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NEW YORK — A brutal show schedule with many off-site venues; hot, humid weather, and snarled traffic as a result of the United Nations summit left retailers feeling cranky last week, but nonetheless bullish about spring.

Given the continuing strength of the luxury market, retailers said they expect their open-to-buys to be at least a few points ahead of last year and perhaps more if their companies are opening new stores. After all, the euro is dropping against the dollar, meaning designer goods might be less expensive come spring, and fashion shoppers continue to trade up.

“Our current business is extremely strong in all parts of women’s apparel and fashion accessories,” said Bloomingdale’s chairman and chief executive officer Michael Gould. “We will continue to intensify the programs that are working for us. Next year will be a major year, as far as Bloomingdale’s goes.”

Joan Kaner, senior vice president and fashion director of Neiman Marcus, said the collections she saw bode well for a strong season. “Usually, spring is rather ho-hum,” she said. “We’ve seen two directions — a return to modernism and the pulled-together feminine look. It will be good for business. The season has a lot of appeal.”

One concern for stores was the plethora of neutral shades that could turn into a sea of blandness on the retail floor. “As much as a problem as black is this fall, ivory or taupe will be for spring,” said Michael Fink, senior fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue. “It doesn’t have that pull if everything is the same color.”

Jeffrey Kalinsky saw a silver lining in all the beige.

“I think neutral colors are refined and there’s always a way to make them sing other than having carnival of colors,” said the owner of Jeffrey New York.

Beneath the overall optimism, however, was a strong feeling among buyers that New York Fashion Week is at a crossroads as the shows increasingly get taken over by the celebrity phenomenon. It raises the question as to what the runway is for in the end — so designers can show and sell their latest collections, or simply to provide a photo op for the tabloids? Some retailers said they were shoved into standing room so celebrities could get prized seats. One prominent retailer was rudely told she’d have to stand at the Donna Karan show. “I buy so much Donna Karan,” she said, adding, “This is embarrassing.”

This story first appeared in the September 19, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Robert Burke, senior vice president of fashion at Bergdorf Goodman, said he’s never experienced a more difficult and uncomfortable show season, between the traffic, heat, venues and the amount of people that have no reason at all being at shows.

“I love that fashion has gotten so much attention, but we need to regroup and think about who needs to be there,” he said. “It’s at the point that it’s become distracting. Hopefully, these p.r. companies will think twice about how much of a spectacle they want to turn a show into. I think the tents were the best organized that they’ve ever been. Most of the off-site venues were not very comfortable places for the most part.”

Fink added, “We get to shows even earlier now so we’re not trampled by the camera crews and rudely pushed aside. Designers need to figure this out. We’re all there to do a job. When I can’t get enough seats for my people, it’s a problem.”

“It’s a difficult week in the fact that there are lot of shows, and you rush everywhere to wait,” said Barbara Atkin, fashion director of Holt Renfrew. “There were major traffic jams, adding to the unnecessary stress, but as buyers, we kind of accept that. We have to put up with it, but how much longer we will do this, who knows? There has to be a breaking point.”

Buyers were partially appeased by what they called the strength of the season. Overall, standout collections were seen from Oscar de la Renta, Ralph Lauren, Francisco Costa at Calvin Klein, Marc Jacobs, Donna Karan, Michael Kors and Vera Wang.

Here is what buyers had to say on the season:

  • Joan Kaner of Neiman Marcus said the store is picking up some new designers. “We’re looking at Rodarte and Stephen Burrows, who had a nice collection. I loved Michael Kors, J. Mendel, Ralph Lauren, Y & Kei, Jose Ramon Reyes and Brian Reyes.”
  • Bloomingdale‘s senior vice president of fashion direction, Kal Ruttenstein, characterized the week as “a little erratic, but overall a good season with some really strong, established collections and a couple of new players that show promise. “Even in some collections that weren’t great, there were a lot of good items.”

    Key trends: a new palette of cream, beige, ecru and white; floaty dresses in chiffon, silk or gauze; city shorts in all lengths; ruffled, feminine romantic blouses; cropped flyaway jackets and sweaters, and flat shoes and sandals, even for evening.

    Standouts: Marc Jacobs for modern clothes with little vintage inspiration; Francisco Costa for Calvin Klein for floaty shapes and standout white clothes; Ralph Lauren for romantic dresses, a French sailor look, shirting fabrics in solids and stripes; Michael Kors’ ruffles, and Donna Karan’s Empire and flyaway back jersey dresses, which looked new.

  • Robert Burke of Bergdorf Goodman said, “It was a very good season. There’s plenty to put into the store and things will sell. It’s understated, but distinctive and new. Retailers want to give consumers a lot to buy.”

    Standouts: Calvin Klein, “an incredibly important show for New York and really pivotal for Francisco Costa. It was beautifully designed and had a lightness. It was so sophisticated, it rivals a European collection.” He also praised the draping at Doo.Ri; beautiful color palette at Vera Wang; J. Mendel’s couture-inspired collection; Ralph Lauren’s blue-and-white striped shirting and “real American sensibility,” and Donna Karan for “one of the prettiest collections she’s done in years.”

  • Nicole Fischelis, vice president and fashion director for ready-to-wear, Macy’s East, said, “I think all the masters are keeping faithful to their style with their own identity — Tuleh, Michael Kors, Marc Jacobs, Ralph Lauren, Oscar de la Renta and Calvin Klein. We’re very happy with what we’ve seen. The message is really about the dress, shorts and suits with pared-down embellishment and leaner looks and silhouettes.”

    Other strong collections: Marc Jacobs’ flyaway jacket and Diane von Furstenberg’s trapeze silhouette, which seemed “fresh. The soigné look is going to be fabulous for the accessory business,” she said.

  • Beth Buccini, a co-owner of Kirna Zabête, said the store’s spring and fall sales this year were ahead 30 percent and she feels the trend will continue.

    Standouts: She expects Proenza Schouler and Thakoon to help maintain the store’s growth. “Roland Mouret was incredibly beautiful and design at its finest. It was an amazing lesson in dressmaking. Zac Posen showed his most mature and sophisticated collection yet, and Tuleh’s dress with a black-and-white pattern on one side and magenta and orange on the other was a standout.”

  • Lavelle Olexa, senior vice president of fashion merchandising at Lord & Taylor, said, “From all the gypsy-inspired looks and frills that were so prevalent, the collections moved to a more refined elegance that will find a great deal of acceptance with a broad range of customers. Designers presented beautiful collections with more emphasis on fit and tailoring. The dress continued to dominate runways. Pants were short and elegant.”

    Standouts: The metallic taffetas at Nicole Miller; Bill Blass’ pantsuits; Yeohlee’s addition of jeans to the mix; Oscar de la Renta’s embellished jackets, and Joanna Mastroianni’s shorts.

  • Michael Fink of Saks Fifth Avenue said the week was “very consistent. Everybody is on the same trend — polished dressing for a woman instead of a girl. They have revived the word ‘chic.’ New York rarely sets the trend. It gives us very wearable clothes, different from creating a spectacle as the European designers do.”

    Fink said the runways were filled with dresses, from wide halter designs to Empire dresses, and they were lightweight, with cotton chiffons, lace trims, and crochet. He also saw plenty of high-waisted pencil skirts, usually paired with simple chiffon camisoles or sleeveless blouses. “This is a perfect Saks season —more polished and sophisticated.”

    Standouts: Calvin Klein for innovative dresses, interesting skirts and an overall modern and wearable look; Oscar de la Renta for slim daytime suits and cocktail dresses with a new volume, and Marc Jacobs, for clean silhouettes, sometimes architectural, and manipulating fabrics with pleating, knotting and exaggeration.

  • Jennifer Wheeler, director of designer apparel at Nordstrom, found plenty of newness and called the season fresh. “Roland Mouret, Donna Karan and Vera Wang looked great,” she said, also pointing to the coats at Libertine, Michael Kors’ collection and Francisco Costa at Calvin Klein, which she, too, termed “a watershed collection” for the designer.

    New brands for spring Nordstrom is buying include Brian Reyes and Willow.

  • Jeffrey Kalinsky of Jeffrey called spring one of the most beautiful seasons ever. “The buy is going to have to be bigger this spring, and last spring was a strong one,” he said. “Fall started out pretty strong. I think the general mood for me as a buyer is optimistic.”

    Standouts: Michael Kors, Marc Jacobs and Oscar de la Renta. “There was so much to love at Marc’s show. Project Alabama and Behnaz Sarafpour were strong. Narciso Rodriguez was beautiful. When I saw the show, I thought, ‘What a joy to be part of the world called Libertine.’ What a great show, what energy.” Kalinsky is also picking up Brian Reyes.

  • Scott Tepper, fashion director and divisional merchandise manager of apparel, accessories, and lingerie at Henri Bendel, was grateful that American designers didn’t go fully, shockingly into minimalism and praised the variety of trends. “We realize, however, that this season requires a strong edit in order to avoid a matronly or an overly beige feeling on the floor,” he said.

    Standouts: “Brian Reyes, Richard Chai, and Rag & Bone all shared an uptown-downtown sensibility that speaks to our customer. Doo.Ri was simply flawless. In a very beige season, her presentation was fresh and luxurious. Diane von Furstenberg delivered another terrific collection and her interpretation of volume was by far the most wearable we’ve seen. Brian Bradley at Tuleh forced us to consider a more intellectual approach to what feels modern in fashion.”

    Tepper said the best was saved for last: “Gwen Stefani made our week with her very powerful L.A.M.B. collection … [and with] the evolution and expansion of the line for spring. Especially relevant to us were the military coats, cashmere cardigans and evening clothes.”

  • Elizabeth Gorman, owner of Mix in Houston, said the store has seen a 25 to 30 percent increase since January and she’s expecting similar increases next spring.

    Standouts: Roland Mouret, Boudicca, Jeremy Lang and Michael Kors. Lang and Brian Reyes will be new to the store next season.

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