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WWD Special Report issue 02/18/2014

How do apparel brands and retailers prevent consumers the world over from turning into shopping coach potatoes?

This story first appeared in the February 18, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

That’s the challenge for retailers coming off a feeble holiday season that, according to the National Retail Federation, wrung out a 3.8 percent retail sales increase from promotion-heavy stores that were light on foot traffic. Predictions for this year aren’t much better — the NRF foresees a 4.1 percent retail sales bump.

It’s the big question hanging over executives at WWDMAGIC, Project, Pool, ENKVegas, CurveNV, Liberty Fairs, Stitch, Capsule and the other apparel trade shows running this week in Las Vegas, as attendees and exhibitors contemplate the fate of brick-and-mortar retail in the e-commerce era. The answers vary widely, from digging into throwback trends to motivate consumers, to hiring new designers to reenergize classic or established brands. Whether they’re right could make the difference between a repeat of last year’s dull sales or a stellar rebound.

Ella Moss is one of the brands that’s moving into the future by looking into the past. Pamella Protzel-Scott, creative director of Ella Moss and Splendid, suggested tapestry patterns and folkloric colors such as deep wine, spice yellow, dusty cinnamon, cognac and tomato red underscore Ella Moss’ global vintage, eclectic sensibilities for fall.

“There’s a resurgence of the bohemian vibe,” she said, noting that long-sleeve maxidresses, ponchos and sweaters enable customers to make that vibe their own.

The denim category has been having its troubles — sales of women’s jeans were down 3 percent last year, according to The NPD Group Inc. — and the emergence of the soft bottoms classification could have something to do with it. “Soft bottoms have become a big trend,” said Protzel-Scott. “We’re doing a lot of them, whether in knit or woven pants. It gives a very cool, casual look. We are definitely seeing more of the ath-leisure feel and more soft wovens for bottoms. It has a cuff or band at the bottom. We are doing them in solids and prints. I think it’s a trend that fits a lot of body types.”

Denim brands aren’t taking the soft-bottoms craze laying down. Blank NYC is making a softer dressing statement with nylon track pants and Tencel twill bottoms.

“Denim is not just traditional denim anymore,” said Will Redgate, vice president at Blank NYC. “Denim brands are offering variations that can represent that trend in a way that’s interpreted into the denim world.”

Seventies-inspired denim brand Dittos, which has athletic pants for fall with a ruched hem and drawstring lace, is responding to that trend as well.

Denim brands, of course, aren’t straying from their core fabric, even as they dive into softer bottoms classifications. They hope vintage looks will help spark a turnaround in the jeans category. Redgate said, “Ripped and distressed denim has been trending well and that remains an important key trend for fall.”

He added that raw-edge patchwork jeans in black and dark indigo washes have been standout styles for Blank NYC.

Sarah Ahmed, creative director for premium denim brand DL1961, is a big believer in the vintage denim revival for fall. “For a couple of seasons, it was all about clean, crisp denim and true indigos. We’re seeing a little bit of that this spring, but for fall, we’re adding dimensions and contrast treatments [in washes]. It looks great,” she said.

Vintage doesn’t have to mean old. AG Jeans is putting vintage touches on jeans constructed in modern ways. Creative director Sam Ku explained the brand worked with a Japanese digital-printing specialist to scan images of vintage jeans and print those images on stretch sateen fabric that has been important for AG in colored denim styles.

“You end up having a supersoft sateen that looks like distressed denim, but is actually printed,” Ku said. “If you ever have a pair of distressed jeans, your toe gets caught in the knee hole and it rips more. This is a nice way to get that look, have the comfort and the hole doesn’t get any bigger.”

Skinny silhouettes have ruled denim for so long, it might be difficult for women’s jeans shoppers today to remember when they weren’t transcendent. In that context, roomier silhouettes seem fresh, and denim vendors contend they could be making progress in the fall.

Dittos forecasts an uptick in flairs. Sue Mazawey, vice president of sales and merchandising for the brand, said, “We envision it as a modern version of Dittos’ heritage. It is everything from the high-rise to extreme high-rise, and leg openings from 18 to 24 inches. Some of the design details are pick stitch, reverse denims, color block and color.”

AG is introducing a boot-cut style for fall with a rise that’s slightly elevated from the original rise on the brand’s Angel style, a best-selling boot cut launched about a decade ago. Ku sees the influence of the boot cut increasing, but not being overwhelming.

“I think it is going to be a small, niche part of the business again. I don’t see it dominating like it did in the early 2000s. You see some girls with some flares and some boot cuts, but I don’t see that translating to the whole market, especially for fall,” he said.

To make silhouette matters more complicated, different takes on trimmer styles are also gaining steam. At Blank NYC, Redgate pointed to the slim boyfriend as significant in the shifting silhouette landscape. “The skinny is still important, but you do see some looser fits performing better than they have in the past, so we do feel the slim boyfriend could trend well — which has typically been important in the spring seasons,” he said.

DL1961’s Ahmed argued silhouettes are sticking to the skinny-to-cigarette varieties, with cigarette styles becoming increasingly popular “because they look awesome with ballet flats or sneakers, but I don’t see it widening more than that.”

Earnest Sewn is unveiling a revamped look under owner Anthony Frym, who bought the denim brand last year, with a strong focus on the silhouette.

“It was important for us to update the silhouettes,” said Vincent Flumiani, who founded men’s label Caulfield Preparatory and designed Sinclair Denim before Frym brought him on board as creative director at Earnest Sewn. “Moving to the future, we want to be relevant and attain a new customer as well.” For example, there are slouchy skinny jeans for women crafted from dark blue stretchy selvedge that’s scraped white on the thighs. “The skinny for Earnest Sewn was maybe a skinny that was relevant in 2008 or 2009, but wasn’t updated to the evolution of the skinny,” Flumiani said.

Skinny jeans aren’t reserved for women. For the first time, Earnest Sewn is offering a skinny style and a slim fit for men. The men’s skinny version is cut out of selvedge with the fabric’s signature red-and-white seams shown on the waistband. Retail prices start at $85 for tops and reach $300 for selvedge jeans. Appealing to Millennials, Earnest Sewn has created a group of jeans with simpler washes that sell for under $125. The target for first-year sales is $8 million.

Earnest Sewn is not the only brand with a new creative direction. Haspel, the 105-year-old Louisiana-based men’s wear brand known for seersucker suits, has rebooted with Shipley & Halmos designers Sam Shipley and Jeff Halmos at the creative helm. Because seersucker is intended for warm weather, fall collections weren’t in Haspel’s repertoire, and Shipley and Halmos are breaking into uncharted territory by giving the brand a presence for fall.

“The challenge was how to translate something that is so Southern and summer-oriented and make it feel genuine, but at the same time, give it a feeling of fall. It is kind of like saying, ‘How do you make a winter bathing suit?’ ” said Shipley.

To develop a Haspel-appropriate fall collection, Shipley and Halmos relied on soft, comfortable materials. Shipley highlighted the use of cashmere, merino wool and gabardine with brushed finishes in the collection. “Haspel’s price points are not designer [or] luxury, but they are also not midlevel contemporary. They are a little bit pricier than that, and we wanted to imbue the collection with value,” said Shipley. “This customer understands quality and is fashion savvy. He understands his personal style and has confidence in himself.”

Richard Chai made his debut as creative design consultant at Andrew Marc in the spring, but Andrew Marc president Stephen Budd said his real coming-out party for the brand is with the fall collection. Chai is “taking Andrew Marc back to its roots as a novelty resource with a New York City flavor,” said Budd. “There is a lot of innovative style in leather, in particular, which is just washed and beaten, and a product that is very relevant. There is a lot of wool, too.”

Budd singled out a wool coat that looks like it is layered over a leather jacket as indicative of the central roles wool and leather play in the fall assortment at Andrew Marc, and pointed to bomber jackets as especially vital for fall.

As retailers struggle to draw shoppers into stores, they are relying on brands to help — and the brands are often eager to do so.

Budd said Andrew Marc could help develop space in the stores with fixtures and signage, while Tommy Bahama’s Peter Leff, senior vice president of wholesale, explained, “We offer collateral, photo assets as well as counter cards and signs,” with the aim of giving stores Tommy Bahama areas. “It’s important to give the customer a visual of who Tommy Bahama is and what we stand for.”

Besides providing imagery, vendors help retailers by beefing up the categories that are showing growth. Bench, a 25-year-old brand out of Manchester, England, with a skateboarding heritage that arrived in the U.S. four years ago, is capitalizing on consumer interest in activewear. Burt Damsky, vice president of the U.S. market for Bench, said the brand crosses performance and fashion, adding pieces like jackets and sweaters to activewear assortments to complement more traditional activewear. Bench’s retail prices are primarily from $80 to $150, and Nordstrom, Equinox and Paragon Sports have started to carry the brand.

“We’ve helped [retailers] extend the definition of active,” said Damsky, elaborating, “We bridge the world between contemporary fashion, where they might have an Ella Moss or a C&C California, and the higher end, where there might be Stella McCartney. We fit in the middle. A woman can wear our clothes with sneakers and jeans. It gives her more versatility. She’s not necessarily going to work out in our top, but it is the top she’s going to wear to and from working out.”

Randa Accessories, a men’s accessories specialist that works on 75 brands, is building male accessories categories within stores. “We are in such an accessory cycle right now,” said Richard Carroll, vice president and creative director at Randa. “It is a great business and a high-margin business. Right now, the guy is decorating, and we are taking advantage of that.” He cited jewelry and bow ties as specific areas of opportunity.

For fall, Carroll outlined three major trend themes. The first is countryside classic, which evokes haberdashery goods with Donegal and herringbone wool. Animals, notably deer and elk, are popping up in prints, and horseback riding and fly-fishing are translated into patterns. The second theme is city sophisticate, comprising gray, navy and brown, with clean lines and shiny finishes on accessories, and the third is grunge, which includes a lot of black, tartan plaids, camouflage and belts with chunkier hardware.

Besides the growth in activewear and men’s accessories, more good news for retailers is that the pressure to keep prices low might be ebbing a bit. Brands showing in Las Vegas reported they weren’t sensing as much price pressure as in past seasons. Alicia Estrada, head designer and founder of Stop Staring, said, “I used to always be afraid to raise the prices. I wanted to give retailers a good shot at making a good markup. With that being said, I have learned that actually, when you have a demand, you can price things anywhere you want. We have had some high-end retailers that will say price doesn’t matter.”

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