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Boho 2.0 and the Return of the Preppy Set Pattern for US Fashion

An evolved form of the popular boho look, a passion for preppy fashion and a hankering for brighter colours characterised the New York Stitch show, although concerns remained about just how much hard-up US consumers were willing to spend.

Photo: Stitch: Boho still on the go, while the preppy look is back.
Stitch: Boho still on the go, while the preppy look is back.
Photo: Stitch: Boho still on the go, while the preppy look is back.
Stitch: Boho still on the go, while the preppy look is back.

While 'boho' was still well represented at the New York Stitch – a dedicated ready-to-wear show, a number of exhibitors noted a distinct evolution in the look, with a notable move towards the more elegant. By contrast, several other exhibitors seemed to be banking on mainstream 'preppy' styles as a safe bet for the US market, while brighter colours were also widely seen as making something of a comeback.

Overall, though, the majority of exhibitors were still concerned that trading conditions remained tough, with order volumes down in an oversupplied and fragmented market. As ever, though, there was also an awareness that higher end customers remained largely unaffected by any economic worries.

The light, floaty fabrics, tie-dyed prints and ethnic detailing synonymous with boho were all well-represented at the event, with many exhibitors showing this continuing trend and still enjoying impressive sales. According to Romina Habermann, Owner of the Florida-based Skemo resort wear brand, demand in the sector remained robust. Singling out one particular style, she said: "Kaftans are doing amazingly well for us."

Roni Rabl, Founder and Merchandising Director of Roni Rabl, a New York fashion importer and distributor, also acknowledged the continuing relevance of boho, but maintained there had been something of an evolution. She said: "A few seasons ago, the boho chic look started to be very strong, heavily ethnic, flowy and the market is now a little saturated with this.

"I call the new look – which is working much better for us – 'elegant bohemian'. It's much more delicate. It takes in the tie-dye with the print, the sweaters with paint and tie-dye in multi-colour options, as well as shirts in very fine material with light trims, not necessarily embroidery and certainly not 'in your face' ethnic embroidery. These are changes that, while subtle, have to be worked into a collection."

While boho continued to work well for many exhibitors, some relied on more tried and tested approaches to secure sales in the US, a market known to be more restrained in its tastes than its European counterpart. Guillaume Jamet, Wholesale North America Vice-president for Desigual, a Spanish casual clothing brand, said: "We have an extensive line, so we have taken note of what is selling best in North America, as well as what is doing well in Asia and Europe. Overall, they tend to be a little more conservative here.

"Here customers want more preppy, more clean looks and more simple style. The Europeans, though, are more open to bright colours and tend to be more playful with what they wear."

While the preppy look may be popular, Jamet noted a shift in colour preferences in the sector, saying: "The trend actually is all about colours and we are all about colours. Currently, everybody wants to brighten up their days and we are very happy to hear that."

Cathy Hewlett, a designer for London-based Out of Xile was another to note a distinct difference in colour tastes between Europeans and US customers, saying: "My look goes down very well in Belgium, Switzerland and Ireland. My end customer – who I know quite well, as I've engaged over a lot of years – she's usually quite high up in either education or health or the public sector. She wants to look the top of her tree and she wants to look creative.

"Our US agent wanted a very monochrome pick, whereas in Europe they like pastels, something very pretty. They are quite different markets in that respect."

The US, though, is a huge and far from homogenous market, with some fashion professionals maintaining that tastes vary considerably across the country. Sue Horn, Sales Manager for Donna Degnan, a New York-based specialist in women's contemporary clothing, said: "New York is a little bit more edgy, more serious. California, by contrast, is a little bit more casual and laid back, while the Midwest is a little bit looser and easier."

One item seemingly universally popular was yoga pants, something more than well represented at the show. Denise Delzell, Wholesale Importer for Germany's Raffaello Rossi, a dedicated woman's pants' brand, was just one to note their popularity, saying: "Our candy yoga pant is probably our number one item. It's very easy to wear, with pockets, and stretch – and stretch is good.

Photo: Boho 2.0 from Roni Rabl.
Boho 2.0 from Roni Rabl.
Photo: Boho 2.0 from Roni Rabl.
Boho 2.0 from Roni Rabl.
Photo: The ubiquitous yoga pant.
The ubiquitous yoga pant.
Photo: The ubiquitous yoga pant.
The ubiquitous yoga pant.

"Yoga pants are for, I would say, anyone from their early 20s right up to their 80s. It's very popular. We have a pretty broad customer range. The brand hits a lot of demographics."

The fact that Raffaello Rossi is from across the Atlantic plays well with American customers, with Delzell saying: "All Americans want something that's European, whether that's clothes or cars."

Other exhibitors trading internationally noted a number of more practical considerations when it came to doing business in North America rather than in other parts of the world. Learning this the hard way was Happy Rainy Days, a Dutch raincoat brand that was in the early stages of moving into the US.

Ellis van der Burgh, the company's representative in the US, said: "We thought sizing would be a little bit different. It's a European cut sizing, which some American people think is a little bit small, but it is standard so we always say up it one size. Despite that, we still see that small and medium are still the most purchased sizes. We thought it would go up a little bit, but no.

"We do free shipping to the continental US and we can deliver within a few days wherever you are. In Europe you can't do that. You can't easily send from England to Germany, for instance, as there's always restrictions. Here, though, there aren't."

Others at the show also had issues with sizing the in the US market. Martin Venzal, Owner of Duet, a Florida-based accessories line, said: "My customers tend to be older ladies and a lot of them are larger women. It's not unusual for some of them to lose a lot of weight – 40 or 50 pounds – and suddenly want to dress sexier."

There were some at the show, though, who thought that international differences were becoming less pronounced. Addressing this, Habermann said: "Thanks to the internet, everybody sees everything. We are seeing the effects of that a lot more now. When something does well here, now it also does well in Europe."

Rabl, too, saw digital media as an increasingly powerful force in the fashion world. Explaining how she capitalises on this, she said: "We give a social media service to our customers. We believe in it and we think it's of number one importance today when it comes to promoting your business.

"Conventional advertising is going downhill. It did not find a way to keep its promises, while social media has proven that it can."

"In our case, we were on social media like most other people. It was a case of: "Okay, I'll have a company Facebook page and somebody will put something on it if they remember." Then, eight or ten months ago, we took on a social media person as a freelancer and paid her to work with our customers. Within a few months, a very strong community of customers was formed."

Social media innovations aside, many at the show still believed trading conditions continued to be difficult, particularly in certain sectors. Highlighting this, Habermann said: "The economy is bad everywhere. Now, you need to be a creator. Nowadays, if you are a follower, you won't really survive.

"It's not like before. Then you used to copy and do whatever and everybody still bought it because there was a lot more disposable money. Nowadays, you don't have that."

Rabl also emphasised the need to be ultra-competitive in today's market, saying: "The markets are very saturated, largely because the demand is not as big as the offer. The offer in the market is for far more product than people are willing to buy. At the same time, customers are getting fewer because so many people have financial problems."

While much of the fashion market may still be feeling the pain, some segments remain resolutely buoyant – particularly those that have a "Made in the USA" endorsement. Picking up on this, Horn said: "While these items are definitely more expensive, many customers appreciate the fact that they've been made in the US.

"For the people who have money, we feel that nothing really affects them. We sell to the better specialist stores and their customers have money, so our sales have not suffered as a result of financial concerns."

Photo: Stitch: In time to preview what to wear in the coming season.
Stitch: In time to preview what to wear in the coming season.
Photo: Stitch: In time to preview what to wear in the coming season.
Stitch: In time to preview what to wear in the coming season.

The Stitch show was held at New York City's Jacob J Javits Center from 19-21 September 2015. The event featured 150 exhibitors and attracted buyers from across the US east coast and beyond.

James O'Donnell, Special Correspondent, New York

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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