Byline: Anne D'Innocenzio

NEW YORK--The blouse, rejected as being too dull only a year ago, is back--and it's getting redefined.
Following five years of stagnant market growth and lack of fashion newness, the blouse resurgence started this past fall/holiday season. Now, blouse sales are expected to be in full swing for fall.
Killed by the dress-down trend in corporate America as well as the popularity of knitwear, the blouse has been reborn with a new edgy status, with looks that range from body-hugging polyester designs to yarn-dyed weskit styles.
Fashion observers credit the blouse's new fashion image, in part, to Gucci, which pushed satin, tight-fitting versions for fall '95 and spring '96, sending shoppers clamoring to pick up blouses at the malls--at all price points.
Also giving the category a boost have been other big-name designers such as Ralph Lauren, Miuccia Prada and Calvin Klein, all of who touted blouses on the spring '96 runways. Now, the interest in blouses is filtering down to the contemporary market, with such companies as Item and BCBG stepping up their offerings.
The better and moderate zones are also getting involved. Liz Claiborne Inc., Pacific Silk & Clothing Co. and Rafaella have, or are planning to, develop separate blouse divisions, after long neglecting the category. And blouse-driven firms are stepping up the fashion, with textured silks and other novelty fabrics.
As for retailers, department stores such as Macy's East and Rich's, which got rid of better and bridge blouses areas in the late Eighties, are beefing up their blouse offerings by up to 15 percent. At least one, Strawbridge & Clothier, has returned in the past year to developing better-price blouse departments, locating them near the sportswear collections area. In the moderate-price blouse zone, which had been strictly commodities-driven, novelty looks are driving sales.
"The blouses now are fashion statements unto themselves--they don't need to be worn under a suit," said Dede Valentini, chairwoman of the fashion buying and merchandising department at the Fashion Institute of Technology here. "They used to be so corporate, so uptight and frilly, and so when corporations starting loosening up the dress codes, they weren't right for the professional woman. Now, they have a lot of fashion interest--some have slits on the sides, others are long, so that they almost serve as jackets."
"The resurgence of blouses has definitely trickled down to the moderate market, and our misses' consumer has been demanding them," said Laura Powers, buyer for better sportswear collections as well as blouses for Strawbridge & Clothier, which created separate blouse departments in nine out of its 13 stores, five years after getting rid of them. The mostly polyester and some silk lines, which target the lower-price better market, include Eva Laurel, Alison Taylor, Alexandria and Carry Back.
For spring, styles include notch and wing collars and weskits with contrasting trims as well as darted shirts with capped sleeves.
"Any business that bottoms out always comes back, and blouses are in that category," said Glen Palmer, president of Liz Claiborne's Collection, which launched a separate blouse line this past holiday and is considering developing a separate division within a year or two. "In my opinion, customers want a choice and there is definitely a big opportunity in the category. The knit cycle has been trending upward for some time."
For spring, Liz Claiborne's designs feature weskit and sheath styles in georgette and cotton, all with novelty button treatments.
So far, the reception has been strong, he said.
"We overbooked for holiday and spring," he said. The average wholesale price is $68.
Back in the Eighties, when power suits reigned and before all the interest in knit layering, blouses were de rigueur. Working professionals made sure to have at least five different blouses in their wardrobe to mix and match with their two suits, according to retail buyers. With dress codes loosening and blouse firms failing to react to these changes, consumers turned to knitwear. Giorgio Armani and Calvin Klein, who introduced the black T-shirt worn with a jacket in the late Eighties, also created a more inexpensive option to blouses.
"They made it chic to wear a T-shirt under a suit or jacket for both men and women," said Cathy Paul, fashion director at Certified Retail Consultants Worldwide, a buying office here. "That really killed the blouse business."
Like everything else, the fashion cycle has turned, with women becoming increasingly tired of their silk-spun layering tops. The blouse trend also fits well with the current nod to suburbia, which spotlights khakis, worn with blouses. Express and The Gap are showing khakis with white blouses, tied at the waist, in their store windows.
Such a fashion injection in the blouse market is expected to energize an anemic industry, which accounted for about 25 percent of the $33.1 billion total sportswear segment in 1994, according to NPD Group's most recent statistics.
While the blouse's market share grew only 0.6 percent over the 1991-94 period and sales grew 21 percent, the average selling price decreased 3.7 percent, from $15.32 to $14.76.
During that period, department stores experienced the largest share and average pricedecrease of all channels. Market share declined by 3.8 percent, from 29 percent to 25.2 percent, according to NPD. The average wholesale price declined 9.9 percent, from $20.40 to $18.39.
Women, on average, buy about 10 woven blouses a year.
Acknowledging the recent renewed interest in blouses, Andrew Jassin, a partner at MMG Group, an apparel consulting firm here, said, "Manufacturers are becoming more creative, and they are stepping up their offerings in blouses, but stores have to be committed to funding the departments if the growth of this market is going to increase. That remains to be seen."
Invigorated by both consumers' and retailers' renewed interest in the category, blouse makers are determined to solidify their sales base. Some are trading up to better fabrics, while others are expanding their sourcing network. They are also keeping in mind the relaxation of the dress codes. Meanwhile, sportswear firms, who ignored the category, are tapping into the market. Liz Claiborne, for example, is marketing vests over yarn-dyed weskit-style blouses as a key casual Friday look.
Item, a contemporary sportswear resource here, increased its blouse offerings for fall by 22 percent, touting Seventies-style polyester tight-fitting shirts in pastels. For spring, the company stepped up the number of blouse styles from two to five. Looks range from cap-sleeve fitted shirts to lace-up shirts in matte polyester jersey in such colors as orange, lemon and lime, and such pastel shades as light blues and greens.
The average price point is $28.
"Our customer wears it with hip-huggers as well as suitings so it became multifunctional," said Nancy Jarret, sales manager. "Blouses are hip now, and stores are starting to really look at the category."
Pacific Silk & Clothing Co. is also bullish about the category.
"We figure the customer has bought an awful lot of layering pieces and is interested in buying blouses," said Jack Weinstock, president, who was one of the first to get into silk-spun layering fashions.
Weinstock noted that over the past six months, the blouses offered in his collection have been strong at retail.
The new line, which will be marketed under the August Silk label, will be priced from $19 to $34 and will hit stores in June.
Fabrics include silk crepe, shantung and cotton.
While August Silk blouses will continue to be housed in the collection area, Weinstock believes that once that business takes off, stores will create separate departments.
Wholesale volume for the blouses is expected to hit between $2 million and $3 million for the fall and holiday seasons, he said.
Rafaella Inc. is another better-price sportswear firm here that is branching into blouses. Over the past six months, the firm has been adding blouses to the line and is planning to develop a separate line for spring 1997.
"Blouses have been pretty much dead, but now I am really bullish," said Bob Newman, executive vice president of sales. "There is definitely an interest from department store buyers overall in blouses." For spring, blouses feature such fabrics as silk, polyester, rayon and cotton.
The line wholesales from $17 to $30.
New York City Blouses Inc., which sells to department and specialty stores, opened a year and a half ago to fill what company officials saw was a void in the better blouse market.
"We saw big opportunities for newness in the better blouse market," said Bobby Guttenberg, co-owner and executive vice president.
The company posted a wholesale volume of $15 million last year, and is looking for a 20 percent increase this year.
For spring, the line includes such styles as sheaths, weskits and belted safari looks in such fabrics as textured silks, silk jersey and cotton piquAs. Wholesale prices range from under $20 to about $33.
Tess Inc., a moderate-price blouse firm here, has been expanding its offerings of novelty fabrics, including textured designs and jacquards.
"We are still a moderate update company, but the customer is becoming more picky about what she wants," said Karen Aronoff, national sales manager."
The company posted a wholesale volume of $60 million, an increase of 10 percent over the year-ago period. For spring, the line wholesales from $12 to $20.
"Over the past few years, we have been trying to lower our prices to be more competitive," said Aronoff."We are definitely working more closely with the mills."
Nicola Inc., a Los Angeles firm that used to market only lower-priced moderate blouses under the Nicola label, has seen the need to trade up. About a year and a half ago, it branched out with a better-price line called EK Designer. The line included microfiber texture and more updated polyester blends than Nicola.
The company has also taken Nicola from the low moderate end of the market to the mid-market tier. The line used to carry an average wholesale price point of $10, but now averages an $18 price point. The better line's average wholesale price is about $26.
"When we went more commodities-driven, we saw that our blouses didn't sell," said Bernadette Crawley, New York sales manager, referring to the Nicola line. She added that she sees the "bigger opportunity" in the better market and expects EK Designer to top about $15 million in wholesale volume this year. Overall, the company posted sales of $20 million last year.
"I saw this blouse revival starting this past fall," she said, noting she expects 10 percent increases per year. "When you take something away, people start asking for it again."

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