Byline: Amanda Meadus

NEW YORK — Accessories companies are learning the value of taking matters into their own hands.
In the last year or so, various types of vendors have opened or announced plans to open their own retail venues as a way to generate high levels of consumer awareness and feedback as well as to enhance their bottom line.
At a time of retail consolidation and staffing cutbacks among those merchants still operating, these benefits seem more important than ever to many companies.
“If you don’t have your own store, you are totally at the mercy of the retailers you sell to,” said accessories designer Robert Lee Morris, one of the pioneers in the field.
Morris, who has had a 400-square-foot store at 409 West Broadway since 1985, will relocate to a 3,200-square-foot space at 400 West Broadway in May.
“My goal is to create a ‘world of Robert Lee Morris’ atmosphere, with everything merchandised exactly the way I feel it should be,” Morris said.
“It’s very important for accessories designers to have their own stores, perhaps even more than it is for ready-to-wear designers,” he added. “When you’re selling clothes, whether it’s in your own store or someone else’s, you either put them on mannequins or hangers. But with accessories, there are often a lot of pieces — long necklaces are one example — that you need special fixturing for and that the department store just has difficulty displaying.”
In addition, Morris pointed out, the retail arm of his business has been “highly profitable” so far. Though he declined to provide specifics on volume or projections, he said he expects the new store to be just as lucrative.
Morris said he is not planning on opening more than one store, but others who have recently gotten into retail said they’re already looking to expand their bases.
“We have a five-year plan that consists of opening eight new stores,” said leather-goods designer Carlos Falchi, whose first retail venture started up in Dallas about a year ago. “We will do more boutiques as well as several outlets that will allow us to control the off-price market, which is a definite issue.”
Falchi said that the Dallas store has proven highly successful so far, in terms of profitability as well as exposure.
“A new respect for your brand develops when you open your own store,” he noted. “Customers who come into our store can see everything and familiarize themselves with it, so that when they go into a department store and see our name, they feel as though they know us that much better.
“The Europeans often employ this philosophy of establishing the brand by opening their own stores, and then, once that happens, selling the goods to other retailers,” he added.
Fragments, a jewelry designer’s representative firm, opened its first store here last June and is now targeting South Beach in Miami as the site of its second.
“The store has turned out to be more than just a profitable venture,” said Jimmy Moore, co-owner of Fragments. “It’s also become almost like a marketing and merchandising lab in the sense that retailers we sell to can come in and get an idea of how to display a certain line or find out how a particular designer’s sales are trending.”
Some companies are also venturing into retail to revitalize business. The fashion jewelry industry, for instance, has had its share of hard knocks in the last two years, and several makers are countering that with their own stores. In one example, designer Kenneth Jay Lane recently regained the retail rights to his name from Ciro Inc., who had been operating his stores under license and closed them as a result of its own financial woes. As reported, Lane said he was planning to try reopening at least one of his stores and was negotiating with several prospective corporate partners.
Another fashion jeweler, Erwin Pearl, recently announced plans to open his company’s first store here on Madison Avenue in May.
“I think one of the reasons that fashion jewelry hasn’t been doing so well in department stores is because of the lack of visual excitement,” Pearl pointed out.
“We envision our store as a way back to making the category of fashion jewelry exciting and fun,” Pearl said. “We’re hoping that customers will come in, see the wide variety of everything we make and then go back to the department stores and say, ‘Why don’t you have the same variety?”‘
Still, other companies are opening stores at a rapid rate in foreign countries, but holding back on similar development within the U.S.
“In the U.S., opening our own stores would require a very carefully planned strategy, since we would have to take our retail accounts into strong consideration before making a decision,” said Liz Conover, president of Lopez-Cambil Ltd., which produces the Paloma Picasso accessories line.
The company’s retail business outside the mainland, Conover noted, is expanding, with a new store having opened in Guam two weeks ago, another slated to bow in Hawaii on April 1 and a third planned to open in Australia sometime this year. Lopez-Cambil also operates 14 freestanding boutiques in Japan.
“We already have very good brand exposure in this country, so that wouldn’t be as important a factor for us in opening stores here,” Conover said.
Marcia Sherrill, co-owner of handbag company Kleinberg Sherrill, said she feels many U.S. fashion firms are still too daunted by the prospect of rocking the boat with their retail accounts to open their own stores. Kleinberg Sherrill opened its second U.S. location here in November 1993. It also has a venue in Atlanta and is considering opening a third later this year.
“The intimidation factor still looms very large here, because we’re still so heavily entrenched in the department store mentality,” Sherrill said. “In Europe, it’s a very common thing for accessories companies and fashion houses to have their own stores, but here the concept is still in its infancy.”