By  on May 24, 1994

CHICAGO -- After several sluggish seasons, the Midwest economy is bouncing back, according to industry observers, and the apparel industry is a prime beneficiary.

While the Midwest has always maintained a fairly even keel compared with the coasts, a nationwide recovery in employment and disposable income is boosting consumer confidence here even more, according to economists. Furthermore, strong fashion trends and more springlike weather than at this time last year are encouraging people to shop for clothes.

According to Carl Steidtmann, director of research at retail consultancy Management Horizons, nationwide spending on apparel has picked up recently after lagging behind other categories, especially durable goods spending.

"It's partly because fashions are more appealing, and partly because of pent-up demand," Steidtmann said. "Consumers didn't buy [apparel] for the last couple of years because of the economy, or they didn't care for fashion. Now they feel it is necessary to buy again."

Steidtmann also noted that apparel prices are relatively low, creating a perception of good value, and discretionary income is rising. Furthermore, negative economic indicators like rising oil prices and interest rates are more likely to affect durable goods sales than apparel, he said.

Midwesterners also suffer less from rising interest rates than the rest of the nation because their level of debt is relatively low, according to Diane Swonk, regional economist at First Chicago Bank.

But, she notes, in the Midwest, big-ticket items -- especially for the home -- have been the biggest beneficiaries from the improving economy. She said she expects the improvement to filter through to apparel later in the year.

Manufacturers and retailers are reaping the benefits of the healthier economy, according to Larry Williams, president of the Chicago Apparel Center Tenants Association. "The attitude is: 'We're over the hump,"' he said.

Williams said most stores did brisk spring business, thanks to good weather, putting them in the mood to buy for fall. He also noted a strong increase in the number of new stores attending markets for the first time in several years.

Business at Kohl's, a moderate-price department store chain based in Milwaukee, has been consistently good throughout the Midwest, said John Herma, chief operating officer, with spring apparel lines doing well. He said the early Easter helped boost sales in March -- Kohl's reported comparable store sales were up 19.4 percent.High-end stores seemed to be equally bullish about their spring business.

Joan Weinstein, who recently opened a Jil Sander store on Oak Street to join her top-notch trio of Ultimo, Sonia Rykiel and Giorgio Armani, said she has noticed a much more upbeat attitude among her customers. "I don't hear them complaining about prices. They like the fashions and are much more excited about buying," Weinstein said.

She noted that her men's business is particularly strong, which she considers to be a good barometer of the overall apparel business. And she sees the good mood continuing through to fall.

Marilyn Miglin, president of Oak Street Council, notes that Chicago's most upscale shopping street has added about 10 new stores in the past year. Another, albeit unscientific, indicator of healthy customer traffic: "They had to get another valet parker for the street because business is up," she said.

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