FASHION’S STAR LOOKS DIMMER

Byline: Melanie Kletter

NEW YORK — Accessories are faring better than many other fashion sectors these days, but the category is certainly not as jubilant as it has been for the past few years.
Heading into the new year, a number of firms said they expect to have flat sales or small growth over 2001, reflecting the unstable economic scene and retail difficulties.
“Everyone is cautious,” said Stephen Roberts, co-president of the Echo Design Group. “Retailers are planning very carefully and many people just want to get through Christmas first.”
Nonetheless, many industry executives said accessories are still trending ahead of other categories and may find more momentum in the second half.
“Accessories are better positioned than other categories now because they are an add-on, a spruce-up, that can make someone feel better without buying a new wardrobe,” said Stephanie Levy, owner of Metropolitan Design Group.
On the fashion front, emerging trends such as hats and straw bags are expected to ignite sales for spring. Belts, which have seen strength throughout the last year, are still running strong, and tropical themes, butterflies and fruit motifs are other notable trends.
Despite the difficult economy, opening stores is the focus of many brands. Alviero Martinez and Lulu Guinness have opened stores recently, and more plan to jump into the retail arena in the coming year.
Furla, the Italian handbag and accessory firm, is focusing on rolling out new stores in America, said Danilo Bordini, president of the U.S. division. The firm has three corporate stores and two outlets, as well as four franchise-owned units in this country. It plans to open 30 additional U.S. units, including corporate-owned and franchises, within the next three years.
Furla isn’t planning on expanding its wholesale distribution, but it does expect growth to come from its non-handbag categories, such as watches and jewelry and small leather goods. Shoes are being tested, with a larger rollout planned for the new year, Bordini noted.
Abe Chehebar, president and chief executive officer of multiproduct firm Accessory Network, said sales have been “encouraging” over the past few weeks and through Thanksgiving, but he expects sales for 2002 to be flat with this year at about $156 million.
“Although we are planting seeds for new areas and growing certain areas, we are being somewhat conservative,” he said.
The company now has a wide product offering of proprietary and licensed brands, and recently signed deals to produce products for Sponge Bob, a Nickelodeon cartoon character, and stationery company Liza Frank.
“Handbags continue to be very strong and novelty socks are doing great,” Chehebar said.
Sales at handbag firm Lulu Guinness are also expected to be flat, said ceo Michael Schultz, who is spearheading the English brand’s efforts to expand its distribution here.
“We have taken a conservative posture for spring,” he said. “But we are looking for improvement in the second half of the year.”
Now sold in about 250 specialty stores, Lulu Guinness has recently added some products under license, including umbrellas, as well as shoes, which are being tested in Europe.
The eyewear category, which has lately gotten attention recently from big-name designers such as Marc Jacobs, is expected to fare well in 2002.
Claudio Gottardi, president and chief executive officer of giant eyewear firm Safilo USA, said he is “optimistic about next year.”
“I think the economy will bounce back,” he said. “Many companies have low inventories and are well positioned for the new year.”
Safilo currently produces eyewear for a number of fashion firms, including Christian Dior, Diesel, Gucci and Kate Spade, and it plans to add other licenses in the new year, although Gottardi declined to name possible deals.
At Echo, key fashion trends in the scarf arena include lace, bright colors, butterfly motifs and geometric prints.
“We continue to maximize opportunities in all scarf shapes from neckerchiefs to waist wraps,” Roberts noted.
The rain category continues to grow and new items for spring include hats, striped and bright-colored umbrellas and a rain jacket with magnetic closures.
On the business front, Roberts said he expects Echo to achieve smaller sales growth this year than in the past five years. Volume this year will round out at about $50 million, excluding sales from the Montsac handbag division it purchased last year. Following the Montsac acquisition, Echo plans to introduce handbags under its brand name next year.
Overall, Roberts said the firm expects to achieve a high single-digit sales gain in 2002. The 78-year-old firm plans to continue its ad campaign for spring and fall and is also looking into new licensing opportunities in an effort to become more of a lifestyle brand. It now has five licensing deals for home items, including bedding and wallpaper.

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