CHICAGO — Despite the troubled economy, business was brisk at StyleMax, Chicago’s largest women’s apparel market, where Midwest retailers reacted well to color-driven early fall merchandise.

Donna Phelps, owner of the Seasons on the Square specialty store in Valparaiso, Ind., said color shaped her buy at the show that ended its four-day run on Feb. 5 at the Merchandise Mart. Phelps particularly liked a group of rust, brown and natural separates from Nic+Zoe, along with a group featuring fuchsia and gray.

“Our ladies do appreciate the color and I think that will help for a strong fall,” she said.

Phelps also gravitated to groupings from 600 West accented with chestnut and black, tartan and black-washed plaid and one featuring grays paired with plums and purples. Her favorite pieces from 600 West, a best-selling line at Phelps’ store, included an antique caramel leather jacket and a zebra print trenchcoat with matching reversible vest.

A trio of women’s buyers for Mark Shale, a men’s and women’s specialty store with eight locations in the Chicago area, Dallas, Atlanta, Kansas City and St. Louis, scouted for textured jackets, items with a subtle shimmer and skirt suits. They said they were hopeful that fall’s more colorful merchandise will move better than last fall’s gray dominated collections.

Color also captured the attention of many buyers checking out outerwear and separates by Tuzzi, a Toronto-based company that reported strong StyleMax sales. Pieces such as a polyester-filled puffer jacket with wrap neck in iridescent kiwi wholesaling for $250, a black taffeta blazer with taped ruching, $195, and a crushed fake patent cherry red jacket, $195, were among their top sellers at the market, which elicited a handful of new accounts for the company, said Ketty Cournoyer, Tuzzi’s vice president for sales and merchandising.

“Business across the country has been tough, but as tough as business is, they’re happy to see something new and different,” she said.

Sue Hansen, owner of Four Squires, a 6,000-square-foot specialty store in Antioch, Ill., said the store ended 2007 in good shape despite sales challenges.

Hansen, who used the market to serve immediate needs and dabble into early fall, ordered denim capris from Not Your Daughter’s Jeans and planned to order longer belted ultrasuede jackets, sweaters and trousers from Tribal, one of her top-selling lines, and as well as buying coordinating separates from Nic+Zoe. The retailer, who targets women aged 35 and up, also expects to pick up sweaters in a variety of hues from Pure & Co. and Curio.

This story first appeared in the February 20, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Phelps was optimistic going into the fall buying mode given that sales at her Valparaiso store have generally increased 20 percent each year.

“My business is good, but we work at it,” she said, noting that sales associates often call clients to alert them to sales or new merchandise, prepare fitting rooms before clients arrive and deliver clothing to customers’ homes.

Heidi Martin, general manager of Zita in Whitefish Bay, Wis., traveled to StyleMax mostly to shop for accessories, including silver and gold earrings, necklaces and belt buckles from Fahrenheit, as well as natural wood and sterling silver necklaces and earrings from Mimi & Marge. She was pleased to see colorful accents of coral and turquoise.

“I think they should do very well,” Martin said.

She added that business is flat, but Martin plans to increase her buy by 10 percent. She also ordered crystal-and-stone-embellished belts and matching handbags from Leatherock, and knit, leather and satin long gloves and scarves from Echo.

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