LOS ANGELES--Dress firms here are mounting a counterattack to recover market share lost to sportswear labels in the past few years. Dress executives admit that sportswear firms have snared some dress retail dollars from them in recent years by either adding separate dress divisions or by injecting dresses into their sportswear collections, particularly in the junior market. One key move for Los Angeles dress houses has been to expand beyond traditional styles into ensemble dressing, with such looks as jacket dresses, blouse and pants sets, two-piece dresses, pantsuits and jumpers. These looks, they say, offer a ready-to-wear alternative to sportswear separates. Many of them agree with Sheryl Silver, president of Molly Malloy, the misses' dress division of Chorus Line Inc., who said women are gravitating toward multiple-piece sets for two reasons: convenience and value. "In the past, if you walked into a store, you'd have to find a pair of pants, a vest, a jacket and a blouse or T-shirt in your size that coordinated," she said."Today, in the misses' dress department, you could find all that on one hanger. It's easier, and it's less expensive." California firms, which built a reputation in the junior market, are also seeing a resurgence of their misses' dress business. Makers said that as the population shifted, the needs of the misses' customer has changed. Misses' dresses have become more casual and trendy, manufacturers said, and are now appealing to women who want an updated look, but are budget-conscious and enjoy the ease of rtw shopping. The more contemporary misses' looks are often retro-inspired--from tailored looks of the Forties, with padded shoulders and skinny belts, to easy Fifties-style shirtdresses and Sixties-look shifts. Dress makers also hope their use of finer fabrics and attention to detail will distinguish their offerings from lower-priced dresses hanging in sportswear departments. Diane Trauth, owner and president of Rabbit Rabbit Designs, a dress firm with sales of $25 million last year, agreed that "sportswear manufacturers have stolen some of the dress business." "The slipdress is key for them because it is the vehicle to layer," Trauth said. "They're saying, 'How about a T-shirt or a vest to go with that? How about a sweater, too, or that blazer we've been trying to sell?"' Because of just such activity, Trauth is scaling back her more casual junior dress business, sold under the Rabbit Juniors label. "Some people think we're out of juniors," she said. "We're not. We're offering knits and a few prints, but we're not projecting out and merchandising out like we used to. The category has become so price-driven. We don't go offshore, so it's hard to make a $12 dress." Instead, the 17-year-old firm is diverting its energy to its core business of misses' dresses sold under the Rabbit Rabbit label. "The misses' market is more diversified than it has ever been," Trauth said. "Dress buyers are bringing in a broader mix. Before, their idea of a career dress was something belted, with shoulder pads. Now, they understand that customers have multiple personalities. A working woman might wear something conservative and structured one day and something romantic and easy the next." After a six-year absence from the moderate misses' dress market, Harkham Industries, which makes junior apparel under the Jonathan Martin label, is back. Breaking with June 30 delivery, the new line--JM Studio--is aimed at women in their late 20s to mid-50s, with prices at $38 to $46 wholesale. "The timing was off last time, but stores are putting us back into that category," said Michael Hollander, JM Studio division head, who has also noticed changes at retail. "I've shopped the market the last six weeks and found that within dress areas, retro jacket and pants sets, as well as jumpsuits, are selling. They will be strong through fall," he said. "In our sportswear division, Sophisticates by Jonathan Martin, we're shipping slipdresses and bib-front suspender dresses with T-shirts. It's head-to-toe, no-brainer dressing. True related separates, mix-and-match sportswear, has not been happening." Molly Malloy's Silver said the market shift is "about breaking rules." "I came from the juniors market, and when I started in misses', I was told that sleeveless garments were a no-no," she said. "We forced the issue, and in one store, sleeveless looks accounted for three percent of the mix and 20 percent of the sales. Last year, sleeveless styles didn't ship until April 30. This year, we shipped them in February." Casual office dressing is another hot area for Molly Malloy, which wholesales for $24.75 to $39.75. Aside from Forties-style floral shirtdresses with narrow belts, the line features denim dresses and knit tops with challis skirts. While division sales increased by a solid 30 percent last year, Silver projected an even better 40 percent gain this year. The company expects sales of $250 million this year. Misses' dresses is currently a hot category for another company known for its junior business: Rampage Clothing. "We have had to be more strategic about our junior dress business, since misses' dresses have become so fashionable," said Larry Hansel, ceo of the $245 million firm. "The term 'missy' gave the category a plain-Jane connotation. It was losing ground because of price points and lack of fashion direction. Now, it's skyrocketing." "We doubled our business last year at $60 million," said Desiree Ehmcke, merchandiser of Rampage's three-and-a-half-year-old misses' dress division, CDC. "This year, we're projected to do $80 million." Ehmcke said growth has been keyed by offering contemporary fits and looks at moderate prices of $25 to $55 wholesale. That includes styles ranging from printed crepe tea-length dresses to Forties versions with contrast cuffs and collars and bib-style denim dresses and pant sets. "Two-piece sets sold together have always been a Rampage strong suit," Ehmcke said. "To me, if you don't have to buy something separate to wear under it, it's a dress." As well as things are going, she noted that dress manufacturers could use more retail support. "Instead of expanding dress department floor space, many stores are allowing their sportswear buyers to buy dresses," she said. "Stores know they can do major volume with cheap sportswear dresses." Leonard Rabinowitz, ceo of Carole Little, a big player in sportswear and dresses with sales of $368 million last year, played down the situation. "Without a doubt, it's confusing," he said. "But retailing is tough right now. I think the customer who buys a dress from the sportswear department is different from those who head for the dress department, anyway." As to the fact that his company is in both the dress and sportswear business, Rabinowitz said: "I can't tell my dress division head not to sell pants and my sportswear division head not to sell dresses. All of our divisions have to operate as virtual businesses." Carole Little Dresses expects 15 percent gains this year.
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