CASUAL COMPETES WITH CHIC

Byline: Amanda Meadus

NEW YORK — Conservative chic might be the big fashion news of the fall season thus far, but for accessories, this will likely be only half the story.
Many retailers and vendors note that the polished and fitted suits will mean big success for items such as structured handbags, pins and brooches and tailored belts. But a number of them — from mass market to upscale — feel the casual and dressed-down look is more likely to appeal to a wide segment of the population.
The good news is that many stores feel the two trends can coexist as fashion stories, providing a double-track opportunity for a plus season.
Saks Fifth Avenue, for one, is getting behind both for fall, according to Gail Pisano, senior vice president and general merchandise manager of accessories.
“Our customer base is so broad and multifaceted that we’ll be showing everything from ladylike to casual,” Pisano said.
She added that some of the accessories classifications that showed up consistently in the recent European fall rtw collections, including gloves, belts and handbags, can be presented just as successfully in casual incarnations as they can in dressier styles.
“In a lot of cases, it’s about changing the fabrication,” Pisano pointed out. “With gloves, for instance, which were all over the runways in Europe, you can do them in a very elegant, beautiful satin or a fun, casual chenille. Either way, it works.
“The same goes for belts, which were shown with much of the suiting in Europe,” she added. “We’ll address that, but we also have a customer who wants a belt to go with a great pair of pants.”
Other levels of retailing are also planning to run in both directions.
“We tend to be more of a casually focused store in terms of apparel, but accessories is an interesting area because we can pursue both the casual and the structured, dressed-up directions,” said Gregory Blow, fashion director for Venture Stores, O’Fallon, Mo.
“You can merchandise goods at both ends of the spectrum and be successful with both,” Blow noted. “In fact, I think that because of these two very different, definite trends, this fall will be one of the best accessories seasons in years.”
Though the balance of Venture’s mix will be in casual merchandise, the retailer will also offer structured bags, tailored jewelry and other goods that work with dressed-up styles, he said.
As some pointed out, the casual direction is not necessarily as new as conservative chic, but one that has been growing in importance for several seasons, as more relaxed dress codes began pervading many corporate venues.
“It’s a trend we’ve been watching and developing for a while now,” said Sam Elder, divisional merchandise manager at Jacobson Stores Inc., Jackson, Mich. “With dress-down Fridays, you have to offer casual goods. It isn’t an option at this point.”
Jacobson’s will show a composite of casual and dressed-up for fall, altering the ratio between the two depending on the classification, Elder said. Hats, for instance, will be about 70 percent structured wool felts and 30 percent casual styles, while handbags will be 80 percent casual and 20 percent structured. Fashion jewelry will be stacked toward pins and brooches that work with suiting, but the retailer also plans to offer merchandise geared toward more relaxed dressing.
“We actually haven’t seen much casual jewelry in the market, but we want to work with some vendors to develop earrings and other items for dress-down days and weekends,” Elder said.
In some cases, retailers could end up sticking mainly with casual and fairly basic goods.
“The patent leathers and skinny belts haven’t really caught on with our customer, and in general the direction is still pretty basic,” said Lisa Ottman, accessories buyer for Dayton, Ohio-based Elder-Beerman Stores Corp., during the March accessories market week.
“In the Midwest, I just don’t think a lot of customers are going to get the ladylike look,” Ottman added.
A range of vendors are also taking both directions into consideration. “Basically, for fall we see a double-track interest,” said Abe Chehebar, president of Accessory Network, which sells handbags and other accessories, primarily to mass merchants and moderate department stores. “In handbags, for instance, there’s a renewed interest in structured shapes,” Chehebar noted. “But at the same time, casual, functional pieces such as mini-backpacks will be where the bulk of our business is done for fall.”
DeVecchi, an upscale handbag firm that distributes to high-end specialty stores, is taking a similar tack, according to president Peter Macri.
“We’ve been selling ladylike, structured bags, but we’ve also been selling very soft, unstructured suede bags,” Macri said. “No matter what happens in terms of ready-to-wear trends, there will always be women who need big, soft, lightweight bags. The very small, suit-oriented bags aren’t necessarily large enough for everyone.”
For some manufacturers, though, accessories geared toward conservative chic have gotten negative responses from some retailers.
“We showed skinny belts during March market, but a lot of buyers pointed out to me that their customers aren’t thin enough to wear them, that belts like that ‘look fine on fashion models but not on regular people,’ ” said Stephen Weiser, vice president of LeJon Belts.
Instead, very casual styles in woven denims and ropes, as well as basic leather styles that can cross over from casual to career use received the best responses at the market, Weiser said.
Ellen Mash, vice president of sales for Liz Claiborne Accessories, also noted that crossover styles have been important for fall in some classifications, including belts and scarves.
“In scarves, for instance, we have a group of chenille and bouclA wraps that we call ‘Blanket Statements,”‘ Mash said. “They have some sense of casualwear to them, but they are also applicable to tailored, career-type clothing.”
For other categories, such as hats, the major statement will be casual, according to Mash. “About 75 percent of our fall hats are casual,” she said, “though we do have some blocked felts and embellished berets that work with the dressy look.”

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