars about such diverse topics as anti-aging dressing and menopause.
The new program should be a big draw with baby boomers who are becoming increasingly conscious of their weight and health, McCullough said.
McCullough and Poerschke also noted they might hand shoppers free weights once they enter the store to remind them this spring’s feminine looks lend themselves to well-toned bodies. Women respond to such personalized attention, they said.
“We always tell our salesgirls, ‘You’re not closing a sale — you’re starting a relationship,”‘ McCullough said.
The duo, who were attending Showroom for the first time, said spring sales are expected to increase 10 percent this year. They said they were looking for cotton chenille sweaters, jackets and vests “from lines they’d never heard of.”
Clothes with some snap that will appeal to a more mature customer appeared to be the goal of their shopping. “There are 76 million people who are going to turn 50 in the next 10 years, and they don’t want to wear potato sacks with buttons,” McCullough said. “They want sharp clothes.”
Judith Parker, owner of Tavecchia, a 1,000-square-foot store in Portland, Maine, said she was also changing her approach to retail. Located on the waterfront in a busy retail area, the store has been relying primarily on tourists, Parker noted.
“I’ve been selling clothes for 14 years. The question now is, ‘What’s the next step?”‘ she said. “I think it’s developing relationships with customers.”
Parker said she is considering offering books and personal care items in her store to develop more of a rapport with shoppers — especially locals who aren’t spending as much as in recent years.
That new strategy could push sales beyond the current growth rate of 4 percent, she said.
On the lookout for casual summer and fall items, Parker said Winter Sun, Zephyr, Nothing Matches and CTC are some of her favorite show resources.
Shopping for Ragss, an 800-square-foot store in East Longmeadow, Mass., buyers Arleen Roberts, Sylvia Shifrin and Roberta Goldberg also said casual looks fuel their business, although it’s not a situation they’re particularly happy about. Spring sales have been even with last year’s, they said.
“It’s very disappointing to see that underdressed, I-don’t-care attitude hasn’t gone away,” Roberts said. “People aren’t dressing up to go any place. They’re putting money into other things than clothes.”
For fall, they said, they aim to capture more customers with all-cotton relaxed jackets and sweaters from Amy Brill Handmade Sweaters, DAR and Treadle.
Part of the disinterest in fashion can be attributed to the lack of wearable, interesting items, Roberts said.
“Clothes are too skinny. And there are a lot of girls who are too skinny, but most women can’t wear those clothes,” she said. “Manufacturers sell it, we buy it, but the customer doesn’t want it.”
To accommodate today’s finicky customers, Ragss offers special services, such as taking a variety of outfits to a customer’s home to let them select one, Roberts said.
“Our motto is, ‘There’s never a problem at Ragss. Even if there is a problem — it’s no problem,”‘ she said.
Another Massachusetts retailer, Linda Shotkus, owner of Potpourri Designs, a five-store operation based in Concord, said her shoppers are also looking for easy care, wear-now outfits. Wooden Chips, Fat Hat, Crunch and Zephyr are show vendors that are popular with her customers.
Sales are slightly ahead of last year due primarily to this winter’s mild temperatures, Shotkus said. Despite the slight upswing in business, Shotkus said, she is not sure which fashions will dominate this summer and fall.
“We’re buying for immediate and looking for things that will get us into next season. It takes a while for us to get an eye for what the trends will be,” she said. “We like to preview the line first and digest it.”
Georgia Rosenblat, owner of Iris, two stores in Palm Desert and Palm Springs, Calif., said 1996 sales increased 10 percent.
“Business started to come back once the election was over. For the first time in a long time, Southern California is coming out of its depressed state,” she said. “Business is not good — it’s just coming back.”
Looking for lines “that are not all over the California market,” Rosenblat said, the key show vendors for her are Jackie Loves John, Joey Bisque, Crunch and Susan Riedweg Designs.
Items that don’t require dry cleaning and that travel well are in demand, she said.
New York Premier Collections
A luxury fall seemed to be in the making at the New York Premier Collections, where buyers were placing orders for classic looks in fabrics such as cashmere blends and silks.
The show, staged at the New York Coliseum, featured some 250 exhibitors and drew what many vendors rated as steady traffic.
“I’m looking for unusual fabrics, texture, luxurious pieces that are easy,” said Stacy Albert, owner of the same-named New York buying office.
Albert said this meant finer gauge fabrics than last year, such as herringbone and pinstripe rather than bulky tweeds.
She said she was also looking for more young designer looks at contemporary prices. While “funky” wasn’t what she had in mind, she said she would like to see “younger trends ” at the better price points featured at the show.
Helen Daniels, owner of a 5,000-square-foot shop carrying her name in Aventura, Fla., said she was shopping for year-round, special occasion dressing. She had ordered from several vendors.
“I need blazers with long skirts in dressy materials with lacy trims and beaded trims,” she said. Chiffons and other silks were key, she noted.
Coats and suits for fall were on the shopping list of Jane Harlow, a buyer for the Tom Teifer California boutique, Santa Monica.
“It’s simplicity, quality and fabric that stands out for me,” she said. “The store is not trendy. However, accessories with a twist — that’s where we might add an accent.”
Galina Bogomolova, a buyer for Polyris Inc. in Brooklyn, N.Y., a wholesaler to Russian stores, said feminine silhouettes were important for her, in fabrics such as silk, acetate and cotton.
“I like more sophisticated styling, romantic,” she said. “Women like to look like women, with tighter silhouettes, not loose.”
Jeanette Koenig, owner of Route 66 boutique in Oklahoma City, was agog over cashmere and one-of-a-kind artisan designs.
“I’m looking for timeless, four-season styles in good fabric,” she said and added that she prefers “artistic” looks.
These looks were necessary because Route 66 is an “art gallery type of place” where items look vintage but are not.
“Where I sell, I have to buy items that are irresistible,” she said.
Koenig ordered some silk and cashmere dresses from A+, a line based in New York that features cashmere blend separates.
Ceal Johnson, an owner of A+, noted a craze for cashmere was giving her line a lift.
“I have seen a lot of new stores,” she said. “With them, it’s been an average of $3,500 per order because we are a new resource to them.”
Johnson said that three years ago, her silk and cashmere line caused a stir, but not like recently. “This was an explosion,” she said of the sudden interest in the fabric last fall. Norman Mellides, manager of the New York office of outerwear line Christia, also reported strength in cashmere, noting his fine cashmere and microfiber coats with fur trims were doing well.
“We always do well at this show,” he said. “We find no problems with price resistance.”
Average orders were from six to eight units for new customers, Mellides noted. The wholesale range of the coats is about $495 to $2,000.
One special feature of the show was the Canada Mode section, a group of 15 companies from north of the border. Mary Allan, commercial officer at the Canadian Consulate in New York, which organizes Canada Mode, noted this was the group’s fourth time at Premier Collections, with four new companies showing this go-around.
While Allan did not have a count on attendance, she said her vendors seemed upbeat about the number of buyers present.
Among those in the Canadian group, Seta Donabedian, an owner of leather company Oscar Leopold, Montreal, noted, “We have had a very good reaction. We had new customers who gave decent orders for the first time.”
Like many vendors, Donabedian said she met with some of her established customers, but new customers were the strength of this show.
The company’s jackets, which wholesale for $100 to $250, were ordered in average minimums of 20 units. Donabedian said bread-and-butter basics, like lambskin peacoats, were the bestsellers. Still, she noted, unusual materials, such as croco-printed leather and shiny leather, were getting much attention.
Elsewhere at the show, Angelheart Designs was featuring several lines made of flax-based fabric, and sales rep Judith Austin was pleased.
“This is a nice show because the flow is even. It’s smaller; you can answer questions,” she said.
The company was showing a broader range of color this time, Austin said, to match regional preferences. The line, called Temperate Flax, offers such hues as dark greens and browns for cool regions like the East and the Midwest, and lighter colors for warmer regions such as Texas, Nevada, New Mexico and California.
“People in Minnesota don’t usually wear pink,” she said. “People in Nevada wear lighter, cooler colors.”
In addition to the apparel, there was a handful of accessories vendors at the show, such as jewelry designers Gerard Yosca and David Dubin; Nicole Miller handbags, and sunglasses lines with such brands as Benson & Ashley and Ellen Tracy.