CHICAGO — While Chicago Cubs fans licked their wounds from another missed chance at the World Series, retailers and vendors at the StyleMax show here were chipper.

This story first appeared in the November 4, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

A sampling of smaller retailers, who live by differentiating themselves from mall-based stores by picking up funky lesser-know lines at trade shows, reported business has been steady. The show, which ran from Oct. 18-21 at the Merchandise Mart here, sported about 400 exhibitors.

Betty Salisbury, who was buying for Iris and Ivy, a Springfield, Ill., store just three blocks from Abraham Lincoln’s home, said she was looking for “something that’s going to stand out in that cornfield.”

That would be styles that are “wild and wonderful, and something different,” she said, adding a special color or trim could do the trick.

Tina Karakourtis, buyer for Tina’s Closet Inc. in Lisle, Ill., was also looking for spunkier lines, but said she couldn’t stray too far from “a little basic and classic” for fear of scaring off her customers. On her shopping list for the show were prom, intimate apparel and red hats, to meet the demands of a red hat club in town.

“I’m pretty lucky, I have colleges and a lot of high schools and they come in looking for something different from the malls,” she said.

Susan Branco, who was buying for Alexandria’s at The Loggia Shops in Palm Springs, Calif., and its sister store in Indianapolis, said she was looking for whatever caught her eye.

“I’m just looking for something that’s kind of different,” Branco said. “Our clothing is selling well and we need more.”

While most retailers were shopping for spring, Branco was looking for goods for immediate delivery. Leather, suede and furs have been selling well for her.

Also shopping StyleMax was Kimberly Damato, promotional buyer for Personal Preference Inc., a firm that sells artwork and offers its employees gifts such as leather and fur coats, and jewelry from a catalogue as an incentive.

Damato was making some reorders, but also expanding the catalogue’s assortment with “funky” and “edgy” products.

StyleMax also held two fashion shows on Sunday. The likes of Cindy Crawford weren’t there, but at least her mom was able to make it.

Jennifer Crawford, mother to the fashion magazine mainstay, was shopping StyleMax for her DeKalb, Ill.-store, The Clothes Horse. On her list were new lines and organic materials, such as hemp.

“I’ve found some new lines for my store,” she said, noting of the show, “It’s always overwhelming.”

For the most part, exhibitors reacted positively to the show. Many of them were showing trends such as shorter skirts, vibrant colors and romantic looks.

“It’s a good show,” said Ray Landin, who was selling Eileen Fisher and other lines for RML Assoc. “The buyers are buying closer to need and they’re focusing on what their customer needs at a point of time.”

Landin is also employing a trunk show promotion in an attempt to entice retailers to leave paper at his booth. Prior to the StyleMax, RML sent out a flyer to buyers indicating those who placed orders at the show would be included in a raffle for a trunk show at their store.

“The show has been phenomenal, best StyleMax I’ve ever had,” said sales representative Steven Levin, adding that he had some 15 accounts buying for new stores.

Laura McConky, who was selling Sigrid Olsen, noted, “The store owners are more optimistic because the consumer is more optimistic.”

Color, which she said is always important to the line, continues to be prominent. “Pink seems to be the color for spring,” she said, citing coral, strawberry and soft dusty pink as top sellers.

Skirts have also been selling well, as have pants of all styles, noted McConky.

Kristin Healy, account executive for BCBG Max Azria Group’s contemporary To The Max division, said accounts that had stayed with their core orders during the leaner times have been more “willing to take in a few more styles and branch out a little bit.”

Spring is all about bright vivid colors back to neutrals, she said.

Jennifer Gong, senior account executive for Shoshanna, said, “We’ve gotten some new accounts that we would have never gotten if we weren’t here.” She said buyers were leaving paper on knits, embroidered skirts and eveningwear.

Sales rep Neal Elkind said he was pleased with the turnout, adding, “Everyone who said they would show up is showing up and everyone who said they might show up is showing up.”

Overall, about half of those selling at the show were from the Chicago area.

Susan McCullough, vice president of apparel for Merchandise Mart Properties Inc., which runs StyleMax, noted, “This show is through the roof for us.” While StyleMax has been at exhibitor capacity for the last four or five seasons, attendance was up about 20 percent from a year ago. The show was first held in 2000.

“Retail’s not all that healthy,” said McCullough. “So we’re pretty pleased with how things are going.”

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