NEW YORK (Reuters) - The U.S. recession may have made consumers cautious about spending, but they are not playing it safe when it comes to fashion, say buyers for top department stores.
Retail fashion directors told Reuters that as the spring and summer collections for 2010 are unveiled at fashion shows in New York this week, they are watching for bright colors, "wow" pieces and versatile styles to satisfy their customers.
"One of the overall trends that we're seeing is that the customers are not looking for wardrobe basics," said Colleen Sherin, fashion market director for Saks Fifth Avenue. "They are working with what they already have in their closet and they're supplementing with special pieces.
"That's what we're having success with and looking to go after as we go through the spring market," she said, adding that consumers want versatility, such as a blouse that could be worn in the day with a jacket and accessorized for the night.
Consumer confidence has plunged in the past year as the United States suffers its worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Sales at U.S. retailers have fallen every month for a year.
"(Consumers) are purchasing with more thought," said Julie Gilhart, senior vice president and fashion director at Barneys New York. "If something is expensive, it better look and feel the price, more than just having a 'label.'"
"We are all looking at things with fresh new eyes," Gilhart said, adding that at New York Fashion Week she was seeking clothes with "emotional depth, pieces that can make a customer look twice."
Marigay McKee, director for fashion and beauty at Harrods department store in London, brought a team of four to New York Fashion Week and said she was keen to see how the financial crisis may have influenced the latest collections.
"New York was quite staid and down key and quite simple last time, and I'm very interested to see what they're going to be showing in this crisis that has hit America, particularly New York, quite badly," McKee said.
"We're still looking to see our classic staples," she said, adding that Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors and Oscar de la Renta were very popular with London shoppers. "We will be looking to buy the luxury stand-out pieces from all of those brands."
McKee said Harrods' ready-to-wear fashion sales had remained stable, but times were tougher for menswear.
Eric Jennings, Saks Fifth Avenue vice president and fashion director menswear, said business was slowly picking up after what seemed like a "freefall" for several months, but that Saks was planning to cut its buying by about 20 percent.
"What (the recession) has allowed us to do is clean house in a sense and really take a close look at what's working, what's not working, which lines are performing, which styles are performing," he said.
"We are buying about 20 percent less than we were last year, overall, as a company," Jennings said.
Consumers are demanding more quality and more accessible price points within their favorite brands, he said.
Designer Jason Wu, best known for creating U.S. first lady Michelle Obama's white one-shoulder gown for the balls on Inauguration Day, said "the mantra is quality over quantity."
Consumers have closets full of clothes and are only looking to add items with a "unique quality," added Ken Downing, senior vice president and fashion director of Neiman Marcus.
"If there's newness, if it has a real specialness, if it has a unique design quality, it's really where she's focusing her fashion dollars right now," Downing said.
"We are looking with a sharp eye at what we're purchasing," he added. "As the demand continues to be less than it has been in some time, it would be irresponsible to overbuy."
Additional reporting by Basmah Fahim in London, editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Alison Williams