By  on October 20, 2005

NEW YORK — Ann Taylor has a reason to celebrate.

The 361-store retail chain is launching a special-occasion line of dresses and accessories called Ann Taylor Celebrations, hitting 18 stores and its Web site in January.

"It's not necessarily a bridal or bridesmaid collection, but a line for all of those important milestones in life," said Adrienne Lazarus, executive vice president of design and merchandising for Ann Taylor. "However, it's certainly appropriate for bridesmaids, and we allow the line to be customized for the bridal party. It's a way for the bride to make it her own."

The silk-based collection, which includes solid and printed long and short gowns, cardigans, jackets, wraps and accessories, was designed to target both a more contemporary and a more conservative customer. Shoppers can customize looks by dyeing their shoes and bags to match the dresses and by interchanging sash colors.

"The customer has been asking us for this for some time," said Michael Smaldone, senior vice president of design development at the firm. "We've always had a dressy piece or two in the line, but she really wanted something a little dressier and more of a selection. With this collection, we are offering her the head-to-toe look; she can get the dress and all of the accessories to match right in the store."

By launching this line, the company seems to be following in the footsteps of J. Crew, which also launched a line of bridal and social occasion dressing. The Celebrations line, however, is less expensive than J. Crew's, which offers gowns in the $200 and $300 range, but sells them for up to $1,800. Ann Taylor Celebrations retails from $168 to $198 per piece.

"While everyone else seemed to have been going more casual, we went dressier," Smaldone said. "But it's what the customer wanted us to provide ... dresses for every occasion."

Ann Taylor's same-store sales have been negative for eight of the last 10 months, with September same-store sales down 2.7 percent. In its latest quarter, net profits fell 76 percent to $7.1 million, partially due to a one-time charge, on a 7.6 percent rise in sales to nearly $509 million.

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