FALL’S FIRST LOOK

Byline: WENDY HESSEN

NEW YORK — The good news is that accessories appear to have started on a roll this spring. The even better news is that they look to be staying on a roll for fall.
According to retailers, the tough times that accessories suffered at the hands of grunge and minimalism are resoundingly over, now that feminine and structured looks, so conducive to accessories, have taken hold. As a result, buyers said they are planning their budgets up in the high single to low double digits.
And some cited the following classifications as particularly key in driving fall sales:
Handbags, which were anticipated by many to be the hottest performer, due to the wide selection of both structured and more casual silhouettes and new materials being offered.
Belts, which are expected to continue to benefit from fashion’s current interest in the waist.
Cold-weather goods that, despite a sluggish performance this winter, are still being pegged as an important area.
“We’re planning for double-digit increases in accessories,” said Jake Einhorn, divisional merchandise manager for accessories, Saks Fifth Avenue. “We feel particularly good about the handbag category, which we think will continue to grow.”
In handbags, Einhorn cited opportunities in the “better upscale market” and pointed to new materials and colors in every price point as the reasons for the classification’s enduring strong performance.
He added that the ongoing general emphasis on the waist should continue to fuel belt sales, “reversing the category’s prior slump.” Skinny belts, in particular, should be a driving force.
“And despite this year’s warm weather, novelty gloves and cashmere knits performed relatively well,” Einhorn noted. “We haven’t lost faith in them.”
Vicki Haupt, senior vice president and general merchandise manager for fashion accessories at Bergdorf Goodman, said her accessories business has been very strong so far and is expected to keep up the pace for fall.
Feminine dressing will be as important for fall as it was for spring, Haupt said.
“Namely, it will be waist interest, strappy heels and fine jewelry, as well as structured handbags, top-handles in exotic skins and probably python as a new skin,” she noted.
Jewelry has been performing well at Bergdorf’s since January, and Haupt predicted sales of close-to-the-neck pearls, diamonds and rhinestones to continue performing for fall.
She added that she expects color to become more important, particularly when paired with fabrics such as devore velvet and cashmere.
Rob Goldfarb, merchandise manager for fashion accessories at Henri Bendel, also mentioned the ongoing influence of femininity as an important part of his fall plans. There will be hints of glamour as well as retro, with the latter being shown primarily as it relates to period men’s wear looks.
“The categories I feel good about are hair accessories, hats, scarves and belts,” Goldfarb said. “And knowing what the themes are in jewelry, I would like to believe that jewelry will become more important.”
He pointed to vintage Bakelite and marcasite jewelry, oblong retro-printed scarves with fringe and fedora hats as some of his main retro statements.
Fabrication in handbags has also been important at Bendel’s, and texture will emerge as a key focus for fall, Goldfarb noted. While the strongest silhouettes are structured ones, he added that soft styles are still selling well, and the demand by consumers for both looks could be reflected by women’s needs for different bags for different occasions.
Color is also an important issue, Goldfarb noted.
“I like a few different looks in color — classics like navy, charcoal and brown, but also soft pastels for the beginning of the season, moving into brights for later on,” he said.
But he cautioned that “bright doesn’t mean neon hues, but rather accent shades of red, yellow or orange.”
Handbags are also the hottest segment of the accessories market for the more moderate and discount retailers.
“Probably our strongest category is mini-backpacks,” said Dave Penrod, divisional vice president for fashion accessories at Kmart. “They will have a dramatic effect on the handbag business as we know it.”
Penrod said the mass-market chain had mini styles in stock for back-to-school last year and they continued to perform well through holiday. They now account for about 40 percent of total handbag business, he added.
For this fall, Penrod said he plans to make an even bigger mini-backpack statement by creating interesting merchandise mixes. Chic, Sasson and L.A. Gear are among the labels that will be featured in rugged-wear fabrics, nylon and vinyl.
Organizers are the other key category for the mass chain.
“We’re adapting them to a type of mini-handbag — a combination of a handbag and a wallet-on-a-string — which we’ll run at least through back-to-school,” Penrod said.
Overall, Penrod projects accessories sales to be flat, due to inflation eating up any sales increases, as well as the fact that the chain is up against sales for stores that have been closed since last fall.
Kim Anderson Curry, divisional merchandise manager for accessories at Sears Roebuck & Co., also pointed to handbags as the strongest category in the accessories department and emphasized wallets-on-a-string and other related items.
“The number one trend in the category is the continuation of string pieces,” she said, “We’ll spin off [the concept] into larger styles with more functions. They’ll almost become mini-bags, but with a lot more function.”
She said popular fabrications in handbags and backpacks will run the gamut from distressed leather to chenille, plaid fabric and even polar-type fleece.
Costume jewelry is also emerging as a prime growth area for Sears. Curry said she expects to see continued growth there in the store’s tabletop programs for boxed goods and promotionally priced items.
And Sears’ in-case jewelry presentation will continue to be rolled out to more doors, she said.
“We’re scheduled to close 1995 with caseline jewelry presentations in 215 out of 800 total doors,” she noted.
Hair accessories and cold weather goods are being pegged as other key areas, but Curry said projected double-digit increases will likely come as a result of expanded sales space and merchandise range at the stores Sears is currently remodeling.
Ann Gravseth, merchandise manager for accessories at J.C. Penney & Co., is planning for high-single-digit gains from fall accessories. Handbags, small leather goods, belts, scarves and rainwear are being singled out as the season’s stars.
Gravseth named book bags and both large backpacks and mini-backpacks as leading handbag silhouettes for the back-to-school season. In the meantime, better leather handbags will be the focus of a September Wardrobe Event the retailer is planning.
“Plaid Plus” is the name Penney’s has given to one of its important fall trend stories, Gravseth noted, and it will feature plaids and textures — even a few accents in animal prints — in all categories.