SOFT, SEXY SPORTSWEAR SELLS

Byline: Lisa Lockwood, Janet Ozzard and Alice Welsh

NEW YORK--Even for the sportswear crowd, the summer season is full of dresses, dresses, dresses.
While there are still some jackets, loose pants and items such as vests and T-shirts offered, the dress in various silhouettes dominates sportswear showrooms during summer selling.
Other top indicators for the season are:
Limited color palettes. Most designers are offering neutrals such as black, white, navy and tans, with accent groups of icy pastels or vibrant acid colors.
A return of softer fabrics and styles. Even though spring saw a return to structure, the summer customer demands comfort first.
Sales increases ranging from 10 to 25 percent over last year.
Wear-now timing. Summer shipments hit the stores in April and only go through July.
"It's a very short season, but still relevant, and the earlier we get it into the stores, the better our sell-throughs are," said Susan Sokol, president of Calvin Klein Collection.
"It's very important to our business right now to have merchandise in the stores that is wear-now," said Tony Longoria, Todd Oldham's business partner. And trends that aren't comfortable enough for steamy city days or weekends out of town fall by the wayside, replaced by easier looks such as loose pants with a T-shirt, a sheer top over slim pants or, this year, the inevitable dress.
Ralph Lauren Womenswear expects its summer Collection business to be up 20 percent from a year ago, said Stuart Kreisler, a consultant to the company. He attributed this to the addition of a transitional group to the summer line.
The company has developed some new sourcing, and prices on the summer line are even with a year ago, he said.
"Summer is a quick season and you want to minimize your liability at the wholesale and retail level," he said. "We feel it's a quick six weeks, in and out."
In the Ralph collection, the hot trends are shiny, sheer and lots of short tops.
"What's emerged are baby crop Polo T-shirts," he said. "It's one of the outstanding items that has a traditional side to it." Kreisler expects a 30 percent increase in summer business in the Ralph collection, which he also attributes to an additional transitional group.
"Summer is traditionally a very strong season for Isaac Mizrahi," said Jayne Harkness, senior vice president of sales and merchandising. "It's marketed as a transition line, with fabrics that are lightweight and have a casualness and ease to them," she said. The key element has also been the dress, which is being offered in a variety of fabrics.
"For us, summer is a completely separate look," said Angela Ahrendts, president of Donna Karan Collection. "There are some key bodies that have carried over into the season, but there are others, like soft dresses, that are unto themselves. They aren't quite career enough for spring, but they aren't appropriate for fall either."
"There are lots of dresses, lots of sweaters, and the jacket becomes less important," said Klein's Sokol.
One example of comfort before style in the summer is the reappearance of longer lengths. That's particularly true in dresses, according to Salvina Sultana, vice president of sales at Escada.
"We do well with long during the summer, because it's so easy," she said. "The dresses tend to be pretty simple, but they always have some detail, like crisscross straps or a plunge back."
"The dress is a great transition piece; so is a vest, so is a shrunken T-shirt," said Longoria. "Items will continue to surface throughout spring. It's inexpensive, fun, frivolous."
At Adrienne Vittadini Collection, the bias-cut tank dress at about $135 wholesale has been a key silhouette for summer. The company has done well overall with soft, feminine looks such as floral silk bias-cut skirts, and fitted ribbed knits in novelty yarns.
In fact, execs say they are letting textured fabric make the statement, with piqués, ottomans, rib knits and slubbed cloth using linen, rayon, silk, cotton and various blends.
While bright colors do better in summer than in other seasons, most of the designers say they are sticking to the neutrals they are known for--although at Escada and Oldham's better-price Times Seven line, bright colors are mainstays, as usual.
Another business move that's gaining in popularity is to combine spring and summer market weeks. Some manufacturers have always done it, while others are trying it out for the first time this year, such as Donna Karan.
"We are at a point where we do almost half of our business overseas," said Karan's Ahrendts. "Those stores just will not make the trip to come in again in January. You have to get them when they're here in the fall." Ahrendts said she hasn't heard any objections from U.S. stores.
"They like it because they can plan out their dollars for the entire season, and we moved delivery up so we are delivering a month early."
Escada's Sultana said the combined market week also helps keep costs down for the company, which can buy fabrics and book production time earlier.
Ellen Tracy also showed summer with spring during market week in the fall.
According to Linda Allard, designer of the line, the trends are "Closer to the body, sexy-flirty styles. We used fabrics such as silk and an acetate viscose crepe that can be worn throughout the year."
"For spring we did pastels and colors, but our summer story was black and white with red accents," said Allard.
But the biggest trend is dresses. Always important for summer, they have become the dominant trend. "They do have a larger presence than usual," Ahrendts said. "We are still doing the slim pants and soft bathrobe jackets, and Donna introduced a sleeveless jacket in the spring that's carrying over to summer, but dresses are very big. We're showing the knee-length and also very long, just above the ankle."
For the DKNY bridge line, which finished its summer bookings last month, dresses were also the top category, according to vice president of sales and marketing Susan Clatworthy. In addition to soft floral and geometric print dresses, she said that body-conscious dresses in rayon and spandex, as well as slipdresses, were key for the season.
"We include two to four dress silhouettes in every delivery," said Brad Saltzman, vice president of marketing at Adrienne Vittadini. "The sportswear customer wants to buy dresses in the sportswear department so she can relate them back to her sportswear pieces."
At Tahari, president Tom Murry said that dresses are now 7 percent of the sportswear line, which he said "is particularly noteworthy, when you consider we have a separate dress division."
Tahari's jackets are going more toward soft and small, Murry said, becoming more body-conscious than in the past.

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