Byline: Miles Socha

NEW YORK — The tendency to be fashionably late is strong — very strong.
Although designers have moved the international runway calendar as much as six weeks earlier, principally to aid early deliveries, it doesn’t seem to be helping. American retailers large and small say spring 2000 deliveries have been among the worst in memory.
“It’s been really difficult,” said Ann Stordahl, senior vice president and general merchandise manager at Neiman Marcus. “A lot of runway is just shipping. It’s pretty widespread.” Stordahl estimated that spring deliveries were anywhere from four to six weeks later than usual, practically across the board.
Not one to mince words, Janet Brown, who operates a store in Port Washington, N.Y., pronounced spring-summer 2000 “the most constipated season in years.”
“I have never, ever seen 70 to 80 percent of merchandise coming in March,” she said. “Not only are [deliveries] late, but they’re erratic. If you order a suit, you might get the jacket, but you have to wait for the skirt.”
Judy Collinson, executive vice president and gmm of Barneys New York, said she is also still awaiting a few deliveries and acknowledged some designers might never ship a piece. “Delivery dates have been really difficult for a lot of the vendors,” she said. “We’ve experienced it with Americans and Europeans.
“There have always been some spring difficulties. The designers are going to have to figure out their schedules, something that works…. Maybe they have to change the show schedule.”
Retailers had a variety of theories about what might be behind the poor deliveries.
Stordahl noted that the production cycle for spring-summer collections is shorter to start with. Designers have, at the least, one less month to produce spring collections than they do fall collections. And with the fall shows now so early, some designer manufacturers had to interrupt their spring production to produce fall-winter samples for their runway shows in February and early March, she said.
Fingers were also pointed squarely at the European fabric mills, which have not significantly altered their timetables to account for the earlier designer shows. But retailers concurred it’s a thorny problem with few easy solutions.
Calling tardy fabric deliveries one of the main culprits, Brown said it’s a case of cause and effect.
“Italy is in quicksand,” she said, because the country “is dependent on fabric, and the fabric people are not quick to change.”
Several retail executives lamented that the earlier show dates have made the process of buying the collections more gruelling on buyers and yet the effort has not resulted in earlier deliveries.
“It didn’t help at all,” said Linda Dresner, who operates stores in Manhattan and Birmingham, Mich. “I don’t think the old dates really hurt. It worked OK. Certainly we felt better, did we not?”
No one had a simple cure for the delivery crisis, but retailers did not rule out the need to move the shows even earlier if that’s what it takes.
Unfortunately, the runway calendar is moving in the opposite direction. New York designers — who began the move to earlier dates in 1998 by scheduling their shows six weeks earlier, ahead of the Europeans — recently decided to ease up the schedule. The spring-summer 2001 New York shows are now scheduled for Sept. 14-22, about a week later than last year. Italy and France have taken the occasion to move their shows ahead to the point where they’re roughly in their traditional slots.
But Brown suggested the fault does not only lie with the European mills and manufacturers. Exacerbating the situation are stores that sit on their orders and do not submit them until weeks after the shows. “I believe orders should be completed within seven days,” she said. “We have to also play the game. We are all working to insure that sell-throughs are good. The longer the time period to sell the goods, the more people are exposed to it.
“The early customer is a very active customer. The late customer is just picking up pieces.”
She also suggested that designers should pre-order some of their fabrics as soon as the collection is finished and before showing it to buyers, taking some risk on what they think will be the best-selling looks. “They have to have a commitment to at least 40 percent of the fabrics in the collections,” she said.
“I think the cancellation dates need to get earlier,” added Jeffrey Kalinsky, who owns a Jeffrey store in New York and Jeffrey, Bob Ellis and Jil Sander stores in Atlanta.
At present, most designer vendors have until April 1 to complete spring-summer shipments. “If March 1 were the cancellation date, I bet everyone would get their act together,” Kalinsky said.
Fern Mallis, executive director of 7th on Sixth Inc., producer of New York fashion weeks, said she was not aware of the delivery debacle this season, but acknowledged the irony.
“I’m disappointed to hear that because that was one of the reasons designers wanted to be early,” she said. When they opted to move their shows ahead of Europe, American designers also cited a desire to show that their designs are original and do not simply copy Milan and Paris.
But Mallis held out hope that the situation would eventually correct itself, and urged patience.
“I think this is all going to take a couple of years to shift the cycle,” she said. “Everyone has to stay focused and keep putting the pressure on the mills, and eventually it will sort itself out.”
As reported in these columns, PreView, a workshop sponsored by the fabric fair Premiere Vision, will make its debut in New York July 11-13 at the Metropolitan Pavilion. Mallis said that will give American design houses a chance to make their fabric commitments early and ultimately should speed deliveries.
Retail executives were reluctant to identify which vendors were most guilty of late deliveries, only saying the problem is widespread, with French, Italian and American designers all guilty of incomplete or tardy shipments this season. They hinted, however, that even major designer firms had poor, incomplete or spotty deliveries, emblematic of how widespread the problem is. As of late last week, some retailers had yet to see one piece from some small European resources, which would likely force cancellations.
“It’s been horrible,” Kalinsky stressed. “I have one major vendor that just decided to ship me resort shoes in March.” He said he also received some double-faced wool sportswear and leather pieces in March — items that would have sold far better in January.
Retailers stopped short of saying the late deliveries have had a negative effect on sales this season. On the contrary, they cited strong sales of pre-collections and said runway deliveries, once they make it to the floor, are checking out strongly.
But some said at this point, they weren’t taking shipments anymore.
“We would have had a much better season if we had it earlier,” Collinson stressed. “Spring is a short season. From a designer standpoint, a lot of your selling is early. The later it comes, the more difficult it is to sell.”
Kalinsky agreed, noting that the inevitable markdowns at major stores are just around the corner. “In this country, May and June are sale months,” he lamented. “They just are.”