By  on January 19, 2005

WASHINGTON — Luxury retailers are cashing in on presidential inaugural parties and balls.

Thousands of visitors have descended on frigid Washington and credit card swiping has been rampant from the Watergate Hotel’s upscale boutiques to Bethesda, Md.’s, tony shopping district. Retailers expect to boost the bottom line with last-minute sales of cold weather items and accessories, including furs, fur shrugs and wraps, shoes and jewelry, and a few more gowns for those “fashion emergencies.”

“I don’t know if we’ve ever topped the 1980s and the Reagan years when we sold hundreds of gowns, but we still expect a big boost in sales this year,” said Sue Ellen Lewis, a buyer for Rizik’s Bros., a Washington establishment founded in 1908.

The store’s top-selling inaugural designer gowns include Helen Morley, Gemmy and Baratelli in prices ranging from $300 to $3,000, with an average of $1,200, Lewis said. Shoppers are buying colorful gowns in raspberry, citron, red, blue or emerald green in a mix of traditional to modern styles.

“Usually when someone is reelected, [people] feel pretty enthusiastic, and compared to four years ago, where it was all last minute and no one was sure who would be inaugurated, there is a very different feeling this time around,” Lewis said. “Even though a few customers have commented about the fact that we are a nation at war and there has been sadness in the past month, people are still looking for a little pick-me-up, and that’s why they want colors.”

This is the first inauguration since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the start of military action in Afghanistan and Iraq. They loom over the events surrounding President Bush’s second term. The celebrations have drawn some criticism over the extravagance and appropriateness, but enthusiasm remains high.

Lewis said that she expects to see an uptick in sales of colorful furs and shrugs as visitors try to stay warm.

Peter Marx, president of Saks Jandel, said he was hoping for frigid weather, and he got it as temperatures plummeted. Marx recalled that business escalated for the inaugurations of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton because of extreme cold.“A lot of Reagan’s friends came from California and had nothing to wear, and it was unbearably cold,” Marx said. “Our fur business absolutely peaked at that time.”

Rhoda Norris, a buyer of eveningwear for Saks Jandel, said the store has done well with sleek, strapless dresses, from $1,900 to $3,000. Among the bestsellers was a beaded cream-colored Peggy Jennings gown; a strapless taffeta, clare-colored gown by San Carlin; a bias-cut blue gown from Robert Danes, and a fitted bustier bodice with chiffon long skirt by Stephen Yearick.

Norris said the trendiest item is a fur shrug.

Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus set up corporate partnerships of glitzy packages with top hotels, although neither package had yet sold. Saks is a partner with The Ritz-Carlton in a $150,000 Presidential Package that includes a Badgley Mischka evening gown, white gold diamond earrings and necklace, and a designer handbag and shoes.

Saks is operating two off-site boutiques from Monday to Friday at the two Ritz hotel locations and selling products from designer cowboy boots and cocktail purses to cashmere wraps and furs. An Armani makeup artist is on site at both locations. Saks provides a 24-hour on-call service for any last-minute needs.

The Saks store in Chevy Chase, Md., staged several trunk shows for the fall season and sold many gowns for the inaugural events, a spokeswoman said. Among the most popular trunk shows were those for Carolina Herrera, Oscar de la Renta, Chado Ralph Rucci, Tula and Bill Blass.

Neiman’s is a partner with the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Washington in a $200,500 Presidential Privilege package that offered an Oscar de la Renta evening gown, matching Manolo Blahnik shoes and a Judith Leiber minaudière crystal bag.

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