A look from Nicole Bakti on the runway in Atlanta.

ATLANTA — AmericasMart is campaigning to be queen of the prom and belle of the ball, positioning its FirstLook segment of the August market as a national draw for U.S. social occasion retailers.<BR><BR>The women’s and children’s...

ATLANTA — AmericasMart is campaigning to be queen of the prom and belle of the ball, positioning its FirstLook segment of the August market as a national draw for U.S. social occasion retailers.

The women’s and children’s apparel and accessories show, held Aug. 26 to 30, reported a 5.1 percent increase in traffic over last August’s record attendance, said Lawton Hall, senior vice president of apparel at the mart.

AmericasMart has been expanding the social occasion category for years, to a total of 250 prom, pageant, bridal and social occasion lines, while reaching beyond the Southeast to lure buyers. At the August show, buyer attendance rose 12 percent from the Midwest, 38 percent from the Northeast and a 25 percent from the West over last August.

“We’ve gone after buyers by getting every major prom and social occasion line,” said Hall, adding that several showrooms have been moved in social occasion “neighborhoods” for easier shopping.

Buyers said newness and novelty, especially in color palettes, is a way to entice customers to buy, for example, a lemon yellow perforated leather jacket rather than another black blazer. A blast of citrus and sherbet shades for early spring caught buyers’ eyes in sportswear and eveningwear. Romantic ballgowns performed well, but so did sophisticated separates, and cover-ups such as beaded shawls and fur shrugs.

In sportswear, ponchos, prints and preppy looks were all big trends, along with vintage-inspired jackets and retro print T-shirts. Sportswear and social occasion exhibitors were both pleased with business. Retailers, though still buying close to season, were upbeat about future business.

Wayne Putnam, principle of an eponymous sales firm specializing in social occasion, reported a 25 percent sales increase over last year. He opened 127 accounts, at least 30 percent of them from outside the Southeast.

“Atlanta’s gaining a national reputation as a prom market,” he said.

Sportswear rep Frank Vaccarelli of Vaccarelli & Assoc., had a 20 percent sales boost, based on new lines and strong performers at retail.

“The real story of this market is that the missy customer wants young fashion,” he said. “She wants novelty tops and fashion jeans that fit and she doesn’t want anything matronly.”

This story first appeared in the September 14, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Susan Drenning, owner of Susan Lee, an Atlanta specialty store with 60 percent of stock in year-round social occasion, bought primarily for the cruise season. For mother-of-the-bride, she sought younger, fashionable looks from Teri Jon, Chetta B and Jovani.

“We don’t want extremely bare looks, but off-the-shoulder and strapless is good, with cute cover-ups,” she said. “Everything is body-conscious, and our look is feminine, with no men’s wear or career looks.”

To offer special looks that specialty store customers expect, Drenning shopped for Italian lines, such as Isabel de Pedro, although European resources may have fit issues, she said. She bought lots of color for spring, notably lime, pink, coral and orange, in leather novelty jackets. Drenning also bought skirts with asymmetric hemlines, unusual fabric combinations and synthetic stretch knits.

Mary Beth Goldsmith, contemporary and casual sportswear buyer for Gus Mayer, a Birmingham, Ala., specialty store with another unit in Nashville, purchased holiday and early spring. Contemporary trends performing well now, such as ponchos, tunics, preppy looks and novelty T-shirts, should continue into spring, Goldsmith said. She snapped up color, especially yellow, orange and turquoise for spring, in tie-dye tunics by A.B.S. paired with lace and beaded jeans by Allen B. by Allen Schwartz or cropped pants by Cynthia Steffe.

Goldsmith also ordered long trenchcoats by Trina Turk, fur and embellished ponchos by Revue and shrugs from One Girl Who and Rebecca Taylor. For holiday, Goldsmith opted for novelty T-shirts and corset-style camisoles from Ann Ferriday and cashmere sweaters by Tse, Belford and White & Warren. For more casual sportswear, she bought spa wear from M.A.G.

Judy Prizant, owner of Karen of Course, a Louisville, Ky., specialty store, ordered immediate goods to beef up current stock because of better-than-expected recent business.

With an open-to-buy up 20 percent over last year, Prizant also shopped for early spring, particularly for events surrounding the Kentucky Derby in May. In dressy suits, she bought Teri Jon and Kay Unger. She also chose jackets and suede pants from Fabrizio Gianni and novelty tops by Alberto Makali. She purchased jeans with rises no lower than belly-button from David Kahn, Cambio and Votre Nom, along with tops from Essendi, Cyrus and Bejewelled.