NEW YORK — How bad is it?
Week after week, retailers are hoping to hear better news at the designer end of the business, noticing little trickles here and there, but also seeing an overall picture that isn’t very pretty.
While apparel sales have unilaterally been impacted by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and a sharp drop in consumer confidence, those in the luxury market have been especially hard hit. No one is really surprised that customers are avoiding trendy, high-ticket fashion items at a time when the country is at war — its citizens depressed and fearful of further attacks.
Many designer stores are writing off the fall season altogether, having cancelled most outstanding deliveries or reorders. But they also are concerned about the immediate future of the luxury apparel business, unable to discern a clear picture of the psychological factors behind shopping patterns today and how they will influence what should be stocked for spring.
Some stores said customers are being more patriotic, buying from American designers, but others said the mood has become so somber that more than half of their sales are of items that are black. Some have noticed customers are still interested in designer collections, but are only buying moderately priced basics, while others contend that the looks that stand out are selling.
“People are not on such a shopping track as they used to be,” said Deirdre Wheaton, manager of Los Angeles’s luxury institution Maxfield, echoing the sentiment of specialty stores around the country. “They’re not back in that mode.”
Traffic in New York’s specialty stores, such as Jeffrey, Kirna Zabete, Scoop, Henri Bendel and Bergdorf Goodman, has been erratic in the six weeks since the destruction of the World Trade Center. Some weekends are remarkably busy, but most of the time, the stores are virtually empty. Where customers are coming in or shopping by phone, they generally have made purchases that in some way correspond to current events, but in many unpredictable ways.
“People are craving something whimsical, something that has a bit of novelty and makes them feel good,” said Ed Burstell, vice president and general manager of Henri Bendel on Fifth Avenue. “In some cases, it’s an optimistic color, a retro feel or print, and in others, it’s simply a matter of price. Sometimes if people are looking to feel good, they might pick up an accessory that is less expensive. I absolutely think that business is being driven by what happened.”
Beth Buccini, co-owner of Kirna Zabete in SoHo, said people are looking more to “cheerier clothes, especially as we go toward spring. I think we definitely want color and things that are uplifting and happy.”
Stefani Greenfield, co-owner of the Scoop stores on the Upper East Side and in SoHo, agrees. “Customers are not buying more somber clothes. I think that people are looking to lift their spirits, so they’re definitely not looking for downer clothes,” she said.
But Joseph Quartana, owner of a boutique called Seven on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, said more than half of what he’s sold has been black. “I know it’s a big trend, but I think it must have to do with the general sentiment.”
Meanwhile, resort areas have been hit particularly hard, facing a dearth of tourist traffic. Tara Shapiro, owner and buyer of three Uh-Oh Clothing Boutiques in Scottsdale, Ariz., said, “People are buying more somber clothing. We’re not seeing interest in special-occasion dressing. As dressy as I’ve gotten is a great tuxedo look by Costume National. I don’t think people are thinking about the holidays and big events this season. People are planning to stay home and entertain there. Several of the big events in Scottsdale have been cancelled or postponed until next year.”
The picture at department stores also is complicated. Stores are conceding that sales have clearly been impacted, but stress that there are pockets of relative strength, some of which come as surprises, considering the overall national mood.
At Neiman Marcus, informal eveningwear has been a good category, led by sales of separates, leather and suede sportswear, pantsuits, items with fur trim and textured fabrics like tweed, said Joan Kaner, senior vice president and fashion director.
“Women are buying things that make them feel good and that have perceived value. And they’re going for something unusual,” noted Kaner.
At Saks Fifth Avenue, eveningwear sales also have been unpredictably strong, as seen at a Bill Blass trunk show last week where the company sold more than $1 million in gray and rose jackets, lilac pantsuits and a blue cashmere and silk ensemble, said Dean Taylor, the store’s buyer of American designer collections.
“Obviously, buying American was very important,” he said. “Our customers are looking for investment dressing that carries them from the office to events.”
Trying to gauge their shoppers’ mind-set has become a critical step for stores as they plan for spring. While there’s clearly been a drop in consumer confidence, the retailers feel they have to make an effort to eventually bring the designer business back to levels before the national economy began to show signs of an indefinite stagnation in 2000, during the presidential election.
Several stores are beginning to place an emphasis on lower-priced items from the designer collections, bringing in more accessories as well as designers’ less-expensive offshoot collections, like Marc by Marc Jacobs. Richard Giss, a partner in the retail services group of Los Angeles-based Deloitte & Touche, predicts luxury retailers will continue to struggle during the holiday season because consumers, now more than ever, are looking to get the most value for their money.
“A lot of department stores have cancelled orders,” he said. “But the orders have already been manufactured. This is going to end up in off-pricers. They’re going to have a lot more high-end merchandise than they would typically have.”
At San Francisco-based Macy’s West, president and chief operating officer Robert Mettler reported a definite drop-off in the designer and luxury sectors, noting department stores in resort and urban areas have seen the lightest volume.
Consumers are exhibiting a clear shift in their priorities, he said, making more purchases for the home than for clothing.
“Will I overspend in the luxury category?” asked Mettler. “The answer is no. But will I buy a good-looking collection at mid-level prices? I think that’s the answer.”
But will consumers be patriotic and buy American? Will they keep buying red, white and blue? Will they spend at all? There is a similar guessing game of psychology at play even at stores that carry strictly designer goods, like Jeffrey New York. “The recession had already set a tone, that if people wanted to spend money, they wanted their heart to go pitter-patter,” said owner Jeffrey Kalinsky. “This is not the time to leave your house in the morning not feeling good about the way you look. Because there’s enough out there to make you feel bad, so you at least want to feel good” about your appearance.
“We have to look more deeply into the psyche of a customer and we haven’t had to do that for a long, long time,” added Janet Brown, who owns a store under her name in Port Washington, N.Y. “It’s hearing what happened to people, how they have been affected. There’s much more time spent interacting than buying and selling.”
So what specifically is selling?
A Marni silk tulle skirt in pink or black for $1,795 and an $1,100 pair of Roberto Cavalli jeans with an American flag on the leg sold out within two weeks at Jeffrey; Bernard Wilhelm’s one-of-a-kind $1,500 knitted skirts, Michael Kors’s colored, graphic cashmere sweaters and Rick Owen’s pleated leather shirt jacket for $900 were good items at Bendel’s; and $950 Balenciaga bags, $650 Jimmy Choo boots, $360 sweaters from Wink, AF Vandevorst sweaters with rabbit patches for $495, and leopard coats and pants from Clements Ribeiro sold at Kirna Zabete. Jeans from Seven and Marc by Marc Jacobs, Trina Turk blouses and riding pants from Michael Kors have performed well at Scoop.
“We’ll have someone come in and wardrobe themselves for fall, and then someone come in and buy a bag of candy,” said Kirna Zabete’s Buccini. “There’s no rhyme or reason to it.”
“I don’t think people want somber attire right now, and if they need black, it’s in their closet already,” said Kalinsky. “It’s not to say that they’re all coming out and buying fuchsia. They’re not.”
Joan Shepp, owner of the eponymous store in Philadelphia and Elkins Park, Pa., said Americana items aren’t selling the way she thought they would, but that novelty items have been doing well. Striped scarves by Mia Zia are selling for $80 to $95, while Ivan Grundahl’s shearling coats priced at $1,500 have done well.
“Basics are not selling,” Shepp said. “It’s the season, not just Sept. 11. This season, they want more of a reason to buy. It’s not what [people] are buying, it’s about where they are emotionally. Some people shop because it makes them feel better. Some come in to buy a hat or a pair of Prada shoes to put a smile on their face.”
Seven’s Quartana, said an overdyed black cotton blazer for $495 from the London resource Preen has been a hit, although the season has been hurt by a lack of tourist traffic in the downtown neighborhood.
“Every time I sell like I’ve been selling for the past few days — like crazy — it will switch back to total, total calm again,” Janet Brown added. “Nobody is buying out of need. The word ‘need’ does not exist right now. People are not traveling. They are not moving from New York City to Vail, they aren’t going from New York to St. Barth’s, they are en famille, they are staying together.”
Still, Jil Sander shearlings priced at $2,995 and a black leather jacket for $2,660 have sold well, while Alberto Biani’s wool separates also have been a hit for the store.
Uh-Oh’s Shapiro cited Roberto Cavalli’s stretch jeans and animal-print pants and Peter Cohen’s sportswear as key sellers.
“I’m selling a lot of items that can be worn with things that someone already has from a previous season, and worn many different ways,” she said. “That’s why they love Cavalli jeans, they can be dressed up or down. We’re not selling suits or anything structured. Eveything is easy, casual and item driven.”
Helen Hwang, owner of the high-end spot on Los Angeles’s La Brea Avenue called Yellow, said the average customer is spending between $200 and $300 on sweaters by Say Tse, leather items from the London-based label Gharani Strok and structured suitings from Philosophy di Alberta Ferretti.
“I sense there’s something in the air, definitely,” said Hwang, noting that she followed through with her spring buying trip to Paris last month despite fears of terrorist activity.
Wheaton said Maxfield hasn’t seen any dramatic changes in selling patterns. Popular items run from $40 scented candles to expensive leather jackets, she said, but the terrorist threats are making shoppers a little edgy.
Asked whether shoppers are more willing to shell out the bucks for American designers, Wheaton said no.
“The world is so global,” she said. “There’s not really a need to buy American. Patriotism lies in the Western world. It’s much more of a global feeling now.”
Peter Marx, president of Saks Jandel, a designer store with two Washington, D.C.-area stores, said business had picked up in October, slowly, and bit by bit, after one of the worst Septembers ever.
“We”re noticing a return to normalcy,” he said. “But we have dozens of people with anthrax, plus continuing threats and other substantial issues.” Marx said the customer mood was cautious, in general, but defiant in some cases.
Surprisingly, eveningwear has performed well, despite cancellations of events. Luxury sportswear also has started to come back. Marx said that business had held no surprises, and that no particular designers were standouts.
“The same customer that was avant-garde before still is, and the woman who was more conservative is looking for conservative things,” he said.
After canceling September events, Marx said the store was continuing with October’s schedule, such as trunk shows and anything else to get people shopping.