By  on June 25, 2008

Adrianna Papell has shed its fusty image with fashionable design and a new emphasis on special occasion dresses for night and day.

Formerly known for traditional styling and silk prints, the 29-year-old company has modernized its namesake label in the last year. Adrianna Papell's best-selling look is now a cocktail dress made of 70 pieces of synthetic shimmer sewn into tucked tiers. It's one of the most labor-intensive dresses the company has ever made, and retails for $160.

"Overall, the retail environment is horrendous, and this company is experiencing its best year in 20 years," said Harvey Berkman, chairman and co-founder of the New York-based firm. "It's all based on product — the fabric, style, quality and workmanship."

Papell's wholesale revenue is expected to reach $90 million this year, from slightly more than $70 million last year, said Berkman's daughter, Jaynee Berkman, president of the privately held family business.

"We took baby steps in 2007," she said. "We were always locked into a traditional niche, mostly two-piece dresses and older customers, and for the last year and a half, the design team has been doing a lot of research trying on clothes of the competition." The improved performance is tied to "fashion-forward clothing that is very wearable and ladylike, and goes beyond one season."

Over the same period, the company took Niteline, a prom label purchased four years ago, elevated its design and rebranded it this spring as Aidan Mattox for Niteline. The Niteline name may disappear altogether next year. A spin-off label of day dresses, called Aidan, will begin shipping in August.

This year's sales goal includes $15 million in wholesale revenues from Aidan Mattox and Aidan and $21 million from private label sportswear and dresses. All product is made in China and India.

The bulk of business is Adrianna Papell, a name created by the company founders to evoke a woman. Key accounts are major department stores such as Macy's, Dillard's and Lord & Taylor.

Jaynee Berkman spearheaded the design update of all the collections. For Papell, she set out to make fashionable dresses for women ages 35 to 70. Strapless and one-shoulder looks have built-in bra cups.Berkman, who at 42 said she can "really relate to the product now," tried on dresses in every store from $99 to $1,000 to analyze how to improve Papell's fit. She made sure that almost every fabric had some stretch for comfort.

"We dove inside, took longer in the fittings, and we worked at it," she said. "It was worth it. The fit is everything. It's all about the shoulder and the bust."

Papell spans day to evening with dresses, suits and separates made mostly of synthetic fabrics. The fall collection offers items including a cream ponte asymmetric coatdress, full-skirt cocktail dresses and Grecian-inspired gowns and jackets to wear over bare-shouldered dresses. Day styles wholesale from $59 to $89, and eveningwear ranges from $49 to $149.

Puff and extended cap sleeves aim to please customers who want to cover aging skin, but it's tricky to add sleeves without going matronly, Harvey Berkman said.

"It's like searching for the Holy Grail — young [mother-of-the-bride] with sleeves and dresses with sleeves," he said. "The retailers all want dresses with sleeves until they get them."

The new look of Aidan Mattox earned orders from Neiman Marcus stores and NM Direct, as well as Bloomingdale's, Lord & Taylor and Nordstrom.

Aidan Mattox skews younger than Papell. Still, Aidan Mattox targets women up to age 60 with higher-quality fabrics than Papell, including prints designed in-house on silk charmeuse and metallic flocked silk chiffon. Wholesaling from $105 to $270, the evening line features ruched and draped cocktail dresses and gowns touched with beading.

Aidan, the day label, aims for women in their 20s up to age 50 for work and social events. With hemlines hovering around midthigh to a few inches above the knee, Aidan's silhouettes include sexy silk drawstring halters as well as office-worthy looks such as a striped cotton shirtdress with a ruffled placket. It wholesales from $95 to $210.

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