Separates and accessories were among the most popular items. The big sellers in showrooms at the Cooper Design Space, New Mart, Gerry Building and California Market Center included tops, skirts and shorts, as well as handbags.
Many retailers said they were shopping for current season needs rather than future inventory, and were scaling back and taking a wait-and-see attitude before committing to new merchandise or large orders.
"We really have to go for what sells, we can't take chances right now," said Martie Travis of the Shark's Grin in Morro Bay, Calif. "Summer is our biggest season and we're waiting to see what happens."
The dominance of the dress appeared to wane as buyers scouted for skirts and tops.
Among accessories brands, Pam Gregorio, an account specialist at Los Angeles-based Lockheart, said the company was focusing on achieving strong sell-throughs, not bombarding the market, and building name recognition with consumers.
"If somebody were to buy four and sell them all, that's great; and if somebody wants eight and only sells four, that's not so great," she said.
The cautious approach is a reflex option from the buyers' playbook, along with hope for a turnaround.
"Buyers now are cutting back, and they don't buy enough for the stores, so when it's June they will come into the market and scramble for at-once merchandise," said Ilse Metchek, executive director of the California Fashion Association. "We'll probably have a better June than we already do."
For all the uneasiness, there were bright spots. Eco-friendly and value-oriented apparel did well, with buyers also focused on versatility as well as value at the Designers & Agents show.
Tokyo's Rita Flora offered a cashmere-Tencel scoopneck wholesaling for $58, and New York's Binetti a mixed light gray double-faced cashmere with lime green fake fur and magenta silk in a quirky vest for $219. "It's an easy piece that you can wear with shorts or denim or a turtleneck," said Luz Solarez, who manages sales for Binetti.