Byline: Holly Haber

DALLAS — If market week is any indication, it will be a wild kingdom in stores this fall.
Buyers eagerly embraced the plethora of animal prints, furs and skins blanketing showrooms during the five-day fall market week that ended March 27 at the International Apparel Mart here.
Enthusiasm for real and fake furry and reptilian looks comes as no surprise in Texas, where the styles never faded completely in the past decade and are selling in a big way for spring. But there was such a profusion of spots and scales that merchants were concerned about overdoing their inventory of animals, which came in myriad colors and leopard, cheetah, python, tiger, giraffe, zebra, ostrich and even guinea-hen patterns.
“I’m going to set up a petting zoo,” quipped Melodie Tawben, owner of Vie in St. Louis. “People are really responding to it for spring. It’s a lot of fun.”
The market overall sparkled with a vitality it has not evinced in years, driven by pretty and feminine looks hanging in showrooms.
Besides the ubiquitous animal styles, other trends drawing bookings were laser-cut leather sportswear, colorful polkadot chiffon dresses, richly hued paisleys, geometric prints, knee-length fitted coats over pants, striped sweaters, feminine jackets with thin ties, combinations of brown and turquoise and tailored tweed, and herringbone suits. Quite a few stores were ordering summer and fall goods.
“Spring is a wonderful suit season and we’re expecting that to continue for fall,” observed Gerald Barnes, vice president and divisional merchandise manager at Neiman Marcus, sitting with two buyers reviewing Chetta B eveningwear. “There’s a lot of color and shine and lighter-weight, less-constructed suiting. There’s also a lot of newness and proven things like fur trim.”
In eveningwear, Barnes felt the key trends were bottoms embellished with embroidery, beading, sequins and lace; peasant and bell sleeves; high-necked halter styles, and wrap bodies. He declined to discuss labels.
“We’re planning up in evening, despite the fact that we’re going against the millennium business,” Barnes pointed out. “We’re having good increases in evening for spring. We have devoted a lot more floor space to it and invested in a variety of looks, and it’s paying off in winning market share from the competition.”
Tawben, enamored with animal styles, was reviewing Poleci, which offered an unusual guinea-hen print skirt with matching feather trim. In addition to Poleci, she planned to buy animal prints and skin sportswear from a number of resources, including Zelda, Kasada, Gruppo Americano, Isabel Ardee and View.
“I know suits are supposed to be coming back, but I don’t trust it yet,” she observed. Marilyn Wolhstadter, owner of four Pappagallo stores and E. 61st boutique in Dallas, said her business this spring is the best it’s been in five years, with gains of 18 to 25 percent.
“This is the most fun I’ve had shopping in a long time because of the color and all the new bag shapes,” she said. “I think leather and cutout leather will be hot. We did really well with leather last fall, and that was just the beginning.”
Wolhstadter plans to invest heavily in leather by Saguaro. She expects to raise her fall inventory, but is reserving a chunk of her budget to pick up more timely styles that are introduced later.
Rebecca Sinclair was shopping for Josephine in Austin with Cornelia Reich, from whom she bought the store last year. They were booking pink leopard knit twinsets by Irka and novelty dresses by Mica, and planned to spend 10 percent more than last year.
“Animal prints are such a reliable theme throughout classic and contemporary,” Reich observed. “It seems there is something universal about it, whether you are very conservative or very provocative.”
But Reich was already looking ahead for more streamlined styles next spring.
“As buyers, now that we’ve had this peak of novelty, we are beginning to crave understated again,” she observed. “For the customers, novelty will probably continue all this year, but we are predicting a softer energy coming around holiday. Bias will come back, and softer prints.”
Lisa Ward, junior buyer for MM Cohn in El Dorado, Ark., was ordering Asian-printed messenger bags and retro-print sportswear from Cheap Thrill along with brightly hued leopard looks by Syrup.
“Business is wonderful — up 75 percent for January and February,” she enthused. “We can’t keep leopard in at all, and it doesn’t matter what it is.”
Renee Wilkinson, owner of What’s Hot in Austin, planned to invest in snake print pants and a matching camisole by Basix, Laundry dresses, and turquoise jewelry and crystal bracelets by Barse.
“Business is good, and I’m opening another store in Knoxville,” she noted.
Christi Jones, owner of XLR8 Clothing in Russellville, Ark., was enthusiastic about Syrup’s pleather pants and hot pink animal print tops and XOXO’s leather-look snake print jackets.
“My customers want something different and what they see people wearing on TV, and Syrup is giving them that,” she said.
Sales representatives were pleased with the action and traffic after a dismal January show, but they noted that buyers were still holding onto orders and buying closer to need.
“Everyone’s pretty optimistic,” observed Brad Johnson, a partner in Ambrosia/Leib contemporary and bridge showroom. “I’ve had more reorders for spring than in many seasons. Because the weather in Dallas and Atlanta last market was lousy, I’m doing a lot of summer business now.”
“We had an amazing market and we did it with fewer lines,” said Brad Ritz, owner of the Ritz Group, which represents such lines as Rex Lester, Victoria Royal and Sue Wong. “Our business was up a bit. We have made a conscious decision to focus on fewer and more meaningful resources and it is working.”
Nat Ekelman, owner of GeNe Sales, which sells bridge clothing and jewelry, commented, “Market was outstanding — better than I’ve had in years. Buyers were very enthusiastic and their business is good. When they found things they liked, they wrote.”
New this market was a contemporary fashion show on Saturday evening called Cutting Edge and a temporary showroom featuring 18 Canadian lines, including Stephan Caras, David Dixon, Ewa Majak, Ross Mayer and Feizal Virani.
Fourteen of those lines have secured sales representation in multiline rooms at the mart.
In August, the configuration of the women’s and children’s mart will change when 80 men’s apparel showrooms move into the east side of the second floor from the adjacent Menswear Mart. Bridal showrooms previously located on the second floor have already moved up to the third floor.