KEEPING A STRONG CYCLE GOING

Byline: Wendy Hessen

NEW YORK — The beat just goes on. Based on the strength of first-half retail performance and healthy fall and holiday bookings, accessories executives are expecting another robust performance as they head into the third and fourth quarters.
“Consumers are getting very creative and willing to look at clothing in a whole new way, and accessories are at the heart of that. They are emotionally connecting with them,” said Steven Roberts, president of Echo Design Group. “It’s all about youthful product.”
“It’s definitely an accessories moment,” said Helen Welsh, president of the accessories division at Liz Claiborne. “I think we will continue to feel the rewards of that, although there are some changes. The big push for us is having the right item in the right fabrication at a great price.”
Patricia Stensrud, vice-chairman and chief executive officer of jewelry maker Victoria & Co., said, “Jewelry is continuing to barrel along, as accessories in general are. I really think it will be a very strong second half. We see no signs of it slowing down.”
Stensrud, like Welsh, noted that there are some differences this year.
“We think the mix will change a bit,” she said. “Over the last 18 months, we’ve let the pendulum swing too far to the fashion and item part of the business. Clearance merchandise is at an all-time high, driven largely by that swing. Assortments will become much more balanced, with more basics, which is serendipitous. It dovetails with the consumer’s appetite for more classically driven looks.”
Part of the industry’s strength in recent years has been its ability to maintain a constant flow of innovative merchandise. The heavy focus on embellishment and decoration that has dominated the market for over a year is now ebbing in favor of cleaner styling. But color and items remain as keys to a healthy performance.
“Overall, it’s very optimistic,” said Craig Chorney, corporate fashion director of the multiproduct firm Accessory Network. “Nobody is fashion or trend shy, and there’s enough diversity [of looks] for buyers. It’s not that they aren’t aware of the bottom line, but they are thinking and buying smarter, really identifying their niche and their customer and constantly bringing in newness.”
Tote bags will be a special area of concentration for Accessory Network, Chorney noted.
“Everybody’s into canvas, with the importance of prints adding further interest. There is all sorts of new technology with stretch, oil-treated or sandpaper-textured fabrics. Handbags are still uptrending, but they are evolving from a heavy junior influence to more sophisticated looks with some status interest.
“We are definitely item-minded as a company,” Chorney said, pointing to ponchos, knit sweater handbags, bowling bags for gym and travel, double-length knit scarves and molded felt hats as other key items for the second half.
Leather-trimmed handbags, gift items and its licensed DKNY watch line have been propelling forces at Fossil, the watch and accessories maker, according to John Talbot, vice president of marketing. The firm has rolled out more than 300 shop-in-shop concepts for seasonal bags, and Talbot said a test of gift item tables has performed so well that the concept will be rolled out further the rest of the year.
After a successful launch of the DKNY watch line earlier this year, key segments like ladies metal looks are being expanded upon. In Fossil’s namesake line, leather strap styles are being given more emphasis.
Roberts from Echo described the opportunities in scarves as having great potential. Chief among those opportunities is the ongoing strength of pashmina and the return of prints, particularly status prints.
“Our retail sales this spring were very strong and sell-in for fall has been way up,” he said. “Wraps and pashmina have continued to be our leading segment. Both elements have helped make consumers aware of the whole wrap category and how fashionable that area can be, and the stores are understanding that they can sell better product. It’s the fastest growing area and selling at all price points.
“Prints are back in a big way, and scarves are a natural way to bring some color to apparel. We’re introducing a lot of new shapes, such as oblongs in new sizes with bias-cut ends, and the square is returning, which can be worn around the head, neck or waist. I can promise that fashion magazines will be filled with them.”
But there was a slight caveat in his forecast.
“The question is whether we can take them and show them in a different way than before,” he said. “We’re testing some new packaging concepts and trying to educate the stores about ways to wear and display scarves. We also plan to publish a ‘How to Tie’ book for holiday or maybe spring.”
The firm will also introduce glove collections this fall for the Echo brand and the company’s licensed Ralph Lauren and Lauren by Ralph Lauren lines.
As to second guessing what the state of the economy might be by the fourth quarter, Roberts said there wasn’t much of a downside even if consumer confidence dips somewhat.
“We are aware that some people may be nervous, but we can’t predict or control that. Historically, there has been no correlation between the economy and scarf business. In fact, with a softer economy, consumers gravitate even more to accessories and scarves.”
At Claiborne, Welsh said the company will focus on “competitive prices and fashion-right merchandise.
“For spring that meant bracelets, crochet and cowboy hats, and we’re taking a similar approach in the second half,” she said. “We will continue with new versions of crochet and wraps as a classification, especially triangle-shaped styles. We have a triangular pashmina wrap that will retail for $179. Also, print scarfs are back and will provide major excitement, whether they are plaid, checks, abstract, Pucci-inspired or with a degree of status.
“I think we’re over all the beading and embellishment in handbags. Classic is back. The embellishments will become prints. I particularly like them as linings or as little touches of color in a bag or a hat.”
Colorwise, Welsh said Claiborne is focusing on metallics and brights, with a sophisticated red, navy and white Americana palette for holiday dress or casual.
“Dressing up works in urban areas, but most of America is pretty casual,” Welsh said.
Gold is the metal of choice at Victoria, according to Stensrud.
“Gold is starting to gather steam,” she said. “The fact that there is far more creative and fashion-driven design in fine jewelry today will have a positive effect on fashion jewelry.”
Her belief is that white metals have peaked in fine jewelry, and the reemergence of yellow gold hardware on status accessories will further fuel interest in gold.
“We’re already seeing it in stock-to-sales ratios,” she added.
The millennium hype may be a faint memory, or just waiting for New Year’s Eve 2000, but the interest in glamour looks hasn’t dimmed.
“We all thought the millennium would drive the business and skew it toward glitz, but we’ve seen glitz continue to perform strongly,” Stensrud said. “There is more daytime usage for that look, rather than being strictly evening. Category-wide, the business is up 5 to 12 percent from last year in stores.”
Stensrud said items will still be in strong demand, but “across the board there is also a core of reorderabilty.” Among the firm’s leading items are sterling silver, color, crystal and specific pieces like hoops and necklaces.

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