Byline: Dianne M. Pogoda

NEW YORK--So how much can consumers take of the ensemble and the sheath?
Apparently, a lot.
After several seasons of solid, steady performance, dresses--particularly those two styles--continue to sell well. Whether from dress vendors or sportswear houses, they are ringing up strong sales from here to Los Angeles, and Atlanta to San Francisco, in pastels, brights and the ubiquitous black.
Dresses are expected to keep up the pace heading into fall. The focus will broaden, however, to long knits, while sheaths, social occasion and pantsuits should maintain momentum.
The key factors in dresses this season are color and texture. Long and lean silhouettes have been the hot tickets for spring, and the ensemble also keeps on scoring, according to Lisa Kazor, vice president and divisional merchandise manager of Gallery Collections, including dresses and suits, at Neiman Marcus.
"We're getting a great reaction to color in urban as well as Southern markets," she said. "Even in a market like San Francisco, where neutrals are usually strongest, brights are selling."
Iced pastels, optic patterns and black-and-white are also doing well.
Kazor said Neiman's is "significantly ahead" in its dress sales for spring.
"Clean sheaths are terrific, and we're seeing longer jackets with dresses to the knee," she added. "Knits will be more important for fall, in long and short lengths, and straight or with some swing as it heads toward the ankle."
Fabric interest for spring focuses on texture, including shantung, doupioni, satin, piquA and linen with a surface sheen.
As for the effects of casual office attire on the dress market, Kazor said the relaxed silhouette of a dress ensemble has replaced the very structured suit.
"There are several ways to interpret the trend," she said. "Some women can't go too casual, so for them, wearing a dress as opposed to a suit is dressing down."
Some of the key resources in daytime dresses are Kay Unger, Shelli Segal and CMV by Carmen Marc Valvo.
Marshall Hilsberg, chairman of Lord & Taylor, said the company's dress sales account for 12 percent of overall volume of $1.6 billion--triple the average in most other department stores--and the category is strong and growing.
"Sheaths and special-occasion dresses are doing very well, and we're selling elements of casual, like denim and knits," he said. "The ensemble is still going strong, too."
He noted that there are many dresses being designed by sportswear houses these days, which gives a traditional sportswear customer the nudge to buy a dress.
Carolyn Moss, fashion director at Macy's East, said several trends have emerged for spring, most notably short sheer prints.
She also cited bridesmaid looks, long sheer georgettes, satin trim, sarong skirts and colorblock shifts, particularly black-and-white designs in crepe and piquA from Laundry.
"Where we've had ensembles, they've sold well," she said, "but they haven't been really big for us."
Similarly, A-line styles, especially from Liz Claiborne, have sold well wherever Macy's has placed them, but it is not a huge category for the retailer.
In the contemporary area, some of the hot vendors are Mevisto, ABS and Donna Ricco.
"We'll see a long, linear look for fall," Moss noted. "It will be more of a pants story. For dresses, we'll see long, slim knits, like those we saw at Calvin Klein, with round necks or turtlenecks."
A number of styles are selling well in dresses, said Sheila Kamensky, vice president of fashion merchandising for Rich's in Atlanta. Silks from Adrianna Pappel and Shomi, pantsuits and jumpsuits from Jessica Howard, Menu and Dani Max, and A-lines and sheaths from Donna Ricco and Liz Claiborne were key performers, she noted.
Social occasion is also selling well, from such resources as Jessica McClintock, Everbeauty and Nah Nah for social suitings. Hard-over-soft, such as a structured jacket over a soft dress from Dani Max, is another healthy classification.
"The sheath will continue for transition in the softer fabrics and in social dressing in crepes, but I don't think it does as well in the heavier wools," Kamensky said. Thermal knit casual dresses are doing well too, and Barbara Lesser is a key resource here.
For fall, Kamensky said details will include lace in social dresses, zipper details, silks will continue at least through October, pantsuits will maintain their momentum and all types of velvet and velvet combinations will emerge.
"We also believe strongly in knitwear, in dresses alone or with jackets and in tunic-and-skirt combinations," she said.
Kathy Hornak, divisional merchandise manager of dresses for Elder-Beerman Corp., said vests and vested looks have been key this season.
Dress sales are up about 5 percent over last year, and with inventories leaner by about 15 percent, the stock is turning much faster, Hornak said.
"Ensembles have moved away from the pantsuit and into skirted looks for us," she added, "with vests important from the most structured career to the most casual styles."
Elder Beerman's customers generally have "had their fill" of the pantsuit for a while, she said, although some sophisticated looks in the better market are still selling well. Hornak cited a tailored sueded silk pantsuit from August Silk as a bestseller.
She added that for spring, the sheath has received a "fair" response in the misses' market, but said it has been doing well in juniors. That is an indicator that sheath sales should blossom in the misses' market by summer.
Dresses appear to be in for another strong season for fall, she said, with brown coming on strong and knitwear "looking very good."
Key resources include August Silk, Maggy London, Donna Morgan and Cynthia Howie in the better area, and JBS, SL Fashions, K-Studio and Menu in the moderate department.

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