GETTING INTO THE SWING
FALL BOOKINGS ARE OFF TO A PROMISING START, THANKS TO A REVIVING ECONOMY AND A FLURRY OF NEW TRENDS.
Byline: Melanie Kletter / With contributions from Holly Haber Dallas / Genny Chang, Los Angeles
Accessories are on the verge of reclaiming their star power.
While accessories over the last few years were a top performer across all retail segments, driven by appealing trends such as hoop earrings and charm bracelets, sales slowed in the last year as an economic slowdown hit all fashion categories.
But the tide appears to have turned. Retailers and vendors said accessories are poised for a strong fall season due to improved business conditions, salable trends and an economic recovery that appears to be on the horizon.
“I think economic recovery will happen in the fourth quarter,” said Michael Schultz, chief executive officer at Lulu Guinness. “Things bottomed out earlier this year, but the real estate market is still strong and the stock market seems to be recovering. In spite of unemployment, the economy is starting to pick up.”
Victoria McMahon Croce, merchandise manager of accessories at New York retailer Henri Bendel, said: “Our accessories business is doing well right now and we see the trend getting better for fall. I am expecting business to be ahead of last year, since in 2001, we didn’t have cold weather and because of the impact of Sept. 11.”
As fall 2002 bookings get into full swing during the upcoming May market, a number of retailers said they were feeling inspired by recent sales. Spring has outperformed many expectations, driven by the omnipresent turquoise and coral jewelry trends, as well as bohemian-chic belts and tote handbags. And although fall orders are just coming in, some vendors said they are seeing better-than-expected tallies thus far.
“Our fall bookings are up about 8 percent over last year,” said Abe Shehebar, chairman of Accessory Network, a multiline accessories company. “I feel optimistic about fall overall and business conditions.”
Trendwise, retailers expect gypsy and bohemian looks to maintain momentum through fall, with new, feminine touches such as lace-up treatments on bags, shoes and bracelets and pale or candy-toned stones, including mother-of-pearl, citrine and aquamarine. Another up-and-coming style is Gothic jewelry featuring black stones and oversized crosses, in keeping with the Goth and back-to-black apparel trends that turned up in the fall collections. Animal influences, including zebra prints and snake- and python skins, are also expected to be important, namely in handbags and shoes.
Belts, especially fringe and crocheted styles, and hats will likely remain strong. Scarves and other cold-weather looks have gotten a dose of fashion with extras such as striped prints and tassles, and a number of retailers said they are increasing their offerings in this arena. In handbags, the key look is toward oversized, soft and slouchy styles, though a number of vendors are showing daintier styles designed to be worn on the wrist.
“We are investing more heavily in handbags,” said Neva Hall, general merchandise manager at Neiman Marcus. “Suede began in spring and will continue to gain importance in the fall. But the biggest news is about embellishment, including studs, grommets, embroidery and fringe. Belts are one of the strongest categories of growth in volume for fall.”
To generate growth in its scarf arena, Neiman’s is bulking up its offerings in long mufflers.
“The long knitted muffler was shown on many runways,” she said. “It’s very new, and we don’t have it in our closets. The hat is showing some rebound because there is newness in the newsboy cap, shearling bucket and knit cuff hat. Other newness is in the ponchos and capelets, [also] on many runways.”
Lord & Taylor, long considered a conservative fashion haven, has been moving more toward trendy and directional items across all its departments under the direction of Jane Elfers, the retailer’s new chairman and chief executive officer.
Accessories are a major focus for the chain, said Lavelle Olexa, L&T’s senior vice president of fashion merchandising. The company showed a necklace by R.J. Graziano in its print advertisements, which generated increased sales of that style and similar ones, and the company plans to increase its marketing in accessories with more ads and in-store events this fall, Olexa said. During May market week, the flagship on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan will host in-store appearances by accessories designers, including jewelry makers Wendy Brigode and R.J. Graziano and milliner Eric Javits. Accessories will also be spotlighted in the store’s windows.
Ulrico Trevino, vice president and divisional merchandise manager for Macy’s East, said the company is working to offer a cohesive fashion statement and will be doing more cross-merchandising in accessories.
“We are aggressively supporting bohemian trends, which will translate in various classifications such as handbags, belts, small leather goods, mini bags and hats,” said Trevino, who noted that accessories, particularly handbags, have been popular this spring. “The key to a strong fall performance will be flowing newness and supporting strong cohesive fashion trends across all accessories categories.”
Bendel’s Croce said her company is focusing on offering exclusives from new designers this fall, including products from Kate O’Connor, an L.A. designer who makes knit ponchos and mufflers, and Los Angeles-based Fyve By Door, which makes mufflers and hats.
“I am really bulking up on scarves,” Croce said. “It will be a great scarf year. Also, we are doing extra-long scarves, mufflers, ponchos and capes.”
The company is also increasing its focus on watches, which have not traditionally been a big part of Bendel’s selection.
“Watches are a really important fashion category now,” she said. “We plan to offer trendier watch brands, such as a line called Tokyo Bay.”
Meanwhile, accessories continue to become a more important part of the mix at Olive & Bette, the three-store contemporary chain based in New York, said owner Stacy Pecor.
“We have really just started to review fall, but our open-to-buy for fall is larger than last year,” Pecor said. “Overall, we are seeing a resurgence in accessories. We have branched out and are carrying more higher-priced accessories. We are finding that price isn’t an issue for many shoppers.”
Pecor said the company is banking on novelty to drive sales in the fall, especially novelty items in categories such as scarves and belts.
Accessories only account for a small percentage of Olive & Bette’s business at this point — less than five percent — but Pecor said she is planning the business to be up from last year. She plans to invest more heavily in handbag resources for fall, including the brands Isabella Fiore and Buzz by Jane Fox.
In California, bohemian chic will remain strong, retailers said. Sheri Evans, owner of the Metier boutique in San Francisco’s Union Square area, believes the look lets women “mix old with new, expensive with inexpensive.” Long, dangling earrings, have been bestsellers, as has “anything with beads, tassels and in rich colors.”
She also noted that small, dainty necklaces have been consistent sellers at her store this spring. Evans has seen an increased interest in pendants and antique jewelry, and also expects semiprecious jewels to be very popular — in particular, tourmalines and green Chinese turquoise.
Scarves, especially textured, hand-knitted, hand-embellished and long styles, are also high on her agenda for the upcoming season.
Evans said she expects that spring’s strong sales are a sign of what’s to come.
“We never went on sale,” she said. “And we expect there will be a continued, steady improvement for fall 2002.”
In Los Angeles, Jennifer Kaufman, owner of a boutique of the same name, is optimistic for fall. “We’re still experiencing a lag. But we’ve never had a down season. The flow was disrupted [with Sept. 11], but it gave people a chance to step back and figure out what they want.”
For fall, Kaufman said she will continue with the ethnic, hippie, bohemian looks, including hand-painted shells, leather accents and plenty of turquoise.
“It’s all about the details,” she said. “We are doing well with designers such as Hilary Bean, who mixes stones with precious materials to make sculptural pieces that are clean and feminine.”
A few miles away on Melrose Avenue, Barkley Hope, owner of an epononymous boutique, likewise is seeing a bright future in jewelry with silver or gold charms shaped like anchors, four-leaf clovers and apples.
Hope also sees a continuation of chunky, semiprecious stone and shell pendants, though the look tends to be more natural and rough-hewn, she said. She also expects leather bucket hats and berets to continue selling well in the coming months, since in recent seasons, hats again have emerged as fashion items, not just as functional pieces.
Accessories vendors, meanwhile, are working to ensure that they are on top of the trends driving the market. Accessory Network’s Shehebar said early fall orders have shown that his customers will buy if they are shown the right items.
“People need to have a reason to buy,” he noted. “Items that have more than one reason to buy them have been performing well, such as a compact-disc holder packaged with a bonus set of headphones.
“The main reason our orders are up is that we have introduced new kids accessories a year ago, and we are seeing decent growth in that area. New products [created around cartoon characters] such as SpongeBob SquarePants and the Power Puff Girls are giving us more market share. There has been an increase in sales at mass and midtier in the kids and tween segments of the business. This is one consumer base that is debt-free and spends all its income, and retailers dedicating more space to that area are seeing dramatic sales increases.”
Elaine Gold, owner of scarf company Collection XIIX, said she expects her business for fall to be flat with last year.
“So far, we have not seen strong bookings for the season based on the current business climate, but fall is really just getting under way,” she said. “Last year, everyone was talking about belts, and now people are talking about scarves again. The apparel is really calling for it.”
The New York-based Collection XIIX makes scarves under license for Anne Klein and Ellen Tracy, and this season, it will launch scarves for its newest licensee, Jones New York.
“Prints are back, and color is back. Also, pretty and glamorous looks have returned,” Gold noted. “We also feel really strongly about textures and burn-outs. Velvets are strong again, and two-sided fabrics are very important.”
At Coach, meanwhile, classics are getting some twists. The company has been rapidly expanding into new categories and continues to open its own retail stores showcasing its full product range. Company executives have said they plan to open at least seven stores this year.
Reed Krakoff, Coach’s creative director, said, “Every season, we have a little bit of flavor that drifts into all our collections. For fall, we have suede, lacing, fringe and patchwork sprinkled around. We want consumers to walk in and see something they don’t expect, but something that looks like Coach. As always, we have soft, comfortable bags that have a very American feel.
“We continue to grow our product categories,” he added. “We are expanding eyewear and introducing outerwear in more stores. Wristlets [small bags that have a strap that goes around the wrist] are a good category and something that has been quite popular. We are also introducing newness in our hat and scarf offerings, and we are continuing to expand our shoe collection.”