Thursday, June 01, 2006

Macy's Buyers Are So Excited About Crinkle Cotton


ON a typical day 30,000 people pass through Macy's in Herald Square. Some are tourists, who clearly have not learned the etiquette about standing five abreast in the aisles, and a lot of people are just there to kill time or use the bathroom. Most, though, are on a mission, and they scatter, like homesteaders, in the direction of toasters, prom dresses, golf shirts, pen sets and whatever else 30,000 hearts suddenly desire.

But who monitors their progress? Who knows if half the teenage population of New Jersey has decided, practically overnight, that plain black leggings are uncool and the thing now is print leggings with stretch lace at the knees? Macy's and its 84 branches in the eastern United States contribute heavily to the total sales of its corporate parent, Federated Department Stores, which last year were $22 billion. Someone has to follow the leggings.

Last Thursday, shortly after lunch, about 130 Macy's fashion buyers and division managers gathered in a windowless room on the 16th floor in Herald Square. Retailers, as anyone who has tried to get one on the phone before a holiday weekend knows, love meetings, and the purpose of this one was to discuss what styles had been selling well in the last month. The losers, like feminine blouses, had been quietly dispatched at a Monday morning meeting.

Even though summer sales are under way, Macy's, like its competitors, can continue to reorder hot items, often with a turnaround time as short as a month. So the best-seller meeting also serves as a gauge of future traffic. And while other stores hold meetings — the Saks buyers get together in New York on Tuesday mornings at 9:30 — the Macy's meeting is somewhat different in that it gives executives an overview of what's selling in every department, from moderate-priced sportswear and juniors to shoes and bags. As Karen Smith-Harvey, the senior vice president of the store's fashion office, said, "We believe in head-to-toe dressing at Macy's."

The décor of the room certainly confirmed this no-nonsense attitude. Water pipes and electrical conduits hung exposed from the ceiling. Seven or eight mismatched tables were arranged in a semicircle, before a couple of rolling racks of clothes, and there were additional banquet chairs along the back wall. Coffee and bottled water had been set out, along with a deli platter of fruit and cheese cubes.

Several other things could be observed about Macy's executives. Their number was almost equally divided in gender, they were predominantly white, and the median age appeared to be about 38. The men favored short haircuts and dark suits with white or pale blue shirts. Their physiques were soft, perhaps from riding on the seats of commuter trains. The women, on the whole, looked in better shape, and their attire fell on the side of tasteful rather than fashionable.

Ms. Smith-Harvey stood up and, after some brief remarks, turned the floor over to Lou Mastrogiacomo, the senior vice president for bridge and better sportswear, which covers career clothes. He quickly identified the main trends (tunic tops, dresses, novelty T-shirts).

He was followed by Christine Agate, who began, "I'm the bridge buyer, and I'm so excited!" Pointing to several items, including a black DKNY dress and an Anne Klein crinkle cotton skirt, Ms. Agate said feminine details would continue to be important. She spoke of prospects for greater "penetration in the third quarter," longer jacket lengths, and then said, brightly, "That's it for bridge sportswear."

A tall, amiable-looking man got up and said, "Hi, I'm Edan." Like the other speakers, Edan Goldenberg, the buyer for the trendy Impulse department, began with a review of the number of units of merchandise he had in stock and on order. To a layman these numbers sound wild. Fifty-seven thousand units of better sportswear! But to a buyer for a store the size of Macy's, they indicate a great sense of depth, backup. Eighty thousand T-shirts — in the pipeline! — is not just a number. It's an expression of confidence.

Mr. Goldenberg identified pinstripes as a fresh trend — "This is a huge category for us," he said ruggedly — and also noted that customers were buying a lot of matte jersey dresses and separates.

Someone in the audience asked him if there was a best-selling color.

"Black," Mr. Goldenberg replied, a little sadly.

At several times during the meeting, the buyers struck an evangelical note, like a coach before a big game. The shoe buyer said, "We really feel good about patent for fall."

When Stacy Pollack, the divisional merchandise manager for dresses and suits, got up to speak, she said, "This is really the year of the dress." (Her colleagues at Saks and other stores would agree with her; dresses, from high-fashion sack styles to sexy wraps, have been a hot item all spring.)

Ms. Pollack, a trim woman who bears a slight resemblance to a young Cloris Leachman, mentioned other things her team felt good about, including ruched evening dresses with rhinestone trim. She predicted that they would be popular for homecoming and rush.

"Rush?" an executive in the audience whispered.

Later Ms. Smith-Harvey explained that the upbeat tone was fairly typical in the retail and garment businesses. "You have to believe in what you're selling," she said. Blunter words were probably delivered over the losers, but why cry over spilt milk? Or throw good money after bad?

Ultimately, the enthusiasm is an indication of where the dollars are being spent. During the meeting, leggings were a source of surprise and excitement. Macy's sold 2,000 pairs the previous week. Customers, filled up on black leggings, now wanted them in stripes and floral prints with lace. "My niece was the first one to ask me about them," Ms. Smith-Harvey said. " 'Aunt Karen, can't you get them in lace?' "

She was asked where her niece lives.

"New Jersey, central New Jersey," she said mildly.


  1. Wow, leggings with lace at the bottom? It is like I'm 12 all over again. In my 7th grade picture I'm wearing a yellow jersey mini dress with black leggings with lace at the bottom and unlaced keds with a black turtle neck. I look like a bumble bee.

    I can't believe it is all coming back now. I guess I really am getting old.

  2. Everywhere I turn, young people are looking like my older cousins' yearbook photos. Fashion is truly cylical.