NEW YORK -- Jones Apparel Group reported earnings before special items advanced 14.9 percent in the first quarter ended Aug. 4 while sales gained 11.5 percent.

In the quarter ended April 3, Jones earned $14.8 million, or 56 cents a share, up from $12.9 million, or 50 cents, before a non-recurring item a year earlier. Earnings were in line with Wall Street estimates.

A credit of $1.4 million from a tax accounting change lifted year-ago net income to $14.2 million, or 55 cents a share.

Sales reached $161.7 million, up from $145.1 million.

Sales of Jones's career sportswear, which includes its core Jones New York brand and accounted for 67 percent of sales last year, increased 12 percent in the quarter, with Rena Rowan for Saville -- another career sportswear line that is slightly lower-price -- and Jones Wear -- a moderate-price line -- "contributing significantly" to the gain, the company said.

Casual sportswear's sales were even with last year, reflecting a lower pricing strategy starting with the holiday 1993 line. The company significantly reduced retail price points on its Jones New York Sport knit and Jones & Co. woven lines to be more competitive with its primary competitors and specialty store retailers.

Unit volume of casual sportswear, however, "increased sharply" over last year.

In the company's dress, suit and private label sportswear businesses, sales climbed 20 percent, driven by a "substantial increase" in the Jones New York dress brand.

"We are proud of our first-quarter 1994 sales and earnings, especially given the severe weather conditions impacting the early part of the year," said Sidney Kimmel, Jones's chairman.

He added that the company has had an "enthusiastic reaction" to fall lines, including its newest label, Evan-Picone career sportswear, which it acquired last year from Crystal Brands. He said Jones also expects "continued healthy growth" in casual sportswear.

On Wall Street, reaction to the figures was unimpressive, with the stock closing Tuesday at 31 3/4, down 1/4, on the New York Stock Exchange.

Nevertheless, Laurence C. Leeds Jr., managing director at Buckingham Research Group, was enthusiastic, noting that Jones continues to gain market share in the department stores."Jones has a wonderful management group and is a very successful enterprise. They keep doing everything well," Leeds said.

Leeds added that the Evan-Picone line has sold well at retail and "has the potential to be a very significant addition to Jones's stable of brands."

Kimmel said the firm will continue its growth strategy of spinning off product extensions of its three principal brands -- Jones New York, Rena Rowan for Saville and Evan-Picone. Kimmel noted that it introduced Saville Dress by Rena Rowan in the first quarter for initial shipping in June for this fall.

For spring, the company introduced Rena Rowan for Saville Sport casual sportswear, as well as its first Evan-Picone career sportswear line. It also plans to introduce Jones Wear casual sportswear, suits and dresses in 1994.

According to its recently released annual report, career sportswear's sales advanced 13.7 percent last year, to $363.6 million, with Jones New York gaining 5.2 percent and Rena Rowan for Saville, which was introduced in 1991, surging 52.7 percent.

Casual sportswear's sales jumped by 54.9 percent, to $72.8 million, and sales of dresses, suits and private label climbed 50.1 percent, to $104.8 million.

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