Byline: Shirliey Fung

NEW YORK — Retailers attending the latest edition of Intermezzo, which ended its three-day run Jan. 9, were looking to the 381 vendors — an increase from last year’s 355 exhibitors — for trend direction and next season’s hot items.
What many of the 7,500 store owners and buyers walking the show found was that last season’s feminine styles, embellished looks and bright colors will still be going strong into spring. This season will be one of reinterpretation rather than outright invention — enhanced looks, for example, are being reinvented into more toned-down classics.
The difficult economic climate was taking its toll on some businesses, but the majority of stores seemed to be riding out the turbulence. Most attendees had increased their open-to-buy percentages, and buyers seemed upbeat as they strolled the aisles of the ENK International-produced show, held at Piers 92 and 94 on the Hudson River in Manhattan.
Judy Phillips, owner of J. Phillips, a 26-year-old, 10-store resort and activewear chain in northern Michigan, said her open-to-buy was up about 5 to 10 percent. She liked waffle jackets in lime and pink that wholesale for $30, rayon wide-leg pants for $34, a wrap-top with a printed trim for $22, and the $26 wide-leg cotton pants at Mod-O-Doc and Three Dots.
“I like their Ts,” she said of the latter vendor. “They fit women customers of different sizes and ages.”
But Phillips was not happy with all the offerings.
“I don’t see any new direction. I’m so disenchanted with what’s out there,” she said, adding that she has had the most difficult time shopping for her 40-to-60-year-old customers who are in good shape and want to dress stylishly.
She bemoaned the lack of boldness from American vendors who were not making any sort of fashion statements by presenting a unified collection as opposed to separate items.
“The last two or three years, the industry’s been dragging its feet,” she said, adding that the lack of inspiration has increasingly made her turn to Canadian resources.
Lyell Franke and Deborah Bingham, co-owners of Les. Ms., a three-year-old boutique in Duxbury, Mass., said they liked the hot colors vendors were showing, especially the colorful pastels that “pop” in shades of pink, turquoise, yellow, lime and chartreuse.
Bingham said the company had not yet been affected by the economic downturn and that the store was increasing the number of tops and sweaters in stock by some 10 to 15 percent.
Franke and Bingham said they would be making stops at the Mod-O-Doc, Lilly Pulitzer and Cambio booths.
Joseph Avraham, owner of Danielle Brooke, a two-unit operation in Brooklyn that caters to the Hasidic Jewish community, said business has been quiet lately. Avraham said business at one of his stores is down, while the other has risen 20 percent.
He was looking at vendors like Joseph A for well-priced merchandise, such as the $39 silk spandex print tops and the $29 silk nylon tie-tops in lime, orange, purple, pink and red, that could be counted on to “sell volume.”
Like many of the buyers, Avraham said that he was looking for the next new trend. He was shopping for printed skirts and patterned tops in basic fabrics such as cotton for the spring and wool for the fall.
Kathleen McAllister, buyer for Our Place, a 2,400-square-foot Charlotte, N.C.-based specialty store, was on the lookout for items that would cater to a younger consumer.
Ginny Sumerell, an owner, said many of her customers were 40 and older, but that she was actively trying to pull in a younger customer base. She said that she was feeling some pressure from the economic slowdown and was cutting back somewhat on purchases.
“We’re playing it easy and watching price points a little more closely,” she said.
Sumerell liked Allen B., the new line from ABS that features embellished jeans and tops wholesaling for $89 to $120.
“The plated silver and studs are fun,” said Sumerell, who also liked the big belts and other edgy accessories she was seeing from various exhibitors.
Sumerell and McAllister also gave the nod to the brightly colored cotton spandex pants at Margaret M. that wholesale for $70.
Nancy Lerner, owner of Nancy’s, with stores in Charleston and Cornelus, N.C., was staying as far away from trends as possible by avoiding any merchandise that featured ruffles, stripes or camouflage patterns.
“I try to be ahead of the trends,” said Lerner. “I often skip labels if I’ve had them in the past.”
She liked the “good-fitting pants” she saw at Single and the $65 leopard-printed stretch jeans at Casting Paris. She also praised the crocheted fuchsia and royal blue shirts at Raymond H, separates at Michel Stephen and tops at Essendi.
Julie Miller and Jennifer Clemmons, owner and manager, respectively, of the Lexington, Ky.-based AJ’s Casuals, said business has been good and their open-to-buy is up 20 percent. Miller said the lack of major department stores in Lexington helps specialty store business. “Small business owners have the chance to do more,” she said.
Although Miller and Clemmons liked the three-quarter-sleeve shirts for $45 and the ruffle-neck silk spandex tops for $38 at Acrobat, the colors at William B, and the separates and colors at Work Order, for the most part they were disappointed with the exhibitors’ selections.
“Everyone had the same colors — oranges, blues and pinks — and the same styles,” Miller said. “I come here to see things I don’t see in other places. I want to be knocked off my feet, but I’m seeing a lot of lines following trends that other lines have already set.”
Bentley Dillard, owner of Materia, a two-year-old upscale boutique in Scottsdale, Ariz., said she was looking for edgy looks in black.
“A lot of mainstream stores don’t carry black in Arizona,” she said. “But some women don’t want color, especially women who move to Scottsdale from the city.”
Dillard said “business has been excellent” mainly because the community she services is affluent and caters to vacationers.
She liked the $150 cotton pants with a whip-stitched waistband at Whistles and the $67 off-the-shoulder silk spandex tops at Green T.
“The knits are wonderful for body-conscious women,” she said of the latter vendor. “They work great under a suit, and yet a woman can take her jacket off and go to dinner.”
Mijong Lee, owner of Emmelle, a 4,000-square-foot boutique located on Madison Avenue in Manhattan, said she was looking for accessories and basic underpieces, but was having a difficult time finding apparel for working women in their 30s and 40s.
“There’s nothing suitable for the workplace,” she said. “Everything’s body-conscious and too sexy.”
Because of the paucity of stores carrying suitable careerwear, Lee said that her company’s business actually improved this year. Another reason she’s done well is that she produces 65 percent of her own merchandise under the Emmelle label. Lee said production is up 25 percent this year, while her open-to-buy has risen 15 percent.

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