“The worst is behind us” was the prevailing sentiment at the FAME and Moda Manhattan trade shows, held over three days this month at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York.

This story first appeared in the May 27, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“[These] shows beat most people’s expectations, and they exceeded our expectations, as well,” said Britton Jones, president and chief executive of Business Journals Inc., which organizes FAME, Moda and Accessoriestheshow. “People are starting to feel that…things are starting to improve.”

Overall, exhibitor attendance was down at both shows between 15 and 20 percent, with retail attendance down an estimated 7 to 9 percent, Jones said.

But exhibitors and show organizers alike looked to the high caliber of show attendees — not sales figures or attendance statistics, both of which had generally diminished — for signs of life across these lower-price categories. Said Jones, “The quality of attendance has never been higher. We even had people from Saks, Nordstrom [and] Dillard’s coming in on Sunday, which is almost unheard of. People are studying the market harder [and] weighing their alternatives more carefully before they actually write orders these days.”

One such attendee was Marla Lengle, owner of Lola’s Boutique in Point Pleasant Beach, N.J., who once shopped mostly at contemporary shows but now does about 90 to 95 percent of her ordering at FAME. “Every year, lines and quality were getting better at FAME,” she said, adding that last year was her five-year-old store’s strongest yet. With gentler price points, she found, “[Customers] are willing to buy a top and shoes and a bag — you have a whole outfit for the same price as that $200 pair of jeans.”

Indeed, for junior and young contemporary vendors at FAME, strong sales on immediate deliveries as well as some new faces — including those higher-end retailers — were encouraging.

New accounts were one plus for young contemporary line BB Dakota and its junior spin-off Jack, whose sales teams brought both summer immediates and fall to FAME. “Higher-end boutiques that didn’t want to [carry us] now have to,” said the firm’s southeast sales representative Paul Simeon. He emphasized the upside of their category for such retailers, who can still achieve relatively inexpensive price points even with markups at three or four times wholesale. Simeon highlighted BB Dakota’s boyfriend blazer, which wholesales for $36, and Jack’s reissued “Twilight” jacket, which appeared in the film of the same name, as strong sellers at the show.

Junior apparel firm Juno only brought summer to Fame, where sales had been “so-so,” according to owner Juno Chang, who estimated that new business accounted for 20 percent of overall sales. He cited burnout tops, flowy frocks and color-blocked bandage-style dresses as bestsellers.

Jay An, sales manager for Los Angeles-based Double Zero, which had strong sales of a military-style jacket ($28.50) among other trend pieces, said about 15 percent of sales came from new accounts, while eco-conscious label Alternative Apparel’s East Coast retail brand manager Ainsley Cohen estimated that 20 percent of sales came from first-timers.

Cohen said more contemporary stores have been “filling in with items that offer a lower price point,” including the label’s trademark burnout T-shirts and wraps, which “won’t throw off” their customers used to shopping at the higher end.

Meanwhile, at Moda, it appeared to be unique items, including tops with handcrafted details, and long-standing relationships with retailers that continued to drive sales and raise spirits in the mostly better and bridge markets. Jennifer Huggard, owner of Tyler House in Raleigh, N.C., noted the “more consistent quality level” of the vendors. “Sometimes,” she said, “fewer [vendors] can be better.”

“This is the cheap and cheerful part of my buy,” noted Carol Brown, merchandising manager for Barbara Katz in Boca Raton, Fla., who was shopping mainly for immediates. “I’m looking for something my customer can buy without a lot of thought.”

Tops, especially novelty tops, jackets and sweaters, led her list. “Last fall, I was saying, ‘Pants are props,’” said Brown. “[We did] 10 tops to one pair of pants — it’s the economy, and there’s not that much newness in pants.”

Tyler House’s Huggard also set her sights above-the-belt. “When I go [to the May trade shows], my mind is on accessories, and I use Moda to fill in my gaps for fall,” she said, adding that for apparel, she was looking for color and item tops to “add fluff around the core” of her business. Though she shopped for immediate as well as fall deliveries, she was underwhelmed with fall’s color palette. “I don’t feel like there is as much color or enough happy things in the market,” she said. “I have had to work hard to layer color into my assortment.”

For their part, exhibitors such as Noblu’s Al Simball saw fewer new customers during the typically slower May show. “It was iffy,” said Simball, who showed the San Francisco-based company’s fall lineup of Asian-influenced separates, artsy knits and wrap coats. Despite this, he said first-quarter sales beat year-ago numbers. One possible reason? “It’s an art-to-wear niche.”

Similarly, Covelo Clothing’s fall line, which featured embroidered and zipper-accented boiled wool outerwear, sold well. Company representative Doc Porter called sales at the show “excellent, lowercase,” noting that retailers had been responding to “unusual” merchandise in better to bridge categories.

Established knitwear label Michael Simon brought its charming, often handspun holiday/resort and fall collections to the show, where sales executive Sharron Roberts said retailers reacted positively to new chiffon pieces. She cited the label’s “good base” and use of unexpected embellishments such as beading as reasons for its good performance with retailers looking for special items.

The experience was similarly positive at Donna Morgan, where representatives saw strong sales of their signature matte jersey tunic dresses, many in Pucci-style prints, for June deliveries. Steady customers bought as far out as holiday.

Perhaps owing to her line’s relative infancy, Kristin Williams, whose preppy loungewear company K. Madison made its Moda debut after a “frightening” January launch, said her ultrasoft MicroModal tunics, dresses and pajama bottoms in bold geometric prints (ranging from $38 to $55) had scored with specialty boutiques and buyers from gift shops and resorts. The Vineyard Vines alum pointed to the line’s versatility as a selling point.

One of her dresses, for example, can double as nightgown or beach cover-up — or as an outfit for any casual activity. That’s a quite a bonus considering, as Williams put it, “People are staying home more. They’re not going out.”