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Indie buyers dare to be different

Womenswear indies are determined to maintain a point of difference from the high street by making bold spring 11 buying decisions and shaking up their offers

When it comes to satisfying the customer - and the bottom line - there is no compromise for womens-wear indies. Despite the looming VAT rise in January and concerns over inflation, independent womenswear buyers are heading into the spring 11 buying season adamant that fortune will favour the brave.

While the branded denim market has experienced a tough couple of years, the womenswear sector has been comparatively buoyant. According to research firm Kantar Worldpanel Fashion, the total value of the womenswear market rose 3% to £8.1bn over the 24 weeks to May 23, while branded womenswear sales fell slightly by 1% to £1.2bn.

But independent buyers are not resting on their laurels and are, instead, approaching the spring 11 season with enthusiasm, gusto and guts.

Time for change

“I’m looking for a bit of a change,” says Melanie Trevett, owner of contemporary womenswear indie Cristina in Weybridge, Surrey. “Sticking to the same brands that do reasonably well and give you good credit terms isn’t enough any more. The high street is getting stronger and mid-market shoppers are spending money on their children.”

Indeed, own-label womenswear retailers have seen the market grow 4% to £6.9bn compared with 2009, according to Kantar.

Trevett recently bought “an amazing” cardigan from high street giant H&M after seeing one of her customers wearing an outfit from the Swedish chain, and knows she is battling against similar behaviour from her customers.

“There’s not a lot of [brand] loyalty,” she says. As a result, Trevett has decided to invest some of her budget into travelling the world searching for “the next big thing”. She explains: “I’m going to do all the shows, but not just the commercial ones, where you bump into the same people. I have my eye on some Argentine labels and I have a friend in Brazil who keeps an eye out [for exciting brands], which have mark-ups of 4.5. I’m going to do my own sourcing.”

Deryane Tadd, owner of St Albans womenswear boutique The Dressing Room, also intends to add new labels. “My budget will be flat against last year and I’ll increase my short-order budget from 30% to 35%, but I’ll also be looking to mix up my brands for spring 11,” she says. “Normally we take on two new labels each season but next season I might take about four. I’m researching at the moment to see what catches my imagination.”

The brands currently in favour with Tadd are American Vintage, Current/Elliott and Antik Batik. “I’m looking at brands that work with retailers, that react to in-season [sales] and swap product accordingly. [On the product side] American Vintage is a great layering brand, so very wearable and versatile, while Current/Elliott is more trend-led with an edgier element.”

Anne Furbank, owner of the eponymous womenswear indie in Newmarket in Suffolk and Buckden in Cambridgeshire, is taking an even harder-nosed approach towards underperforming brands. “I’m going to cut out completely the brands that haven’t reached a certain level of sell-through across the last three seasons. I’m not even going to give them a look - I’m going to be ruthless,” she says. “It means that we then have the budget to spend on exciting, new labels.”

Furbank will be scrutinising every piece of product within those new - and existing - labels to ensure they are sellable. She’ll be asking herself who will be buying it, when they will be buying it and if it is value for money. “Marc Cain is without doubt a brand that can answer all three,” she says.

Like Tadd, Furbank will also be buying right through the season and will spread her budget across those brands that can offer four ranges instead of the traditional two, a sentiment echoed by James Leslie, co-founder of three-store women’s denim indie Trilogy, and one of

Drapers’ new columnists. Last week, Leslie said it came as no surprise to him that Trilogy’s best-performing brands were those that developed at least four collections a year and sell product that is suited to customers’ needs right now.

Indies are relying more and more on brands that can tailor their approach to suit individual independent customers. Trevett points to LA label Supertrash, on which Cristina has had a 100% sell-through, as an example. “It hasn’t over-marketed itself and it looks to stores that will merchandise its product well - so many people are all about money and try to get themselves stocked when a nearby shop already sells them,” Trevett explains, adding that Supertrash’s product is spot on, both in terms of trend and price. “We had a £130 kaftan that looked like it was from Missoni, and 62 customers requested it. It is offering something that the high street can’t so we’ve increased our order from last season.”

A change in the attitude of shoppers is also key to how indies plan their buying season. Furbank’s occasionwear business has been flourishing over the past few seasons, but daywear has been weaker by comparison. “Occasionwear is big business for us because price isn’t the big issue, whereas on separates value for money is so important,” she explains. “Our customers are happy to buy a pair of trousers from us but a couple of tops from Primark.”

This attitude is reflected both in the buying patterns of the Anne Furbank customer and the average shopper. “Units are down, but spend is up, and it’s not because prices have gone up. It’s because the customer understands they are getting value from the wearability of a product - the jacket, the suit, the coat are all investment pieces,” she says.

Confidence is key

Figures from Kantar back this up. With the exception of the under-25s, the total womenswear market fell 2% in terms

of volume, from 742.7 million units to 728 million. The 25 to 34 age group was particularly hard hit, falling 7%. Tadd puts this down to increased mortgage commitments, which meant they had less disposable cash to spend on shopping, whereas the under-25s are living with their parents for longer and still have money to spend. “It’s a trend that is set to continue because it’s difficult for first-time buyers to get on the property ladder,” says Tadd, who adds that the average units bought at her store has fallen 6% in the past year.

But there is plenty to take comfort from - and to take advantage of too. The under-25s market is spending more than it did last year, and buying more units, while all other age groups, apart from between 25 and 34, are growing in terms of spend. This, together with innovative brands and brave and confident retailers, means there is plenty to play for come spring 11.

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