RETAILERS PLAY IT SAFE BUT STILL LEAVE ORDERS

Byline: Katherine Bowers / Kristin Young

LOS ANGELES — It wasn’t exactly what would be considered a risky free-for-all.
Buyers helped themselves, albeit cautiously, last week from a smorgasbord of fall trends offered during the five-day fall I market at the CaliforniaMart and New Mart here.
Among the sought-after looks: man-tailoring with feminine accents and ladylike, luxe looks from contemporary vendors; punk princess and rhinestone cowgirl stylings from juniors, and an emphasis on fur accents, novelty knitwear and animal prints from the misses’ market.
But with retail softening and fashion direction all over the map, buyers were taking fewer risks; they left paper less for trendy items and opted for sure sellers.
“If we’re going to try anything new, it’s going to be in the last quarter of this year,” said Lucy Namuche, a buyer at Seed in Oakland, Calif., who has seen 80 percent of dot-coms in her area go out of business and is bracing for the fallout.
Some stores even tried new tactics.
High-end contemporary retailers visited junior showrooms, picking up lower- priced items in an effort to fatten their bottom line. Others said they were buying fewer units from any given line and buying from more brands to keep stores looking fresh.
Some buyers took copious notes on fall, but decided that keeping purchases to immediates was a safer bet.
“The days of buying four to six months out are gone,” said Carroll Neal, a buyer for five-unit chain Billy Martin’s, which specializes in western looks.
A CaliforniaMart official, Karen Mamont, said buyer traffic was “slightly up” because the building had been more aggressive in recruiting buyers, even picking up hotel and airfare for 98 buyers as opposed to roughly 40 it sponsored last year.
“In the past, we’ve paid for people that hadn’t come before. This time, [I contacted] buyers I wanted to make sure came,” Mamont said.
Even with the softening economy, there are buyers still demanding novel, ultraluxurious items. It’s somewhat of a paradox, said Christine Simek, sales manager for Sheri Bodell. The Los Angeles contemporary label launched a bridge-priced line, Gold Luxe, at market.
“I will have customers that buy only one jacket, and it will be a higher price than anything else they carry in the store,” Simek said showing a sheared fox coat wholesaling at $928. “But they want it because it’s something special [for the window] to bring [shoppers] in.” Simek said she was getting good reaction to the label’s mixed material pieces: leather jackets with knit sleeves or sweaters with fur collars.
Ditto at BCBG, which showed a goat fur vest with knitted collar, along with a flotilla of coat cardigans, at its new 6,300-square-foot showroom.
Coat cardigans were also hot at junior showrooms, who touted the knee-length sweaters paired with screened T-shirts and low-rise corduroys. Hot Kiss showed lace-up pant legs and fly openings inspired by Britney Spears. The company took a “huge reorder” from Wet Seal for items with lacing detail, said a Hot Kiss rep.
At Dollhouse in the New Mart, sales of $22 low-rise pants were brisk. Denim and T-shirts splashed with rainbow colors at JNCO were some of the offerings snapped up by Arden B., Rampage and Fred Segal Santa Monica.
Misses’ buyers loaded up on novelty knitwear to keep luxury going in their category. Boucle wool, herringbone patterns, fur collars and tweaked animal prints did well, said showroom reps. Showroom owner Hallie Shano said wrap silhouettes — whether a dress, sweater or tunic — grabbed buyers’ interest. A $40 Nina Leonard fur-trimmed cape worn wrapped around the shoulders was a top-seller, she noted.
While trends were a jumble of influences, vendors across all categories touted a palette pairing chocolate and camel with plum and burgundy. Black-and-white looks heavily promoted by Ralph Lauren for summer will evolve to black-and-ecru or black-and-beige for fall, several vendors predicted.

Designers & Agents
Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom, Barneys New York and 625 other stores stopped by the fifth semiannual Designers & Agents show held at the New Mart.
“This is the largest market we’ve ever had,” said show producer Ed Mandelbaum. Although exhibitors said there were periods over the five days when buyers were few and far between, Mandelbaum noted buyer registration increased 15 percent from the same show six months ago.
Overall, buyers gravitated toward knits — specifically, sweater coats and sweaters with leather trim — denim, and novelty T-shirts, they said.
Two Los Angeles vendors breaking their first seasons at the show said they were pleased with orders.
Adriano Goldschmied, known for his tenures with Diesel, Replay, and A. Gold E. launched his new signature denim line — a partnership with Yul Ku, owner of denim maker Koos Manufacturing Inc. The line features a mix of vintage-inspired denim jeans and new, super tight sexy jeans. Sales reps said an order for one store was about 160 pieces.
Designer Lori Batt and art director Carrie Kneitel proclaimed coats were missing in the marketplace and created Edward An. “[Buyers] here love that we’ve focused on coats,” said Batt. “It’s the next must-have accessory.”
About 60 buyers visited the booth, the majority ordering the better line of classic trenches and double-breasted items with gold and leather details. That said, buyers opted for the safer indigo and camel pieces and stayed away from the edgier red ones.
“There’s the economy and a fear of a writer’s strike in Hollywood,” said Kneitel. “They’re leaning toward the basics they know they can sell. I must say in talking with people, nobody’s buying deep into items.”

International Swim and Activewear Market
Department store buyers in town for market dipped into cruise 2002 looks from ISAM vendors, with the consensus that black-and-white graphics, Lurex-threaded shine fabrics and camouflage prints are most likely to show up poolside.
BCBG Max Azria and Beach Patrol touted black-and-white prints for their contemporary consumers. For its Baja Blue line, Beach Patrol showed Op art squares and thick-and-thin stripes as part of the brand’s overhaul.
“We’ve walked away from embellishments and put our resources into print and fit,” said vice president Michelle Boyland, who noted the company’s Jag line is also in the midst of a makeover. Designers Susan Smith and Suzanne Vallely, who have handled the company’s junior business for the better part of a decade, now handle all design.
The army green netting draped across the Rampage Swim showroom entrance drew buyers curious about camouflage. But Howard Greller, executive vice president of Monarch Knitwear, which holds the license, said it’s too early to bet the house on the trend.

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