NEW YORK--Call it a Casual Catastrophe. It started at the end of February, when, eager to capitalize on all the hoopla surrounding the dressing down of corporate America, some of the country's biggest department store organizations--including Federated Department Stores and May Department Stores Co. --put their casual offerings in overdrive for spring. Trouble was, everyone else did the same. Now, many stores are stuck with T-shirts, shorts, casual knit dresses and the like, all of which they are desperately trying to clear through aggressive markdowns that began about a month ago. Downplaying their career offerings, which had soured in recent seasons, stores binged on casualwear, especially weekend merchandise. Add to this the already plentiful supply of such clothes from specialty retailers like The Gap and Banana Republic, mix in the product from new players in the casual scene like Casual Corner and Brooks Brothers--both of which have downplayed suited looks in favor of more informal attire--and complete the scenario with unseasonably cool weather. The result was a recipe for disaster, as consumers, faced with such a casual glut, were even less inspired than usual to buy clothes. "Department stores are choking on casual right now," said industry consultant R. Fulton Macdonald, noting that many retailers misinterpreted the dress-down trend in the workplace. "Everyone," he said, "offered weekend wear, not business casual, which is in high demand." Other stores that overreacted include Barneys New York and Henri Bendel, Macdonald and other analysts pointed out. "Many stores were looking for a golden egg," said Maryann Casale, general merchandise manager at Certified Fashion Guild, a buying office here, noting that she predicted a casual glut back in February, after seeing stores clamor for these fashions. "Everyone was reading the same studies, the same reports, and they all jumped on one side of the fence," said Casale. "But stores have to realize that there has to be a balance to the merchandising mix. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to understand that." The merchandising folly caught stores a little off-guard, noted analysts. Career sportswear had been a dud for two years, mainly because of a lack of newness in fashion in the category. However, spurred by retro dressing on the spring runways, the career category made a major comeback. "There was nothing new in jacket silhouettes for a while and all of a sudden there was a new look out there: the retro-Forties fitted jackets with skinny belts. This was something new for a woman's wardrobe," said Heidi Goldstein, associate merchandise manager at The Doneger Group, a buying group here. "Nobody wanted just a plain simple T-shirt and shorts, which is what the stores showed." And they showed plenty of it. Casale pointed out that in the Northeast, for example, retailers' casual offerings were up to more than 70 percent of the overall mix, compared to about 60 percent during a typical spring selling season. There was plenty of evidence of that for anyone walking through some stores here last weekend. On the second floor of the Macy's East Herald Square flagship, for example, was a sea of shorts, T-shirts and knit dresses. In one area of the store, tables displayed piles of Macy private label Jennifer Moore cotton polo shirts, marked down to $11.99 from $18, while another section was devoted to Charter Club's polos and T-shirts, marked down to $14.99 from $19.50. An abundance of linen shorts by Rafaella was found in another corner on the second floor, marked down by 30 percent. Jones New York Sport's in-store shop was also full of casual clothes, including racks of knit and cotton dresses marked down by 30 percent. There was an abundance of discounted cotton T-shirts and shorts by Jones Sport. Macy's fashion director Caroline Moss would say only: "We believe in casual--and we are going after casual that works for the office going forward." Meanwhile, at Henri Bendel, the specialty retailer known for its trendy designs, the look was informal. On the second floor, for example, were several racks of colorful cropped private label polo shirts and brightly colored Polartec jackets, all marked down. "There is an unbelievable sameness to the stores," said Kurt Barnard, president of Barnard's Retail Marketing Report, an industry newsletter based in Scotch Plains, N.J. "And it is at a time when consumers are cutting back on apparel purchases. Most of the stuff is indistinguishable. Many of the stores have lost their design element." For a lot of people, it's difficult to tell the difference between a $16 private label polo shirt from The Gap and a the version offered by Henri Bendel for more than twice the price. Tom Tashjian, a managing director at Montgomery Securities in San Francisco, pointed out that the move toward more simple designs was spurred in part by the escalating prices in fibers, including cotton, over the last year. Manufacturers opted for "simple and plain" fashions to keep costs down, he said. "I definitely noticed a much plainer look when I walked through the stores this season," said Tashjian, adding that buttons are cheaper, and the cut on shoulders is skimpier.Several sportswear manufacturers said they've paid the price for the stores' overreaction into casual. They also fear that retailers will ask them for more markdown money."We didn't get the zap out of our casual business that we thought we would," said Bob Newman, executive president at Rafaella, whose shorts are piled high at Macy's flagship. For spring, the sportswear firm increased its casual offerings to 55 percent from 50 percent a year ago, but now for fall, it will reduce its casual mix to less than half of its offerings. At Jones Apparel Group, even Jones New York Sport, whose sales have skyrocketed for two years, had some difficulties at retail during early spring, though sell-throughs have picked up recently, according to retail sources. Jones's casual business soared 48 percent to $108 million in 1994 and is expected to jump about 70 percent to $185 million in 1995, according to analysts' estimates. Those firms that stuck with career also got burned--but for a different reason. "Our career clothes were selling out of the stores, but buyers told me they couldn't reorder because they didn't have any money left. All their money was tied up into casual," moaned Marc Abramson, vice president at Requirements, a moderate-price sportswear division of Synari Ltd. The firm stuck with its mix of 85 percent career, 15 percent casual.Executives of sportswear firms noted that for fall, stores are now scrambling to stock their shelves with career sportswear. That shift in strategy isn't calming the jitters of at least one manufacturing executive. "Now, everybody is talking about career, and we are going to see everyone move from the right to the left," grumbled Newman of Rafaella. "Every manufacturer, maybe even underwear firms, will switch gears and get into it. Then we are just going to have too much career. I guess that is the nature of retailing, the nature of the beast."
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