Byline: Georgia Lee

CHICAGO — After two years of planning, Chicago’s Stylemax debut delivered a much-needed energy boost for the Midwest regional market.
Instead of the usual showroom format, Stylemax was presented as a large-scale trade show, with special booths set up with the intent of attracting more buyers and making for better presentations and ease of shopping.
Show sponsor Merchandise Mart Properties, parent company of the Chicago Apparel Center and Merchandise Mart, hopes Stylemax will revitalize the region as a fashion center.
The show moved from the apparel mart to a sixth-floor exhibition area of the Merchandise Mart, with around 1,000 hard-wall booths. Around 500 firms represented 3,000 lines, with many that were new to Chicago. Amenities such as free meals for buyers added to the ambience. Attendance at the show, which ran Oct. 14-17, doubled last year’s spring market.
“Our figures were up 174 percent over last year on the first day,” said Susan A. McCullough, vice president of the Chicago Apparel Center. “The trade show format is the real future of the industry.”
The electricity was evident at a packed house for Sunday’s fashion show held in the Merchandise Mart lobby. Fashion trends highlighted more muted rainbow pastels and more subtle embellishment. Prints, including colorful geometrics and abstracts, were strong in blouses and layered sheer skirts or pants. Shine was also key, from silk shantung and satin with iridescent treatments to more lavish paillettes and sequins.
Outerwear, a big category for Midwest stores, translated into everyday wear in pastel coats, dusters and jackets. Leather and pleather also continued into spring in novelty colors. After several seasons of extreme embellishment and color, buyers anticipated a move to more classic, basic clothing in cleaner lines and subtler shading.
Permanent apparel center tenants had been divided over the new show, but most participated in Stylemax, setting up temporary booths. A few did business in booths and showrooms.
Bruce Brown, principle of an eponymous 2,000-square-foot multiline apparel mart showroom, brought his whole showroom setup to a new 40-by-40 foot Stylemax booth. Although originally skeptical of the change, he was pleasantly surprised at the results: a 30 percent increase in traffic, half of which were new accounts, and a 25 percent sales gain.
“The future is in big shows like this,” Brown said.
A few larger, permanent showrooms remained in their apparel mart spaces during Stylemax, reporting brisk business. Karin Berger, principle, Karin Berger Ltd., a multiline showroom, reported a sales increase of 20 percent.
“Stylemax is an additional motivation for buyers, but we’re seeing mostly those that we’d see anyway,” she said. “We prefer to do business in our showrooms.”
Permanent showrooms held parties in the mart to generate excitement in the apparel building, which is linked by a bridge to the Merchandise Mart.
Stylemax drew many New York lines that don’t normally show in Chicago. While most sportswear resources reported strong traffic, a few areas, including special occasion, were disappointed by the scarcity of upper-end stores shopping for social occasion dressing.
“Mart management did a great job in laying out of the show, but traffic for us was not there,” said Alan Sealove, chief executive officer of Victoria Royal Ltd., a New York eveningwear resource that had not shown in Chicago in the past. “We like to see 100 stores in a regular mart, but as of Monday, we only opened three new accounts.”
Mart vice president Susan McCullough said the social occasion category needed time to grow.
Retailers were generally pleased with Stylemax, which allowed them to check out more new lines and see resources they normally see only in New York.
Gail Wieneke, sportswear buyer for Rogers Department Store of Grand Rapids, Mich., said: “We saw new lines because they were more visible here. The same lines are everywhere now, but we were able to see a few new ones here we wouldn’t normally notice.”
Wieneke shopped for better-to-bridge women’s sportswear, in both familiar lines, such as Fabrizio Gianni, Burns and Sigrid Olsen, as well as new resources, such as Animale. For her conservative clientele, Wieneke sought salable looks with clean lines, rather than extreme trends. She bought printed pants and capris in bright colors, and reptile prints.
Rogers accessories buyer Lori O’Neill, spent over budget on jewelry, including sterling silver, crystals and lariat necklaces from Sorelli, Lorren Bell and 1928. She bought mink shawls and stoles, which have performed well. She said the show needed more good handbag lines.
Stephanie Riley, owner of Daffodil Hill, an Evanston, Ill.-based moderate-to-better specialty store, shopped for more conservative, classic clothing than the embellished looks of recent seasons.
“Everything last year was so gimmicky, customers are ready for a change,” she said. “We’re bringing the Eighties trend to customers in the preppy, traditional mode.”
Rather than items, she shopped for outfits, such as spring sweaters with printed rayon skirts. With a budget up 15 percent, due to strong early fall sales, Riley bought fashion outerwear pieces, such as trenchcoats from FTX and Mack & Jack and anoraks from Pietro Filipi. She also bought Lacoste’s alligator logo shirts.
Meredith Leggett, owner of Ala Carte, a Chicago specialty boutique, shopped Stylemax for new resources and bought tried-and-true lines from Chicago sales representatives. Core resources for her contemporary store include Jane Doe, and Fornerina, which offers apparel and shoes.
For Leggett, Stylemax offered a first look at cruise and spring merchandise. She shopped for more subtle color palettes than last spring. Along with iridescent novelty denim paired with T-shirts, she bought spring suede in pastels from many resources. Cropped pants have sold well this fall, and should continue into spring, she said. After a slow summer, business picked up for fall, she said.
Howard Abrams, owner of deJong’s, an Evansville, Ind.-based 43,000-square-foot specialty department store, said Stylemax could enable him to cut down on his frequent buying trips to New York.
“There weren’t enough lines here before, and there still aren’t, but this is a great start,” he said, adding that he would like to see more smaller, novelty lines at popular prices.
For early spring, Abrams bought color and novelty looks. Concentrating on immediate goods, he bought lines such as David Brooks, Layfayette 148 and Cutter & Buck. He shopped new resources, including special occasion dressing by Luxe and Tiar, Mili blouses and novelty handbags by Mary Frances and Design Inc. For holiday, he bought sweaters and jewelry with Christmas motifs, as well as cold weather accessories.
A few retailers, such as Ken Miller, owner of K.B. Miller apparel, an Ehraim, Wis.-based bridge specialty store, said they preferred the showroom format.
“I like to build relationships with reps who edit lines,” he said. “A big, open show can be a bit like a cattle call, and it’s hard to separate really nice things from the rest. I like more personal attention.”
Miller concentrated on outfits, rather than items, from Ann Patteson, Carol Cohen, Caroline Rose and Democracy. He shopped for lightweight travel fabrics for spring in casual silhouettes — basics that can be accessorized for different looks.
The Stylemax debut will be followed by a March 2001 show. January, June and August markets will continue at the apparel center showrooms.