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No sure shots amid moving targets

The atmosphere at Moda in Birmingham this week painted a pretty accurate picture of the challenges faced by the mainstream independent market - particularly the womenswear sector.

Whether your experience as an exhibitor was a positive or a negative one, the underlying reasons appeared to be the same: that buyers were being incredibly cautious, dropping some brands and holding back more of their budget for in-season buying.

If you were one of the brands that stayed on buyers' shopping lists, then you probably enjoyed a pretty upbeat show. Several stands reported that although they may have played host to fewer customers, they were writing bigger contracts as buyers committed more whole-heartedly to collections they trusted.

Of course, staying on-list isn't easy, and there was evidence that some suppliers were struggling to match their offer to the needs and mood of the market.

Many mainstream indies realise that their market is shifting (getting younger in taste, if not in physical age) and their clients are starting to favour a more contemporary and upscale look, which they can buy at great-value prices these days from the likes of Marks & Spencer. But the travails of the autumn 06 season are still very fresh in buyers' minds. While it may have been advisable for some to find the guts to go for something slightly different, to appeal to their moving target market and to differentiate themselves from the multiples, many were just not ready to take the plunge.

I visited one womenswear brand that had undergone a radical rejuvenation in recent years and was offering some great-quality products with delightful (but not too wacky) quirks that were complemented by some refreshing splashes of colour. But the label's representative reported that it was proving to be a step too far for most of the Moda faithful, and that trade had been slack at the event's mid-point on Monday lunchtime.

The brand's previous incarnation, he said, had been deemed "too classic" and its new look was, apparently, just a bit too far out. His frustration at falling between these two stools was tangible, but at the same time he knew he'd made the right move for his brand and that the market would start to move in the same direction in the coming seasons. He can take heart from the menswear market, which has already gone through the same transition.

But offering something a little bit different was not necessarily a bad thing for those brands operating in the niches. Occasionwear and eveningwear labels seemed to be very upbeat indeed - and I'm sure that wasn't just down to the free pink champagne on the John Charles stand. In footwear, those in the comfort category reported a brisk trade.

But this all makes perfect sense, doesn't it? These two product categories are a high value-added sell. They require the retailer to possess an intimate knowledge of the needs of the customer and to offer a level of service that is second to none. And as we all know, that's exactly what all the good indies are best at.

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