NEW YORK--After several lackluster seasons, women are once again taking a shine to dresses.
According to retail executives, there's an uptick in dresses, particularly in A-line silhouettes, sheaths, shine and day-into-evening looks.
In a spot survey, several store executives said the market currently offers newness and more options, and that there is the potential for more business.
"We've identified a lot of key looks and key bestsellers we will maximize," said Stephanie Zernik, vice president and divisional merchandise manager for dresses and suits at Bloomingdale's.
"Last year, we weren't as liquid to react to things," Zernik said. "We learned a lot from spring and altered our strategy for fall. We had competition within the sportswear division in daytime and promotional dresses. I've taken the strategy of offering my ladies day-to-dinner dresses that are multifunction and clearly a value."
Bloomingdale's, which opened a Tahari dress and suit boutique at its New York flagship in September, will add dress and suit shops for Dana Buchman, Andrea Jovine, Ellen Tracy and Laundry at the end of the month. In addition, a shop for Carmen Marc Valvo, an evening resource, will open at the flagship, Zernik said.
Key looks for Bloomingdale's include Dana Buchman's cardigan over a satin dress and Cynthia Rowley's jacket dresses and sheath dresses.
"Nicole Miller has been terrific," Zernik added. "It has been driven by satins and the whole Asian influence. We've had about four bestsellers from Nicole Miller."Zernik also cited Laundry's simple and lace-embellished dinner dresses.
"The only thing in real daytime is that knits are very strong," Zernik said, citing Andrea Jovine at the bridge level and Carole Little at better prices. Zernik said the dress division is making its plan. "Short dresses are selling much better than long," said Sally Lawrence, general merchandise manager of Charlotte Russe, a San Diego-based chain of 33 specialty stores in California, Arizona and Nevada. "A-line silhouettes are booming in casual as well as dressy. Polyester prints and anything slinky, stretchy or with shine on it--including satin for day or evening--is blowing out of the stores."
Particularly strong have been the Marian & Maral line, Knapp Studio's solid and printed A-line satin wrap dresses with Empire waists and XOXO's satin A-line styles with embroidered bodices. All sell in the $30 to $50 range.
Marcia Rodgers, senior fashion coordinator of women's ready-to-wear at Macy's West, agreed with the shine assessment. "Across the board, the Macy's customer is going for shine, whether it's a plain or printed satin dress or simple satin trim," Rodgers said. "Stretch velvet and stretch velour are also big."
So is the sheath. "It's huge," said Rodgers. She has been surprised by the popularity of the Chinese look, whether in cheong-sams, tunics, long dresses, or simple Mandarin collars and fabrications that add no more than a hint of Chinese.
Dress sales are up 30 percent for the month of October over the same period last year at Jacobson's, a 10-unit specialty chain based in Winter Park, Fla. But like other retailers, Jacobson's said casual and contemporary dresses are growing, while the classic, career dress area is down.
"The standard career dress is being replaced by more casual, fun dresses," said Herman Heinley, divisional merchandise manager. "That's where all the action is." Bloomingdale's Zernik agreed that career dresses have been less robust but said the store chose to focus on day-to-dinner looks.
"We didn't buy as much straight career because I feel customers can get that within Bloomingdale's in the sportswear area," she said. "Where we can really capture our customer base is by offering something to wear to an occasion."
"We have a well-established business, particularly in special occasion, and we're developing a casual, contemporary area," said Arlene Goldstein, fashion director of Birmingham, Ala.-based Parisian. Special occasion looks that have performed well includeslipdresses with bolero jackets, A-line shapes, beaded trims and lace treatments. Parisian will emphasize contemporary casual looks, such as long floral bias cut styles, Empire silhouettes with jackets, jumpers and denim looks of all kinds, said Goldstein. "This has been inspired by casual Fridays, and the growth of the dress as an alternative for weekend dressing," said Goldstein.
Resources in this category include Carole Little, Laundry, Linda Segal and Deborah Laws. The store will also test Barbara Lesser, David Dart and Bonnie Straus, Goldstein said.
While career dresses may be a soft spot, dresses seem to be popular at the designer level. At Lilly Dodson, a women's better-to-designer store in Dallas, fall dress business is ahead 24 percent, said Bill Dodson, president. Overall sales against last year are also ahead 24 percent.

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