KEEPING A HANDLE ON TRENDS

Byline: Julee Greenberg

NEW YORK — The formula worked in 2001, so contemporary firms aren’t changing a thing.
The category has emerged in the last couple of years as an alternative to high-priced designer and bridge lines for young, frugal women wanting the latest trends.
While the slow economy did have a bit of an effect on business, this position fits into the new austerity, makers said, and should help contemporary vendors fare well in the year ahead.
A key strategy for brands in this segment is to continue to devise ways to provide novelty items, while keeping inventory low.
“We are really keeping inventory tight and cutting closer to sales, as well as working closer with the bigger retailers we work with,” said Julie Chaiken, principal and president of Chaiken. “Recessions come and go, and through good times and bad times, we have to be here through both.”
Chaiken said plans for the first half include working on a private client business, more product placement on celebrities and on TV shows, expansion of the maternity collection and looking for a swimwear licensee.
“Hopefully, this fourth quarter was the worst of it,” Chaiken said. “It will take quite a while to rise back up, but I see it getting there. It doesn’t seem as bad as it was a couple of months ago.”
It’s much of the same for Nanette Lepore, who said she cut her risks by keeping inventory low. For next year, however, Lepore said her spring orders are up and despite less shopping traffic in SoHo over the past couple of months, her signature boutique on Broome Street remains profitable.
“The immediate response from people after Sept. 11 was to hold on to their money,” Lepore stated. “But now it seems they have gotten over the shock and are shopping again.”
Lepore is also thinking positive, that the worst is over, and 2002 will be a better year. She said current numbers show that business on the West Coast is better than on the East Coast, but she sees some improvement there, as well. Her biggest plan for the first half is to work on growing her label in specialty stores and maintain the same level of business with department stores.
“While we do work well with the department stores, we really are a specialty store brand,” she said.
Luca Luca’s president, Yildiz Blackstone, said there are plans to open one boutique in 2002 to add to the six shops that are now open. While the business is still small, she said the company will continue to expand its wholesale distribution to exceed the 60 specialty stores currently.
“The company is showing a good deal of growth,” she said. “There was a slight slowdown because of Sept. 11, but we are still above plan.”
If all goes well with the next store opening, Blackstone said she hopes to open several units in 2003, mostly on the West Coast.
Designer Cynthia Steffe said she is pleased she’s in the contemporary sector right now, since it continues to perform well.
“Our customer shows no guilt for her purchases,” she said. “She shops for recreation. Sometimes we will even see the same face in the department weekly.”
Steffe said advertising for the brand, a division of Leslie Fay Co., will be on par with this year in 2002. She projected a 30 percent increase in sales next year by developing its international business and increasing the brand’s account base in the U.S. While she did turn down some licensing opportunities, she said she will continue to consider licensees for certain products.
“In order to license a certain product it has to be right,” she stressed, adding that she would eventually like to have a shoe license, as well as additional accessories that complete her current collection. “A license can help or hurt a business, so I want to be very careful.”
Custo Barcelona’s U.S. expansion will continue in the year ahead with the opening of its first store, set to open in Chicago this spring.
Daniel DeCosta, general manager of USA operations, said the company will also advertise in consumer publications next year, as well as expand on the newly developed denim line. While many companies have kept inventory tight, Custo Barcelona has expanded.
“We decided that since we are doing so well, we did not cut back,” he said.
Easel has chosen to concentrate less on advertising and more on public relations over the past couple of years. President Ken Weiss said the slow economy “has forced us to become as efficient as we can,” meaning sticking to its core knitwear and “special sweaters.”
For the first half, Weiss said he is planning to further develop the specialty store end of the business, as well as maintaining relationships with celebrities for product placement on TV.
Kim Hingley, executive vice president of sales at Betsey Johnson, described fourth quarter as “extremely difficult,” but also believes that 2002 will bring better business.
“Spring doesn’t seem so bad, so far,” she said, noting the importance of narrowing collections and inventory control as important right now. “You have to plan business according to the times. Now is the time to be smart about business.”
Since Betsey Johnson opened 14 new stores in 2001, Catherine Nation, executive vice president of retail and marketing, said the firm will use the coming year to concentrate on growing customer relations in those stores. While Nation said there are no plans to open more units in the near future, she is willing to speak to landlords about potential sites down the road.
“We are very cautious for 2002,” she said, “but also very positive.”
The biggest plan for the coming months, however, is a venture the company has planned with a “major cosmetics company.” Nation would not reveal details of what is to come, but said there is an advertising opportunity that comes with the deal.
“Through it all, we have done better than expected and hope that will continue,” she said.
At young contemporary brand Necessary Objects, a major advertising campaign will launch in March. While Ady Gluck-Frankel, president and design director, would not release the details, she said it’s going to be a big move for the company.
“Stores did cut back on their orders, but business is rebounding and it does look good for next year,” said Gluck-Frankel, adding that the company is working to better distribution with its specialty store accounts.
Gluck-Frankel said she is also looking for licensees for such products as shoes, bags and belts.
“I think this is such an item-driven business,” she said. “You have to have the right item at the right price in order to survive.”
Paw by Cousin Johnny will relaunch next year featuring sexy, fitted sweaters. David Shelsky, owner of Cousin Johnny, said he wants to keep his business specialty store based, and also plans on expanding the brand’s warm weather accessories business to include more mittens and mittens that are attached to the sweaters.
“Our business is doing quite well, we are having one of the better holiday seasons this year,” he said. “It’s first quarter I am concerned about.”

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