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Frenetic Fashion Cycle Confuses
Consumers and Stores

By Anne D'Innocenzio   Associated Press
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NEW YORK — If the 1970s-inspired floral prints on the runways last fall and in the stores this month already look passe to you, you're probably not alone.

In recent years the women's fashion trend cycle — fueled by the Internet, the proliferation of knockoffs and consumers' itchiness for something new 24/7 — has accelerated to such a frenzied pace that trends are dying faster, sometimes even before they reach the store racks.

This spring season reflects the height of such fashion chaos, with an array of diverse trends arriving at retailers — from preppy chic and Grecian looks to retro 1920s and 1980s styles.

And the shortening shelf-life even now has designers desperately seeking to capture consumer attention by shipping cashmere sweaters in July and boots in the summer.

"Fashion democracy has exploded, and consumers want a great item whenever they can get it," said Wendy Leibmann, president of WSL Strategic Retail, a New York retail consulting firm. "They expect it from Donna Karan and Target at the same time."

Swedish retailer Hennes & Mauritz, which invaded the United States last year, is packing in customers for "disposable chic." H&M; often offers designer knockoffs before the originals are shipped to stores. Shoppers are seen stripping down in the aisles to try on items, and there are still long waits for the dressing rooms and the checkout lines.

Other foreign imports like Spanish-based Zara and Canadian chain Club Monaco also cater to a trendy customer with affordable designer-inspired clothing. The frenzied environment forced Limited Inc. to transform its once sleepy Express stores into a powerhouse trend machine, developing a design team that now numbers 50 people.

The new climate has made it imperative for department stores to clarify their own fashion strategy to stay competitive.

Two seasons ago, Macy's decided to not merchandise specific runway styles, opting instead to focus on "generic" trends that can be marketed throughout its fashion and home furnishings areas, Carolyn Moss, fashion director, said. This spring, Macy's is playing up flowers and bright colors.

"There is such a mishmash of fashion," Moss said. "You have to really make it more understandable for the consumer."

On the other hand, Bloomingdale's last year began more aggressively identifying key runway trends in its catalog and its stores. The spring campaign pinpoints such must-haves as denim skirts and sexy sandals.

"They're not trends anymore — it's like the passing of information," said Dee Dee Gordon, co-president of Look-Look LLC, a Los Angeles-based consulting firm that showcases various trends on the Internet for her corporate clients. Gordon gets feedback around the world from a network of 10,000 kids ages 14 to 30.

Gordon and others cite the Internet as the main driver fueling fashion's new speed. Consumers — and knock-off companies — can see runway looks within hours after the shows.

Trends now have an average lifespan of just eight to 12 weeks, instead of five months two years ago, according to Philip Kowalcyzk, director of retail services at Kurt Salmon Associates.

Some, like capri pants, which made a comeback at stores two years ago, have now become basics. Others, like pony prints, saw a quick death.

Some shoppers like Dana Richards, 22, of New York, said that she is now forced to shop closer to the season to get a better feel for which trends have more staying power. For spring, she plans to delay purchases of such items as black-and-white clothing and floral print pants until April. She'll probably buy them at H&M; because of the cheap prices.

"It's very confusing," Richards said."Some of the stuff already looks too old in the stores."

Her friend Schalanda Wallace, 25, only buys classic styles because she can't afford to have her closet look outdated after a season. "I am a wise shopper," she said.

Figuring out which trends will be long-standing is becoming more challenging for trendy retailers, too.

Paul Raffin, executive vice president of merchandising at Express, says that he and his design staff are constantly on the road in search of hot ideas. Express's spring lineup includes micromini skirts and Grecian-inspired knotted halters.

Wendy Red, a buyer at Up Against the Wall, a Washington,D.C.-based chain with 21 stores, offers a mix of both big brands such as DKNY and Polo Ralph Lauren along with smaller ones not found in department stores. Red has focused this spring on low-rise jeans, one-piece stretch denim suits, and T-shirts in glitter and rhinestone.

"The trends are happening almost too quickly. You don't have enough time to create volume," she said. "By the time it gets onto the floor, kids are already tired."

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