RETAILERS’ SPRING SEASON MOVING SLOWLY

PARIS — Several weeks into the spring selling season, European fashion retailers are still searching for signs of a full recovery. Only a few are finding any.
Some high-end designer apparel and some young fashion lines are generating most of what sales increases there are. But overall, the situation is not brilliant. Here’s how it stands in the major countries:

U.K.
Although some mass-market groups claim business conditions are the worst they have been for two years, stores at the designer end of the market say their sales are at least flat compared with spring 1994, and in some cases are soaring. Liberty’s fashion business is up 18 percent from a year ago, partially because last spring business was hampered by three bomb scares from the Irish Republican Army. But the store also has been working hard to better target its customer, said Tom Logan, Liberty’s fashion director.
“We now are seeing the results with such collections as Vivienne Westwood, Nicole Farhi, Ghost, Patricia Lester, as well as Issey Miyake, Shirin Guild, Jean Muir, Ally Capellino and John Galliano, who we’ve sold out of.”
Sales for Liberty’s private-label scarves are up 70 percent on the previous year and sales for its new private-label women’s wear are on target, up 81 percent.
Joan Burstein, owner of Browns in London, said her store’s business is flat compared with last year. Collections holding their own include Jil Sander, Comme des Garcons, Ann Demeulemeester, Herve Leger, Sonia Rykiel, Zoran, Gianfranco Ferre and John Galliano.
“Those people who delivered early are selling,” Burstein said. “We still have not received one piece of Donna Karan, and we’re six weeks into the season.” Ann Pitcher, fashion director at Harrods, said business has picked up in the last few weeks after a slow start in early February. She projects a good increase this season over “a very strong spring 1994.”
Best-selling collections include Jil Sander, DKNY, HervA Leger, John Galliano, Gucci, Miu Miu, Cheap n’ Chic from Franco Moschino, D&G from Dolce & Gabbana and Bazar from Christian Lacroix. “Customers are going for the new skirt lengths and the glamour looks,” she said. “Women want to look attractive and the new styles play to that.” But Pitcher said there has been a problem this season with late deliveries, especially from collections produced in Italy, citing those made by GFT. Other slow arrivals have been Donna Karan’s main line, new to Harrods this spring, and the Ralph Lauren Collection.

FRANCE
The retail picture is glum. Independent retailers reported that in February, women’s wear sales were down 5 percent compared to the same period last year. March weather, with its hail and sleet showers, hasn’t helped to improve matters.
“We are desperately looking for signs of a recovery, but for now we see no progression in our spring sales compared to spring 1994,” said Jean-Michel Girardin, the director of advertising and communications for Galeries Lafayette. “No one sector is up or down.”
Galeries stores outside of Paris are faring slightly better than the Paris stores, however.
At specialty store chain Franck et Fils, the situation is similar. Designer ready-to-wear and dressy evening wear, however, are outperforming day wear, said Muriel Franck, the director of rtw. Designer brands carried by Franck et Fils include Chanel, Christian Lacroix, Yves Saint Laurent Variation, Guy Laroche, Louis Feraud, Lacroix’s Bazar, Mani from Giorgio Armani and Inscription from Sonia Rykiel.
“What is working is the couturier’s rtw and [very dressy] ensembles, but in everyday wear, we are having a hard time,” Franck noted. “It’s not a question of money, because with the dressy clothes, our average price has increased. Women buy when there is a need, like for a special occasion. But otherwise, it seems they can make do with what they already have.” Bazar and Mani are performing well, Franck said. She also noted that in Passy Passage, part of the flagship store devoted to younger customers, sales to date have doubled for dressier items.

ITALY
Upscale multibrand stores are having a decent spring season so far. “It’s definitely better than last year,” said Rosa Biffi, the owner of Biffi in Milan.
Biffi says no one designer is outselling another, but Romeo Gigli, Ralph Lauren, Paul Smith and Antonio Fusco are all popular. What’s hot are “special looks,” including anything shiny or white. Nylon raincoats, satin-blend suits in whites and pastels and anything in white leather are bestsellers, she noted. At Louisa in Florence, owner Andrea Panconesi said sales are flat with last spring, which were “way up from those of spring 1993.” Bestsellers are “Hepburn-ish looks” that emphasize excellent tailoring and fluid, clean lines.
He added that women are buying lengths “around the knee,” with pale, almost white pastels the popular colors. Coming off a year that saw a small rise in sales, Rinascente, Italy’s high-end department store, is having a slower spring season than last year, according to a spokesman.

GERMANY
The spring retail climate in Germany is gloomy. In 1994 sales for women’s wear decreased by about 5 percent, according to the German Retailers Association. In January, sales were down by 6 percent. February brought a little relief, but early March had some retailers coping with decreases of up to 17 percent compared to spring 1994.
“We are not going to meet our planned figures,” said Rolf Peper, the director of central buying for the Essen-based Karstadt department store chain. It appears that the consumer is less interested in fashion and would rather spend money on traveling or dining in chic restaurants, Peper said, noting that this reluctance comes despite a season that is “really pretty, with fresh attractive colors.”
Fashion sales at the 160-store chain are being carried by the younger customer. Karstadt does not carry designer apparel. Among the branded collections, Peper said that lines like Betty Barclay, and Strenesse on the higher end, are performing strongly, as is Cartoon, a dress company whose “double dress” in a long and short version is a top seller. Other strong items include linen pants, short pullovers and long blouses. Coats and leather articles continue to be sluggish. A spokeswoman at the smaller Kauhof chain said that the spring season has been slow because of weather conditions. Spring pastels are the strongest trend, and top performers include Separa by Fink, Creation Charmante and Betty Barclay. Problem classifications are dresses and knits.
But some of Germany’s more exclusive rtw retailers are posting gains. “Business is good with a 5 percent gain for the first three months of 1995,” said Dusseldorf retailer Albert Eickhoff. Eickhoff added that the other 11 specialty stores that are members of the First in Fashion Group he chairs are also experiencing sales gains. Working women are fueling the sales at Eickhoff’s three stores, buying “a sporty style, but not sportswear.” Eickhoff singled out suits, blazer combinations, dresses with jackets or alone, classic cashmere and cotton knitwear pieces, all combined with skirts ranging from short A-line to “the new length.” Slim shaped pants are also moving well. Top performing lines include Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Antonio Fusco, Jean Paul Gaultier, Isaia and other brands like Ruffo for leather and Piazza Sempione and Metradamo for pants. “Ladylike fashion and designer clothes priced too high” are not selling, he said.

SPAIN
Despite a 1994 report by the Bank of Spain stating the Spanish economy had reached a “take-off” point in its recovery, domestic consumption hasn’t left the launch pad.
According to high fashion retailers, spring sales are running slightly ahead of last year, but for most merchants, inflation at 4.3 percent and unemployment at 24.2 percent continue to batter volume potential. Moreover, the upscale customer continues to be less frivolous and more sensible and discerning in her purchases. At Tres Zetas, a designer specialty store in Madrid owned by Amalia Zunzunegui, who also owns and operates four Giorgio Armani and Emporio Armani franchises in Spain, apparel choice and merchandising have been toned down to meet customers’ more conservative shopping habits. There are quieter colors and fewer party clothes, said Zunzunegui, who added that her clients are “working women with money.” She also noted that Spanish women are starting to take to Calvin Klein, Donna Karan and DKNY, which she carries exclusively in Tres Zetas. Zunzunegui’s children run Klein’s only freestanding Spanish store, in Barcelona. — Fairchild News Service