IN TOUGH APPAREL YEAR, THE ENSEMBLE EMERGES AS FALL'S EARLY FAVORITE

Byline: Arthur Friedman and Dianne M. Pogoda

NEW YORK--The ensemble might just be the savior of fall ready-to-wear business.
With its put-together look and high-value perception, ensemble dressing has emerged as the top-booking trend, and the vigorous pace at some manufacturers is leading them to believe the apparel business will rebound for fall. Orders are running from 15 to 35 percent ahead of last year.
The return to structure in fall's runway shows is making the jacket a key component for the season. Rtw houses that offer jacket-dress combinations and other two-piece looks are enjoying strong bookings, while suits are producing big numbers with three-piece styles and updated versions of skirt or pantsuits. "Ensemble dressing is very strong," said Cindy Wachter, vice president of Bicci and PSI. "It's a lot of look for the money and offers a great value compared to comparable sportswear, which can run as much as double the price."
Three-piece suits are the strength of the PSI and Bicci lines for fall, with vested pantsuits the top sellers, Wachter said, helping boost fall bookings 25 percent ahead of last year's level. In the Bicci dress division, bookings are about 15 percent ahead thanks to day-to-dinner jacket dresses, which are propping upan otherwise tough day dress market.
The more basic PSI line has done well with "sophisticated synthetics" such as tricotine and rayon crepe faille, along with lightweight wools and high-twist gabardines, Wachter noted.
The company's new Florine Wachter Collections, a spinoff of Bicci aimed at a younger career customer, has posted bookings of $2 million so far, led by pantsuits and three-piece ensembles with a variety of jacket shapes. The line will be launched at retail with an in-store shop on the second floor of Bloomingdale's flagship here.
"The stores are being cautious and continue to buy later in the season," Wachter said. "However, they are committing to their proven vendors, and suits are being looked at for a strong fall."
Fall bookings are running 20 to 30 percent ahead at Nicole Miller, with ensemble looks leading the way, said Bud Konheim, president.
"Suits are selling like crazy, and jacket dresses are very strong," Konheim said. "We're finding freestanding stores--independent boutiques and our own stores--are doing much better than mall stores, which are just breaking even."
Konheim feels the multiple-piece ready-to-wear is selling because it represents newness and value in career and evening looks. Miller has also added a group of sportswear separates for fall. The looks also have an ensemble theme, but are aimed at sportswear departments.
"Unfortunately, it looks like the overall weak trend in apparel is going to continue," Konheim said. "Consumers are buying selectively because they are still seeing a lot of sameness. Fashion stimulation is what's needed."
Harriet Mosson, president of Liz Claiborne Dresses, said fall bookings were "excellent." The long column remains the key silhouette, and anything "faux"--garments that look like separate dress and jacket but are really one piece--has been a hot booker.
Ensemble dressing--real and simulated--is doing well because it has a lot of depth and dimension, she said.
"The dress and jacket is the most fashionable item out there," she said.
Mosson said Claiborne is offering a collection of dinner dresses and jackets that can be mixed, and that the company is also intensifying its pantsuit business for fall.
As for the overall apparel sales for fall, Mosson said, "The business climate is terrible. It's too price-driven and promotional. So what we're doing is focusing more, and going for fashion and value."
Price, she said, is not the issue: "Some of our bestsellers are the most expensive on the line," she said, citing a column gown with a bolero jacket at $180 that has been a huge seller. "People recognize that's an amazing value. And it's also important to offer multiple-end-use clothes." Despite the problems at apparel retailers in general, Gregg Marks, president of the Kasper for ASL division of Sassco, a unit of The Leslie Fay Cos., said spring business was healthy for the division's suits, dresses and ensembles, and fall bookings are up by about 30 percent.
For fall, he said structure has come back strong, and the use of seasonless fabrics and year-round colors gives a greater value to the merchandise. He cited high-twist polyester, crepes and acetates, and navy, black, red and royal as keys.
"Anything with pants is hot," he said. "Jacket-skirt-dress combinations have been strong. It's value, and it's something new--that's what the customer wants. Price is not the object. I'm finding that my higher-priced items are often selling better than the lower-priced."
Spring sales at retail have been up 20 to 35 percent in general, Marks said, and credit goes to the company's EDI quick-replenishment system for classic styles. The system is turning inventory at the rate of 8 to 10 percent a week.
"Replenishment is out of the buyers' hands," he said. "The computer reorders merchandise based on the sizes and colors that are selling."
Another apparel maker taking advantage of the hot suit market is ABS USA, which will enter the category this fall.
"Fall looks like a perfect time to launch our suit line, at a time when nothing else is really exciting," said Lloyd Singer, president of ABS USA. "The line is very jacket-driven. It's a natural for us because jackets have always been an important part of our sportswear."
The 60-piece suit collection, wholesaling for $145 to $195, was launched at Saks Fifth Avenue this month. Singer said the division is on track to hit $10 million in its first year.
Most suits are offered in skirt or pants versions, with jackets done in safari, mandarin collar and tuxedo styles. Pantsuits in novelty stripes and checks, and zipper and velvet trims have booked well, Singer said.
For holiday, a key group features tuxedos and three-piece vested suits, using satin, piping and ottoman trims.
In dresses, casual looks such as long and short halter dresses, column dresses with bolero jackets, stretch ottoman fit-and-flare, shiny satin wraps and triacetate coatdresses have booked well in the better-to-bridge- priced ABS Dress line and the year-old moderate-price Nouveau division.
"Our dress bookings are better than last year, but dress business is tough," Singer said.
Dress bookings are 35 percent ahead at Laundry by Shelli Segal, according to Phillip Gaynor, vice president.
"Shine and structure are doing very well," Gaynor said. "Jacket- dresses have been wonderful, and everyone's talking about it. But it's yet to be seen how well it will do at retail. I hope it's not one of these trends that gets saturated before it has time to develop."
Jumpsuits have also been a key item.
Gaynor said Laundry's dress division had taken the same trend-driven philosophy as its sportswear line, aimed at a casual-career customer.
Chetta B's president, Howard Bloom, said fall bookings are "great," and he projected a 20 percent increase for the season, based on a strong spring.
The reason for the strength, he said, is that the company has reformulated its mix and added a new evening division, and lowered prices on its daytime dresses 10 to 15 percent.
"A few years ago, we were all daytime dresses," he said, "but now we're about 50 percent daytime, 30 percent suits and 20 percent evening."
The company tested its new Chetta B Evening line for spring and has now rolled it out for fall. Bloom said retailers' reactions have been enthusiastic.
"We found there was a place for us in evening," he said. "The line is sophisticated, understated and urban. We're taking care of the young woman who doesn't want all the beads."
As for Chetta B's other lines, Bloom said suits and ensemble dressing, two-piece looks and jacket/dress combinations are selling briskly.
"You have to do something different," he said. "You have to change."
Richard Elias, president of Renlyn Suits, concurred that business was booking solidly for fall, and projected increases of 20 to 25 percent. The company is doing well with tailored coatdresses-- "a one-piece suit"--and jacket-dresses.
"Jacket-dresses are by-products of the suit market," he said, "and they've been strong for a while now."
He also said there is a heavier concentration of pantsuits for fall, with many retailers placing up to 30 percent of their suit dollars in that category. The Renlyn collection is about one-third pantsuits, he added.
Elias also said the catalog business was a particular strength for his firm's dress categories. Dresses--even those with jackets--are not carried in suit departments, he said, and as a suit manufacturer, his lines aren't sold in dress departments.
In a catalog, the garment is not restricted to the tight definitions of a dress or suit department. Therefore, it gets equal exposure to the consumer and sells on its own.

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