WANTED: RETAILERS WHO DARE
Byline: Alice Welsh
NEW YORK — The contemporary market is winding up a bumpy year, but makers are looking for a smoother ride in 1995.
While many reported increases in volume of 20 to 50 percent, others experienced flat sales or just slight increases. The problematic climate was dramatically illustrated when Tapemeasure, one of the leading vendors, went into Chapter 11 in October.
Retail consolidation, some makers note, is especially difficult for the contemporary market; as stores get bigger they get less adventurous, and the fashion-forward nature of contemporary needs retailers willing to take some risks. Moreover, consumer interest in home goods and other durables worked against sales in contemporary, where prices run above moderate and depend to a great degree on discretionary spending. However, while makers note they’ll still be challenged by the shrinking retail structure, they feel the consumer mood at least could swing their way next year.
“I think spring ’95 should be up. With mortgage rates up again, I think consumers will be spending more money on clothes,” said Ken Zimmerman, president and chief executive officer of Kenar Enterprises. “They will buy that blazer or linen pants that they didn’t buy last year.” “In 1994, I think consumers gravitated more towards hard goods in general — furnishing their homes was more important than apparel,” said Jeffrey Halper, president and chief executive officer of Body Action Design and Jeffery Halper lines.
“The contemporary market suffered because we cater to people who buy homes. Our market is more dependent on disposable income than other markets like budget or moderate.”
The contemporary market is picking up some new customers, which should fuel growth, according to some executives.
“The bridge customers are trading down to contemporary, and the moderate customers are trading up to contemporary. We are getting a lot of bridge and moderate dollars,” said Zimmerman.
“I think many stores have gone very deep in the bridge segment, and that area is not performing as well as anticipated,” said Leon Max, president of Leon Max, producer of the Max Studio line.
“The contemporary market should benefit from that both in open-to-buy and with the consumer, but our market has to deliver the right fashion at the right price. This is certainly possible considering the amount of design that goes into our product.”
Regarding the retail scene, Ken Zimmerman of Kenar said, “Retail consolidation was the biggest issue this year — it’s the only issue. There is more volume, but with fewer players. We are going through uncharted waters and don’t know what to expect.
“Their purchasing power is phenomenal. They can write heavy, but they can make demands — and where else can you go?”
Added Michael Axelrod, president of French Connection, “With the matrix system, giant retailers don’t experiment enough. I think it will hurt more fashion-forward stores because the individual picture may not be taken into account.”
“It was sad when I. Magnin closed, but with every change there’s another opportunity,” said Anne Kasper, vice president of Eileen Fisher.
“It could be really great, and we’ve all been through it, with Bonwit Teller and B. Altman closing. It forces everybody to analyze their business.”
Several contemporary companies interviewed operate free-standing stores and plan to increase that business, partly in response to retail consolidation.
“We opened a store in Beverly Center this fall and it’s been great,” said Chantal Bacon, vice president of Betsey Johnson, which has 20 stores.
“We are now looking at more mall locations because once you get out of urban areas, malls are where people shop. We are looking at Boca Raton, Atlanta, Houston and possibly Long Island or Connecticut,” Bacon said.
French Connection will open four stores by the end of the 1994 with another three planned for 1995. Retail is approaching 30 percent of company volume, according to Axelrod.
“Retail stores are one of our growth strategies. With department stores narrowing down their vendor structure, the stores are becoming very mainstream and boring,” said Axelrod.”We are negotiating with Short Hills and Beverly Center now, and we are targeting Chicago, Florida, California and D.C.”
Kenar currently operates six stores and is considering franchising for the first time in 1995.
“A couple of our regular customers have approached us about doing Kenar stores because 60 percent of their business is with Kenar lines,” said Zimmerman.
“We are only looking at certain clients that we think have what it takes. It could range from two to three next year. We just have to get the kinks out of it.”
Leon Max is opening more retail and outlet stores. He has a total of 16 to date, targeting California and Florida as prime areas for future sites. He has also increased the number of in-store shops.
“We are concentrating our efforts on growing in-store boutiques in Bloomingdale’s, Saks, Bullocks, Burdines and Lord and Taylor,” said Max. “By spring, the number will be about 50.”
Contemporary firms are also looking to expand their overseas presence going forward.
“The advent of the tent shows has given us a lot of clout, and we are starting to open accounts worldwide, including Rio, Germany, Austria and Sweden,” said Brian Hogan, vice president of Vivienne Tam. “I think the international community is paying more attention to New York designers.”
“In 1995, we will be expanding throughout the year, especially in Australia, Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, Canada, England, Malaysia, Indonesia and Jakarta,” said Zimmerman.
“Right now our distribution is under 4 percent, but this is where I see our growth, not in the U.S. I could see it becoming 50 percent of our business. “For five years we’ve run ads in Italian Vogue and have done a billboard in Tokyo — positioning ourselves to do business overseas. I hope in another five years to be a global company,” said Zimmerman.
Other contemporary firms are expanding their product categories. David Dart introduced David Dart Sport this year, a Tencel-based denim and twill group that shipped for resort.
“This line will definitely grow in 1995. We planned for $50 million, but I think it will go over that,” said Dart.
Dart also debuted a knitwear line that will ship in February. The big news at Dart this year was its acquisition in November by Kellwood Co., the big diversified apparel maker whose sales last year hit $1.2 billion.
Designer Vivienne Tam has broadened her price structure by offering higher-end pieces with special embroidery and bead work. “The pieces have been well-received by retail. It gives the stores something unique and more to choose from,” said Hogan.