THE NEW SOUTH
Byline: Georgia Lee / Neal Turnage
Look-alike malls and stores, homogenized mass media and sophisticated lifestyle marketing by a handful of powerhouse brands all are serving an American consumer who still manages to defy easy definition. Whether driven by changing demographics, different climates or cultural values, shopping habits continue to vary from region to region. This is the first in a series of occasional articles that will examine consumer differences in key areas of the country. Today, a look at the Southeast.
ATLANTA — Call it the Scarlett Syndrome. While the stereotype of the Southern belle in frilly floral prints is still widely believed, the look is essentially gone with the wind.
The Southeast today is a mixed bag: The Deep South, with a more homogeneous population, is a far cry from South Florida. Miami and environs, with its large ex-New York and Latin contingents, is considered a world apart from the rest of the region.
And while global influences and mass communication continue to narrow the most obvious gaps in style, vestiges of Southern culture and heritage still have some influence over the way women look here.
From birth, Southern women are taught to be feminine, well-mannered, pretty, ladylike and above all, never vulgar. They are brought up to love fine things, including fine clothes. Quality is valued above designer names or the trend of the moment, say local retailers. The trend to casual dressing is not quite as noticeable here, where social occasions, such as proms and debutante balls, are still revered.
Small towns, as in most areas, tend to have a slightly more conservative, provincial style. But major metropolitan areas, particularly Atlanta and Miami, have attracted top international names, and developed the upscale markets to support them, although their style values differ.
With its favorable climate and strong economy, the region continues to lure people — and their disposable dollars. In personal income growth, the Southeast ranks third in the nation, behind the Mountain and Pacific regions, according to Jeff Humphries, director of economic forecasting at the University of Georgia.
“There’s a steady influx of workers and retirees bringing in more capital,” he said. “The national turnaround in the tourism and convention industries is bringing more visitors to Florida and Atlanta.”
Interestingly, these people are ready to buy clothes, said Humphries, who predicted apparel growth rates would double this year.
“Consumer confidence is high; people have already bought homes, cars and furniture, so cash is freed up for apparel, which they haven’t bought in some time.”
Atlanta, always the hub of the Southeast, has been catapulted into a major international city in the past decade. Tremendous growth, augmented by the 1996 Olympics, has made Atlanta a media darling, in sharp contrast to the rest of the region.
“Without Atlanta, the state of Georgia would be just like Alabama,” said Jeff Humphries.
In the past few years, an influx of big-name designers, including Ralph Lauren, Gianni Versace and Giorgio Armani, and a host of smaller firms have discovered Atlanta, and opened or expanded boutiques here. Most describe the market as up and coming, and said stores there are among their top national performers.
Guess opened a 5,300-square-foot boutique in Lenox Square Aug. 7.
“This store will be a shining star, in the top 10 out of a projected 100 stores we plan to open by the end of 1998,” said Andrea Weiss, president of the Guess retail division. “Atlanta women are as upscale and aware as anywhere in the country.”
Nicole Miller will open a 2,800-square-foot prototype boutique at Lenox Square in October. Bud Konheim, chief executive officer, said Atlanta — and indeed the entire Southeast — had become a major focus. “Out of 30 Nicole Miller stores, 20 are below the Mason/Dixon line,” he said. But even with growing access to international retailers, Atlanta women, like many in the Southeast, are more concerned with an look than in blindly swallowing every trend.
“Southern women embrace the ‘P’ word. Pretty is taught like a religion,”said Marigail Mathis, the eponymous owner of two Alabama and two Tennessee specialty stores. “They err on the side of simplicity, good taste. Audrey Hepburn is a role model, but Kate Moss doesn’t cut it.”
Still, the modern version of Southern pretty is quite different from what is was in years past. “We aren’t walking around in linen dresses, theme sweaters or pink pants,” she said. “They want sleek and sophisticated, not prissy or frumpy.”
Designer Rickie Freeman for Teri Jon, a suit and special occasion designer based in New York that does 35 percent of its sales in the Southeast, describes the area as “the last bastion” of well-groomed, well-dressed women.
“Southern women, underneath all that personality and sweetness, are very strong-minded and individualistic,” she said. “They don’t care whether it’s Gucci or Prada, they value what makes them look good. And they still like to dress up.”
Bare or see-through looks won’t work here, said Freeman. “They want to look sexy, but never slutty,” she said.
Southern retailers have always screamed for color and year-round fabrics, a cry that’s now being heard by the rest of the world.
“The whole world is climate-controlled now, so everybody’s come around to lightweight fabrics and appreciation of color,” said Freeman. “If something works in the Southeast, we know it will work in the North. But not the other way around.”
Social occasions — weddings, proms, graduations and church activities — are big in the Southeast, particularly in small, tightly knit communities.
“With less transient people here, tradition is important,” said Rhea Kirk, fashion director of Gayfers, a Mercantile store with 10 outlets in Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia.
“Casualization hasn’t completely infiltrated the South. There’s still a dress code for occasions and for work, and it isn’t lax.” Underscoring her point, Kirk said the manners course she has taught for 20 years at the Montgomery, Ala., Gayfers for ages five to 15 always has a waiting list.
While manners, tradition and quality drive the Southeastern woman, her Miami counterpart has a totally different motivation. She wants to be noticed. She isn’t afraid to flaunt her figure, as well as her wealth, through status symbols such as designer labels.
Fashion and retail experts describe Miami as a town where locals and tourists aren’t afraid to do whatever it takes to achieve “the look.” In Miami, retail spending continues to rise about 5 percent a year. New Bloomingdale’s and Burdines are scheduled to open soon; so are designer boutiques Giorgio Armani, Christian Dior, Ferragamo and Joseph. This is in addition to a new Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom, NikeTown, Gap and The Limited, among others.
“Miami is a destination for many of our clients,” said a spokeswoman for Joseph, the London-based sportswear company. “It’s the perfect place to expand the pant store concept, this time creating an ‘Essentials’ store, which are pieces and separates open to interpretation in the way they are worn.”
And Miami women are definitely wearing it every which way. Caron Cherry, owner of Caron Cherry in Bal Harbour, said “extremely” fashion-conscious women are the bulk of her business. “We edit the best of all the collections for them and offer outstanding service.”
Witness some of her bestsellers so far: a pinstriped coat and black corset dress, both by Dolce & Gabbana; a knee-length coat by Costume National; Ann Demeulemeester’s belted jacket, and Herve Leger’s body-hugging evening dresses. Cherry noted sales volume is up 25 percent over 1996.
Burdines remains the most dominant retailer in sales volume and number of stores, said Herbert Leeds, president of Leeds Business Counseling Inc., in Miami. Leeds said Macy’s is second, followed by Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale’s. The largest growth is in the luxury market, he added.
“There have been a fair number of discounters, outlet malls and chain stores coming into South Florida [Dade, Broward and Palm Beach Counties] within the past year, but high-end retail is what’s presently driving the market,” said Leeds.
Leeds cited the continued development of South Beach — “far from a plateau” — and South Miami as key factors.
Stan Whiteman, developer and managing partner of Bal Harbour Shops, believes there are two other reasons.
“First, many of the wealthy Northeasterners have homes here. These are women who are very fashion-conscious and demand the best,” said Whitman. Well-heeled tourists, especially from Latin America, are Whitman’s second reason.
“Latin American women will come here and buy six gowns for $30,000 apiece and not think twice.” People, he said, still ask him when Miami will be the capital of Latin America. His answer: “It already is.”
According to John Cordrey, vice president of research at the Beacon Council, retail spending in Miami in 1996 totaled $23 billion. Of that, about $10 million was spent by tourists. Tourism was up 2 percent in 1996, and he expects the figure to be flat for 1997. Whitman noted sales have gone up at Bal Harbour Shops consistently over the years. Total volume for 1996 was $252.8 million, up 21.5 percent. More than $275 million is projected for 1997 and more than $300 million for 1998.
Of 370,000 square feet of retail space, approximately 75 percent is devoted to apparel. Last year, average sales per square foot for women’s apparel was $767, he said.
With Saks and Neiman Marcus as anchors, Bal Harbour Shops continues to draw luxury retailers. Last year, Prada and Ermenegildo Zegna opened new boutiques. This fall, Ferragamo and Giorgio Armani will open. And Whitman noted that a lease has been signed for a Christian Dior shop.
New openings and continued growth are a big story at Miami’s other popular shopping centers, including Aventura Mall and The Falls. Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president and fashion director at Bloomingdale’s, is scheduled to inaugurate the Aventura store with a “Red” event Nov. 5, featuring new red clothing from top designers.
The Falls had a grand opening last October, adding a 230,000-square-foot Macy’s and 54 new retailers, including BCBG, Bebe, Bisou Bisou, Brooks Bros., Jessica McClintock, J. Crew, Guess, Rampage and Boston Trading Co.
Marketing director Julie Goldman said tourists represent the bulk of winter volume — they spend upwards of $27 more per visit than locals — but locals remain the cornerstone of the business. Goldman, who operates with an annual marketing budget of approximately $750,000, said, “We constantly work with all the local media to place stories.” She also goes for attention-getting ads. Recently the Falls covered the plastic wrapper of the Miami Herald with a splashy ad.
Leeds reported a New York developer has plans to open a new shopping center in Coral Gables, to be anchored by Neiman’s and Nordstrom. The Sunset Shops, with a 30,000-square-foot NikeTown, Gap and The Limited, will open in South Miami in 1998.
Several fashion observers and retailers said the South Florida look is clearly defined.
Sandi Powers, fashion editor of Miami’s Ocean Drive magazine, calls the South Florida fashion scene “form-fitting, trendy and very sexy, something which really separates it from New York or L.A.” Another defining trait, she said, is that sexy looks are worn by women of all ages. “More often than not, there’s a lot of skin showing,” admitted Powers. “And the style is definitely not casual.”
“Name brands are very important — even for younger people here,” said Charlene Parsons, chairwoman of fashion merchandising at International Fine Arts College in Miami. For juniors, she said Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein were favorites.