By  on September 29, 2005

School is well under way across the nation, but young women are still stocking up their fall wardrobes, and retailers report brisker business than ever for both the academic and working worlds.

Despite the triple whammy of hurricanes, the high price of gasoline and warm weather throughout much of the country, specialty store retailers that sell upscale merchandise said sales in September are in some cases up by more than 30 percent over last year.

Slimmer silhouettes in jeans; denim skirts; plenty of velvet, especially in shrunken blazers; fur vests; cashmere knits, and embroidered cardigans and sweaters have been selling quickly, said retailers. Women appear to be saying goodbye to bohemian looks and embracing more substantial styles, such as cardigans, sweaters, velvet jackets and corduroy jeans.

Although August comps across all retail channels were regarded as lukewarm, specialty retailers, in particular, pointed to continued strength in denim as a key driver of sales. And denim continues to show momentum, as do many other cold-weather items.

"Where the girly trendy was a scream before, now it's a whisper," observed Rachel Li, owner of Elle Style on Newbury Street in Boston. "As the weather gets colder, customers are turning away from bohemian dresses for something more substantial. Colors and details are less flamboyant. They're choosing more muted colors, blouses with touches of lace. Jeans have also become a big focus again."

Rock & Republic jeans, Liquid's chiffon blouses and silk wrap tops have been performing well, as have Halé Bob dresses.

"We are doing tremendous numbers on gauchos for the 15- to 25-year-old shoppers," said Stacey Manganella, buyer for 15 Jasmine Sola stores in Boston and its environs. She's also had strong results from velvet-wrapped bangles, heavy gold-plated chains and vintage-style charm necklaces. Interest in metallic leathers has shifted from silver and gold to pewter and bronze.

"Boy beater [tank top] tunics worn belted over denim is a look that's also doing big numbers for us," she added.

Beth Cohen, assistant manager at Intermix, a six-unit contemporary retailer in Manhattan, said she's having a "superstrong season," selling everything from denim and jackets to sweaters and T-shirts. In the denim area, straight-leg styles are moving the fastest, with brands such as Paige Premium Denim, Taverniti and the new J Brand doing well."Fur is huge," she said. Intermix is doing well with furs from Adrienne Landau and Cassin, as well as fur scarves, wraps, vests and accents. As for blazers, Iisli's classic-cut blazer is doing well.

"We walk around like giddy kids," said Cohen, noting her customers are also gobbling up Chloé, Stella McCartney and Valentino bags, and want to be the first to have them.

Beth Buccini, co-owner of Kirna Zabête, a women's specialty boutique in New York, said business is running 36 percent ahead this fall. The store has done especially well with its handbag business, and lines such as Derek Lam and Proenza Schouler. "We reordered the Chloé boots three times," she said. The boutique also has done very well with Sari Gueron knits and dresses, and has sold a lot of vests and jackets with fur.

"Velvet is selling really well, especially [Jean Paul] Gaultier's velvet kimonos and Derek Lam's velvet jackets," said Buccini.

Fashion might sometimes get short shrift in Washington, but local retailers said the back-to-school crowd is dressing up its autumnal look after a laid-back summer style.

The shift seems to be one of degree and a move to a smartened-up casual.

"We're seeing the same kinds of looks, but they're just a little more dressed up," said Kim Stern, a buyer for Up Against the Wall, which has 23 stores in the area. That means a look that's laid back with lots of layers and that includes fashion touches such as lace. "Anything cropped" is selling well, said Stern, who pointed to jackets, shrugs and little blazers.

Novelty T-shirts also are continuing their run, with shoppers snatching up looks with well-known characters, such as shirts from Junkfood that feature Bamm-Bamm and Pebbles from "The Flintstones."

Still, it might be early in balmy Washington — where the temperatures remain in the 80s — to think too much about fall.

"It's still so hot out," said Stern. "I don't know how many people are buying fall. Our customer is more buy now, wear now."

In Bethesda, Md., Daisy Too co-owner Fabiana Zelaya said she was selling "an enormous, insane amount of T-shirts [and] a truckload of jeans." Shoppers also are picking up tweed and houndstooth as well as tailored pants with the waist reaching "a smidge higher" than the low-cut looks that have reigned lately. Many back-to-schoolers are snatching up "lots of cashmere," said Zelaya, but denim is still the store's top school-bound item.Business has been good, she said, though it did drop off for a bit while gas prices surged in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Beyond that abnormal spike, higher overall gas prices appear to be taking a toll.

"People are being a little more cautious this year," said Zelaya. "I used to just get in my car and go to the mall, and now I don't."

Heat, hurricanes and gas prices seem to be having little effect on Freda Greenbaum, whose A Nose for Clothes has eight locations throughout Florida and Georgia. "July and August have been the best business we've had in years, and September seems to be continuing in that way," she said. While exact sales figures were not available, she did cite "high-double-digit increases" for comp sales.

Greenbaum's customers are shopping for newness, she said, and she finds that knits are selling particularly well, especially those with novelty constructions or surface interest. Sweater coats, wraps and anything made out of cashmere get a lot of attention; lines such as One Girl Who are selling now for construction rather than color.

"Novelty fabrics are definitely driving business" for trends such as Russian looks, Greenbaum said. Summer's bohemian skirt has moved into fall with tiers of burnout velvet, and fur vests, shearling novelty pieces and chunky beaded necklaces contribute to what Greenbaum calls "that Dr. Zhivago influence." Of note for her customers have been a crochet and fur vest by BCBG and a pair of cropped Seven jeans with fur trim at the bottom.

Greenbaum said most of the men's wear-influenced fall clothes she sees have a more outdoorsy look, which doesn't sell as well with her Florida customers, but that she has had some success with soft cuffed trousers and structured gaucho pants, which are the new length for fall, especially when softened with novelty sweaters or velvet blazers.

"What I'm seeing this season is the willingness of the customer to do combinations," she said, giving an example of a pair of cropped jeans with a men's wear shirt and a shrunken jacket in burnout velvet. "They pillage a little from each style. We call it the metropolitan pirate."Velvet also is helping drive the business at Neiman Marcus in Texas, where fall sales have been very healthy.

"The customer is responding very strongly to the trends across all the categories," said Ann Stordahl, executive vice president and general merchandise manager for women's fashion at Neiman's in Dallas.

In addition to velvet looks across all categories, bestsellers at the luxury chain include skirts with novelty and volume, including the bubble; fur and fur trim; Victorian-inspired frilly white blouses; denim jeans, and pants in new lengths, such as gauchos and cropped styles.

"Velvet has been strong everywhere from couture to contemporary, in more structured looks such as jackets, but also with more casual looks in tops," she said. "It's selling in both typical velvet and panne."

Novelty is driving denim, including pretty embellishments and rugged distressed styles, as well as new colors and washes. Top performers have been True Religion, Antik Denim, Paige Premium Denim and Seven For All Mankind.

At Julian Gold, a chain of four women's specialty stores in Texas with headquarters in San Antonio, sales are running 10 to 15 percent up, led by contemporary sportswear, short jackets, suits, evening separates, shoes, boots and jewelry.

"Sportswear is where it's at, and the mixing of designer with bridge and contemporary," said Kari Morrison, designer and bridge buyer. "It's a separates world right now."

Velvet has made a comeback, and skirts are selling in all lengths and pants in a variety of widths, from cigarettes and riding pants to gauchos. Men's wear styles with a twist of lace or embellishment also are doing well, she said.

Fall business got off to a fast start in July and August at Jean Connection in Dallas, which specializes in premium denim for women and men, along with contemporary sportswear.

Jean Connection's best silhouette remains a slightly low-rise boot cut, and clean styles are selling just as well as distressed. Leading brands are Citizens of Humanity, 575, Diesel and Grass. The store also is selling a lot of tank tops and shrunken jackets to wear with jeans, as well as denim skirts with a slight flare that fall just above the knee.Spoiled…but not rotten, a new tween and junior store in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood, reported a strong b-t-s season, estimating sales jumped about 20 percent last month, said Jennifer Davis, general manager and buyer of the store, which opened in April.

Cotton stripe sweaters and denim by Jade were must-haves, along with sweatshirt hoodies by Roxy and Roxy Girl and baby corduroy pants with floral embellishment at the cuff by L'orange.

Not surprisingly, denim is the top category in the store, which carries tween sizes 7 to 14 and junior sizes 0 to 11, with Kenzie Girl, Blue 2 and Juicy Couture among the bestsellers, Davis said.

Despite continuing warm temperatures, Davis said outerwear has seen particularly strong sales. Some of the first pieces to go were a cotton twill jacket with fake-fur trim around the collar and cuffs by Twill Twenty Two, and ski-inspired Juicy jackets and vests with fake-fur collars.

B-t-s shoppers continued to flock to E Street Denim in suburban Highland Park for its extensive inventory of more than 12,000 pairs of jeans.

With about 10,000 square feet of sales space, owner Thomas George said he can carry one style of jeans in about 20 washes or fabrics. The store's core premium denim lines — such as Lucky Brand, True Religion, Citizens of Humanity and Seven For All Mankind — continue to perform well, along with Chip & Pepper corduroy pants and denim from Blue 2 and Antik.

Customers also are scooping up embellished hoodies and sweats by Twill 22 and twill jackets with fake-shearling lining and collars by the same line.

"Our back-to-school season has been very good," George said, "although we could always use some cooler weather."

At Active Endeavors, with its three Chicago-area stores and one in Boulder, Colo., b-t-s business is brisk, especially on its Web site, which boasted twice the level of sales as last year, said Hilary Beck, women's buyer.

More sophisticated straight-leg, clean, dark denim looks with a higher waist are hot across the board, regardless of brand, she said.

Beck also has noticed women buying form-fitting but more ladylike sweaters with subtle embellishment, including embroidery, inserts and lace. "It's more about the cut than the flashiness," she said.Shoppers also are picking up on the men's wear trend with vests and military-inspired sweaters by Nicholas K. Gauchos by Lauren Moffet, meanwhile, are gaining popularity as customers gain confidence in the trend. "People are figuring out how to wear them," Beck said.

Top denim lines for Active Endeavors are Habitual and Citizens of Humanity, which some clients may pair with distressed Rebel Yell T-shirts with Eighties-inspired off-beat sayings such as "Bee Drug Free" with a bumble bee, for a trendy collegiate look.

Los Angeles retailers have been looking to cashmere sales as a barometer for b-t-s sales this season, and have been pleasantly surprised at the readings they've received.

"I thought it was really early for us to be selling cashmere," said Jaye Hersh, owner of Intuition, the West Los Angeles boutique. "What's really surprising is that we got a really early read on cashmere — from great basics to novelty pieces in argyle and with embellishments."

Although temperatures in Los Angeles have been unseasonably cool for the month of September, which is typically one of the warmest months of the year, Hersh said she doesn't attribute the sales of cashmere to the weather.

"I think people were ready to have some newness to their wardrobe," she said. "I think we're going to be in good shape for this season."

Fred Levine, co-owner of the M. Fredric contemporary boutiques, which operate 19 locations in Southern California, said that he, too, has been surprised by the sale of cashmere so early in the season.

"I think September is going to be the biggest month of the year for us, so far," said Levine, who added that his company is having a record-breaking month. "We're doing a lot of cashmere, with some decorative. Basics have not [been selling] yet."

Levine said his customers are still looking for special pieces with details such as embroidery, studs and rhinestones on them, but that he was seeing many of those embellishments toned down from the excessive bling that brightened stores this past spring and summer. Lines such as Grail, Raw 7 and Ankh have been selling very well, said Levine.But while Levine's customers haven't been hesitant to jump on the cashmere trend, they are just warming up to the slimmer silhouettes in denim, he said. "The customer is just now starting to understand the slim, straight line and they're motivated by boots," Levine said. "I'm seeing an acceptance that I didn't see a few months ago."

Particularly popular for Levine have been straight-leg styles from People's Liberation and Joe's.

Intuition's Hersh said she hasn't been able to keep the store stocked with the new Joe's slim style. "The slim cigarette pants from Joe's went out on the first day," she said. "Clearly everything is still being driven by denim. We've been really busy in the store and busy on the Web."

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