LOOKING TO THE FUTURE: MASS, MINIMAL, CASUAL TO SHAPE ACCESSORIES
Byline: Wendy Hessen and Amanda Meadus
NEW YORK — Ask accessories exectives what the future holds and they’ll paint the following scenario: The mass market will bounce back, the dreaded minimal look will stick and the “casualization” of America will roll right along.
Those are the key issues the accessories industry sees as dominating the landscape through the rest of the Nineties, according to a survey of executives across various distribution channels.
Here, a closer look at what they had to say, issue by issue.
Mass Market Trauma
The consensus from accessories executives was that the mass market — still a valid shopping alternative with a strong consumer base that depends on these stores for their hard goods as well as apparel and accessories — will come through its current difficulties with more focus and more individuality.
“I think there will be a resurgence in the mass market, particularly because out in the real world, consumers are still cutting back on their spending in many areas, and the mass market will be the place they put the dollars they do spend,” said Tom Lawson, president, Holiday Fair, which sells to both the mass market and department stores.
What may happen, some said, is the market will go forward with a different set of retailers.
“If you look at the segment about 15 or 20 years ago, the players were totally different than they are today — remember E.J. Korvette?” noted Abe Chehebar, chief executive officer at Accessory Network. “There will be different retailers in the category 10 years from now as well. We could end up with fewer retailers, who do the same amount of business but with more units.”
The segment’s recent trauma, some pointed out, is attributable to the same overstoring that hit the department stores.
“I think, in most cases, there are too many stores servicing the same markets. They are also too homogeneous,” said Donna Rollins, director of marketing for the eyewear firm Marchon & Marcolin. “The chains that can figure out a way to distinguish themselves from the pack will thrive.”
The Retail Ch. 11 Plague
Closely related to the problems in the mass market is the rash of retail bankruptcies, but accessories firms have seen some of their own retail specialists, such as The Icing and Ciro, take that route as well.
Executives are divided as to whether it’s a short-term illness or a chronic problem.
“Maybe there is a bit more activity than usual now, but I view it as a kind of a teeter-totter thing that will always be out there, just more active periodically,” said Rollins. “We’ve all seen how the process has really benefited some companies who took the opportunity to analyze what their problems were and have come back better than ever.”
Several executives referred to the process as a needed correction for an overcrowded market.
Carol Hochman, president of fashion accessories at Liz Claiborne, noted that “It’s a good thing in the long run, because they will filter out the serious overstoring situation we’re in, leaving the market cleaner and healthier in the long run.”
Others, however, see some long-lasting implications for the consumer psyche affecting accessories as well as other categories of merchandise.
“With so many locations closing, consumers have gotten used to shopping all the liquidation sales, only furthering their habit of shopping only when merchandise is marked down,” said Joel Pinsky, chief executive officer, Omega.
It’s also making vendors more cautious about to whom they’re selling.
“Though we haven’t felt a huge impact yet, since we’re in the development stage with U.S. business, we have had to track our shipments more carefully,” said Shelley Lipton, executive vice president for the U.S. division of Parkhurst, a Toronto-based knitwear firm.
After the highly accessorized looks of the Eighties, the minimal look that surfaced several seasons ago initially set off a panic in the accessories industry. Some manufacturers, however, have become accustomed to it as the defining look of the Nineties and realize that it does not necessarily negate accessories. Others continue to rage against it and hope that this trend, too, will eventually pass.
“I think this is the biggest detriment to accessories right now, but on the more positive side, I don’t see it lasting much longer,” said Michael Klein, president of Honey Fashions. “In fact, quite soon, I think we can expect to see it swinging in the other direction, with women wearing a lot of accessories again. I’ve seen these extremes before and I have no reason to believe this cycle won’t be repeated.”
Lawson of Holiday Fair agreed, adding that he sees minimalism as primarily a trend for the East and West Coasts.
“I don’t think the mid-section of the country is into it yet, and I’m not sure they ever will be,” he said.
To coincide with newly casual workplaces and efforts to streamline their lives, it’s acknowledged by most vendors that consumers are returning to classic styles with more simplicity and usefulness and some manufacturers have embraced the trend.
“Simplicity will be bliss in the last years of the Nineties,” said Chehebar of Accessory Network. “The consumer is gadgeted out and is rebounding to classic accessories with more simplicity and real usefulness.”
Since an interest in personal style is also on the upswing, some designers feel accessories, even if they are simple, classic and minimal, will still benefit.
“Women are tired of too much glitz and want to be less trendy and more individualized, so I think the minimal look will continue,” said Judith Leiber, president of the luxury accessories firm bearing her name. “It won’t hurt the accessories business, because women will always want to embellish clothes with their own personal statement.”
The Top Influences
Big names, including Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Miuccia Prada, Giorgio Armani and Karl Lagerfeld, came up just as frequently as overall trends like the growing casual mode of the workplace and minimalism when vendors were asked what has most influenced accessories design in the decade thus far.
Marchon’s Rollins pointed to Klein for his marketing prowess.
“Calvin Klein’s design philosophy and marketing strategies focus on his selected market with uncanny consistency,” Rollins noted.
Chehebar gave Karan the nod for her modern take on bodies and shapes: “Donna Karan’s design concepts have had a tremendous influence on the accessories market throughout the Nineties, and I think she will remain the shining star through the balance of the decade.”
Prada was praised by several for her sensibly beautiful styling, and Armani and Lagerfeld got raves for consistently injecting newness and life into their collections — a source of great inspiration to accessories designers.
In addition to individual designers, the casual trend was cited by many as a key impetus for design as well as business.
“The dressing down of America has been the single biggest influence thus far,” said Lawson. “People are definitely living simpler lives right now and have neither the need nor the desire to own a whole bunch of accessories or dress up with them. Going forward, it’s tough to say whether this relaxed lifestyle will last, or people will begin to have the desire to dress up again.”
Recently several groups have been formed in an effort to solve what vendors in the industry constantly complain about — not enough accessories exposure in magazines and little attention about the importance of the classification from retailers.
Whether these groups — The Accessories Council and the Fashion Jewelry Foundation, the newest among them — will be able to garner increased support from either retailers or consumers remains to be seen.
The overwhelming sentiment from industry players, whether or not they are aligned with any particular group, is anything that can bring attention to accessories is probably positive and desperately needed.
“Anytime you bring awareness to a classification, hopefully it helps to also bring it to the attention of store management, and thus to consumers,” said Hochman of Liz Claiborne.
Several vendors pointed out that store management has forgotten that accessories — in addition to being a highly profitable main floor business — is an area that can serve to distinguish itself from its competitors. A mission of these advocacy groups should be to help stores focus more on accessories.
“The true purpose of advocacy groups such as the Accessories Council is to promote accessories to consumers, but first we must work with the trade — specifically, with retailers,” said Pinsky of Omega.
Several vendors stressed that it’s important for these groups to have a specific plan, stay focused on it and avoid infighting.
“Industry groups should tailor their efforts to consumers, but many of them unfortunately are more geared to the trade,” said Leiber.
Lawson agreed, saying “The CFDA accessories designers, for instance, is a good idea but its influence doesn’t really extend beyond the fashion trade.”