Byline: Wendy Hessen

Hair accessories may be finally about to get their due.
Historically, they have been viewed as one of the lesser accessories, the ultimate afterthought in a category that is often fixated on the next hot handbag or the must-have pair of shoes. Until the past year or so, luxury-level quality was rare in hair accessories, and the world’s big brands routinely turned up their noses at the notion of adding the classification to their repertoires.

But, in the way that pashmina bolstered the scarf category, last year’s fervor for hair jewelry drew consumers to the hair accessories counter, an area they hadn’t visited for some time.

Now, with brands like Burberry and Louis Vuitton dipping their toes into the business, along with the continued growth of such firms as Frederic Fekkai, Colette Malouf and Anne Vuille, hair accessories departments are starting to look as brand driven as any other counter on the main floor.

Even the world’s hippest runways aren’t immune. The oversized, colored plastic cubes etched with the Louis Vuitton name that turned up in model’s ponytails at that company’s show last spring won raves. Since then, the company has added clear versions of the ponytail holders.

“I think having big names [come into the market] makes people excited about wearing hair accessories,” said Cynthia O’Connor, owner of the eponymous showroom that represents designers Anne Vuille and Tarina Tarantino, among others. “It’s the same thing that happens with handbags and shoes: First people get excited about wearing a Burberry headband, then they get excited about the whole category.”

Designer Colette Malouf welcomed the arrival of the big brands. “Competition is always healthy,” she said. “No one can change consumers’ habits alone, unless you are a huge brand. To have other brands pushing quality and luxury is tremendous.”

Metropolitan Design Group owner Stephanie Levy, whose showroom represents Malouf, also feels the time is ripe for a trade-up in hair accessories. “With all the talk of flatness in the market, Colette is up over 20 percent from last year,” said Levy. “Customers look to her for things that really work and that are a signature for the hair — like her glass ponytail holder.”

While they remain a tiny fraction of many big brand’s businesses, those entering the segment say it is a relatively easy business to start and maintain, compared with other accessories classifications.

“It’s a little piece of the dream,” said Robert Vignola, executive vice president of Burberry Wholesale, the U.S. division of the British firm. “We started [the line] about a year ago as an exclusive in our own stores and recently expanded to some key retail partners. We don’t see hair as a major classification, but as an extension of the brand.”

Bergdorf Goodman began offering hair accessories for the first time last year when they were incorporated into the new beauty floor on its renovated lower level. “Our business has been very good,’ said Patricia Saxby, vice president and divisional merchandise manager of cosmetics.

“The important thing is to offer a well-rounded assortment without a lot of duplication. We carry very upscale names and try to buy the best of what each designer has to offer.”

Still, vendors have lately voiced concern that stores will not remain committed to the hair accessories classification now that hair jewelry has seen its day.

“Hair accessories are a very stable, dependable business,” said O’ Connor. “All the action with hair jewelry actually hurt the business [as a whole]. When you go back to normal, everyone thinks [the whole category’s] dead…so buyers got scared and backed off too far.”

Simonetta Morrison, vice president of accessories at Frederic Fekkai, echoed O’Connor’s sentiments. “I’m a bit concerned about the amount of space stores are devoting to hair accessories,” she said. “If they don’t show they believe in it, the customer gets shy. Because hair accessories became so big, I don’t think they will ever completely disappear again. The customer has been exposed in a big way.”

Fekkai’s Morrison attributed quality and function as the major reasons behind that firm’s continued success since its launch into hair accessories in fall 1998.

“We came out of the gate pretty strong, and it’s been a very easy business for us to establish,” said Morrison.

“Frederic’s level of quality and function added another dimension to the market. Our business continues to expand because our point of view is different. It’s about enhancing the hair rather than being about a bad hair day. Hair accessories can’t just be pretty and not work.”

For spring, Fekkai added washable, beach-friendly ponytail holders in a Lycra spandex usually reserved for swimsuits.

“We bought a fair amount of Fekkai’s swimwear fabric [pieces],” said Bergdorf’s Saxby, who added that customers also respond to Malouf’s semiprecious stone crowns and headbands and Anne Vuille’s fashion- forward pieces.

Saxby said that being able to see a particular product in action has been key to Bergdorf’s success and noted that “all our salespeople can demonstrate how to wear the products, whether it’s a headband, hairstick or a ponytail holder.”

Education is also a focus at Fekkai, which is considering developing a video that could run continuously near the hair accessories counter. “It would make sense for both stores and manufacturers to provide customers with more visual information about how to wear hair accessories,” Saxby said. “If women see them [being worn] in the hair, they get excited and buy them.

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