DESIGNERS ARE COUNTING ON NOVELTY PIECES AND QUICK TURN-AROUND TIME TO BOOST BUSINESS THIS YEAR.

The contemporary sportswear crowd is an optimistic bunch. They believe, for the most part, the worst (aka 2001) is over and that business will pick up this year.

Contemporary vendors, in particular, respond quickly to market demands. That means turning a trend around in the shortest time possible by getting deliveries out within a couple of weeks. Vendors need to predict what their customers will want before orders are written, allowing them to prepare merchandise in advance. Sometimes, they’ll be stuck with inventory at the end of the season, but that is just one of the costs of doing business. Of more importance, vendors said, is that the customer gets what she wants — and gets it on time, when the trend is hot.

“The advantage we have is that our turnaround time is quick,” said Chung Yu, chief financial officer of production for New York-based Nevada, a manufacturer of private label women’s wear. Because all of the company’s production is done in the U.S., it can get orders shipped out within two or three weeks. Yu added that achieving such fast deliveries is difficult — but a necessity of doing business in this climate.

While business in September and October was quiet, things started picking up by November, which means that now, those customers are coming back for reorders and in need of immediate deliveries.

“We’re pretty optimistic about the next season,” Yu said. “Customers want items to sell, so we’re doing things that they can sell right away. Everything is about timing.” Nevada produces private label apparel for high-end specialty stores, as well as for Saks Fifth Avenue and Federated Department Stores, including the Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s divisions. It focuses on novelty items that stand out in an increasingly crowded marketplace. “You have to be able to cater to everybody and to carry multiple lines,” Yu said.

Vendors are also talking about taking on additional risk by attempting to predict what their customers will want.

“The risk has been transferred from the buyer to the seller, but we’re willing to take that risk,” said Joel Bertet, president of Los Angeles-based Solo Paris.

He said spring could be a good season for his category, as consumers return to their normal spending patterns.

“People had a big shock after 9/11, and everything froze,” he said. “Now that inventory is no longer valuable, everyone is obligated to move on. Buyers who were too cautious want to get back into the market and find people who can provide them with hot merchandise.”

Bertet said that the recent economic downturn first affected manufacturing sectors and trickled through to retail. But orders at a recent trade shows were “better than anticipated,” leading him to believe that business should be fairly buoyant at WWDMAGIC, provided customers find exactly what they are looking for.

“I think people will be looking for companies that can react quickly,” said Bertet. “The idea is to cut and sew in a quick manner, and not to wait for the orders to come in. We have fabrics in stock and things already in production, so we’ll just add on after. People don’t want to wait four to six weeks. They want to taste a bit, sell the product and come back for more.”

Otherwise, said Bertet, the key to survival is to run a tight ship. “I think everyone is more cautious and has tightened things up. There is no more room for mistakes.”

Vendors of specialty items — especially those that are enjoying heightened attention in the fashion community — have every reason to be upbeat.

“Belts are in fashion, so I think it’s going to be a good season,” said Laurence Bloch, president of San Diego-based Leather Rock International, a maker of high-fashion belts. “We’ve always been very competitive and reasonable in pricing, and it’s important to keep stores happy.” Block anticipates healthy demand for the collection, especially because of its exotic, ethnic feel.

“Word gets out if people are looking for something like this, and we keep marketing to stores all over the country,” he added.

And while most vendors indicated that prices were often not such a huge factor — with customers wanting the product quickly rather than being too worried about spending a few extra dollars — some companies believe that changing their price points will give them access to a whole new market.

“We have some lower prices on some items, which has brought us to a new level,” said Tatiana Nikichina, founder and president of New York-based Alex Teih.

Already, response to the company’s “By Accident” sportswear label (it also does an upscale line featuring evening gowns and shearling coats) has been positive.

“Business is definitely picking up, with new accounts calling us wanting to see the collection late last year. Things were very slow, but we still did OK,” said Nikichina. “Now, we’re very happy with how things look.”

At New York-based Morrell Maxie, a maker of dresses and sportswear, founder Adam Ostad said, “Customers are now realizing they need goods. They’ve got a business to run and they need goods in their stores.”

While Ostad said he could not predict how business would fare on the retail level, initial wholesale orders were strong.

“But it’s more important to be different these days, to offer styles and prints that are different from what the others are doing,” he said. “Customers are also more price-conscious. But for now, we’re low on goods, so that’s a good sign.”

Other vendors said business is so good, it’s almost surprising.

“It’s been so wonderful, I’m embarrassed to tell people,” said Sandy Lebowitz, sales manager at New York-based DNI Fashion Group, which makes the Domallo and Basix II lines.

She said company founder and chief designer David Sadot believes in dressing all women for all occasions — and if the market is driven by anything these days, it’s versatility.

“Even our basics are not run-of-the-mill,” Lebowitz said. “Our sportswear takes you from the office to out in the evening. We’re not making a plain pair of black slacks. A woman wants difference, newness, a reason to buy. If you give people what they want, business is easy.”

So far, the company has taken several reorders for a simple lace blouse that sold out at stores within a couple of weeks.

“We’re like the fudge on a plain piece of cake,” Lebowitz said. “We don’t plan on making any changes because everything is going great. If it works, why fix it?”

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