A TIME TO RALLY
THOSE WHO MAKE THEIR LIVING AT THE MARTS ARE DOWN, BUT NOT DEFEATED IN THE WAKE OF SEPT. 11.
Byline: Katherine Bowers
Boutique owner Dana Levin usually travels to New York and Europe to shop for her three California-based R.K. Shugart stores, but this season, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, she canceled those trips and decided her support was needed locally.
“Usually, I carry a lot of lines I can’t buy in Los Angeles, to have more exclusivity,” she said. “This time, we are going to stick with lines that are domestic, and especially we also want to focus on lines that are based in our market.”
Why Los Angeles? Levin said, in the economic downturn, she’s concerned for the livelihood of local designers who see the majority of sales from New York and Los Angeles boutiques. “We want to support our designers here, because if we don’t, I’m worried they might not make it.”
Levin exemplifies a spirit of unity that’s infused both the CaliforniaMart and New Mart and the hundreds of reps who work the downtown markets. While everyone acknowledges that business has to go on — and providing a safe place for trade is paramount — many said they’ve adjusted the way they do business to acknowledge recent events and their impact.
For the CaliforniaMart, it means reflecting the national mood at its fashion show on Saturday, Nov. 3, said mart spokeswoman Trish Moreno. “We’re not going as literal as red-white-blue. Key themes are poignancy and somber-versus-joy, reflecting the emotional ups and downs of the experience.”
Showroom owner Arlene Henry said part of her response to Sept. 11 is to consider where her accounts are located and how they might have been affected.
“We have a number of customers in Seattle, where Boeing had all the layoffs. For some, we gave them merchandise on consignment because they need to have something new in their stores. And we’ll hope for the best.”
Accounts in Las Vegas, Hawaii and other tourist destinations have had devastating weeks and need special accommodation, reps said. Showroom owner Tami Smith said one of her accounts, who owns three stores located in Michigan hotels, canceled half his fall orders. “He said the hotels lost 18 tourist groups right after the tragedies,” she said.
To ease retailer concern — and avoid outright cancellations — many reps have pushed deliveries off 30 or 60 days.
Kathi Muni, a rep in Ballbinder sales which has red, white and blue items on display, said manufacturers are “bending over backwards if retailers need dating.” She said she’ll encourage retailers to do trunk shows and communal shopping events where a portion of the proceeds benefits charity.
Florence Ratzsch, a rep in the Lynn Girard showroom, said specialty boutiques are often gathering places that combine shopping with socializing.
“Stores tell us people come in wanting to talk, get things off their chest. They want to feel connected,” she said. “So I think the regional stores will do okay. I don’t know what’s going to happen with department stores.”
Ratzsch said she’s paying more attention to financial pages of newspapers, tracking the consumer confidence index and buying patterns.
“If you’re knowledgeable and have information about current events, I think retailers will have more confidence in your advice,” she said.
While they expect most stores to write orders conservatively, most reps expect a busy market, with traffic up anywhere from 10 to 30 percent. Their accounts remain reluctant to go to New York or to travel long distances from family members. All of which means buyers arriving in Los Angeles may have more to get done in less time.
Keeping that in mind, showroom owner Suzanne Lerner said she’ll pre-edit the collections to streamline the process for buyers with crowded agendas.
Designers & Agents director Barbara Kramer’s best advice for all those at market is simply “try harder.”
“I think the best thing you can do is be as innovative as you can and put your best foot forward,” Kramer said. “We’ve all got to concentrate on getting product that’s as seductive and provocative as possible.”
The D&A show grew 30 percent and, at press time, was planning to add a buyers’ lounge and a cafe.
Showroom owner Gregg Pellegrini emphasized that since the situation is unprecedented, it’s important not to overreact or make assumptions about consumer behavior.
“It’s critical to check the stores. I’m always on a mission to find out what’s happening and adjust accordingly,” he said. Case in point: Since Sept. 11, retailers have aggressively reordered a $175 wholesale mink-trimmed leather jacket from Paolo Santini. Perhaps women are treating themselves with the ‘You only live once attitude,’ Pellegrini speculated.
While mink is not on most sales radars, many reps cited patriotic pieces as important.
Showroom owner Paul Perla said he’s been paying attention to the diverse ways patriotism has been expressed on the streets — and how those ideas can translate to key items, like T-shirts. “Things are used imaginatively on the streets, even if it’s just a 79-cent flag,” he said.
For some, including New Mart general manager Ethan Eller, the best response to Sept. 11 is no response. He said although the building stepped up advertising before the market, everything else is business as usual.
“My firm belief is the best way to counteract terrorism is to clean up the mess and return to as normal as possible,” he said. “Otherwise they win.”