Byline: Arthur Friedman and Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK--Dress makers are riding a wave of renewed interest in the category as they sail into the resort season.
Buoyed by strong spring retailing and fast-paced fall bookings, dress firms here--from popular to designer--expect the upward curve to continue for resort and early spring. They're counting on looks that are updated but not too trendy, done in fresh colors and fabrics, to help keep up the momentum they've picked up this year, after a less than exuberant 1993.
Dress executives say they're generally expecting a full complement of buyers over the next two market weeks, including May Department Stores Co. buyers, even though May has decided it would no longer send buyers to innerwear and certain other market weeks. However, vendors point out that they will have to make separate trips to Dallas to sell Dillard Department Stores and to Fairfield, Ohio, to sell Mercantile Stores.
Jon Levy, president of The Gillian Group, said his firm's day and career dress business--the bridge-priced Gillian collection and better-priced Gigi line--is ahead 18 to 20 percent so far this year, after being planned for only a 10 percent overall gain. He said he expects that pace to continue for resort and early spring.
"I'm encouraged by the prevailing optimistic attitude of the buyers," Levy said. "Dresses are definitely on the uptick. The key word is 'perceived value.' We're emphasizing quality control over price. Consumers today want a product that has a lot of end uses, will last a long time, has a level of newness, but isn't too trendy. If you have those elements, dresses are a very good investment."
Nancy Fabrikant, president of Steve Fabrikant & Co., said resort is a "true wear-now season," for its traditional wool and rayon knit collection and its new collection of wovens, which was introduced for spring.
So far, in early bookings, the excitement is coming from a group of crinkle silk checks, plaids and solids, and a natural patchwork weave viscose and wool group. In knits, Fabrikant is featuring a soft palette of celadon, French vanilla, baby pink and baby blue in A-line, fit-and-flare, Empire and flounce-skirt shapes.
Fabrikant said she's planning on a 15 percent gain for the season, but should do better, thanks to increased business in Japan and with Holt Renfrew stores in Canada.
Nicole Miller Ltd. is putting on its first resort runway show at its newly expanded showroom at 525 Seventh Ave., because the season has grown in importance, said Bud Konheim, president.
"It's part of our strategy to focus on specific niche-driven markets, in this case dresses that women pack and wear to the islands or Mexico," Konheim said."
Konheim said shades of pink and blue are important in A-line and other curvy shapes. Important fabrics include Lycra spandex and nylon, linen or cotton basketweave, and stripe rayon and cotton.
Dresses comprise 75 percent of Oscar de la Renta's resort collection, according to Hank Waeckerle, director of sales. Waeckerle projects a 15 to 20 percent increase for resort.
Dress sales contributed more than a third of the designer's fall business and are expected to stay strong in the months ahead, he said.
"This is a very good time for dresses because there's been such a resurgence," he said. "Oscar has always believed strongly in dresses."
Key fabrics include silk charmeuse, silk crepe and silk and wool tweeds, done primarily in slipdresses and variations of a jacket and a paper taffeta skirt with a silk chiffon draped bodice. Lipstick pink, melon, parrot green, ice blue, soft pink and cocoa will be important colors.
At Badgley Mischka Dress, a new lower-priced line of day and late day dresses by the designer eveningwear firm, made its first showing at retail for fall last month. A better than expected reaction to trunk shows and stock sell-throughs resulted in an upgrade in first-year projections from $2 million to $5 million, said designers Mark Badgley and James Mischka.
For resort and early spring, Badgley Mischka Dress is counting on looks such as a group of soft pastel satin-back crepe fit-and-flares and chemises, and a brights group done in novelty silk and wool plaid, and cotton piquÄ, using a variety of novelty treatments, Mischka said.
"The return of more structure and the affordability and ease of wearing dresses has helped us launch the division," Badgley said, noting that for spring, wholesale prices will drop to $150 to $270, about 10 to 20 percent less than fall's prices.
Tom Platt, half of the design team of Tom & Linda Platt, projects a 15 to 20 percent increase for resort. Resort sales contribute 33 percent of the company's annual volume, he said, with a strong concentration on cocktail pieces.
With wholesale prices from $150 to $500, dresses are being offered in fabrics such as silk chiffon, silk crepe, rayon crepe, silk organza and linen done in white and shades of pink, light blue and lavender.
A 15 to 20 percent increase for resort is expected at the Warren Group's seven dress divisions, according to Morris Marmalstein, president.
In addition to traditional linen and cotton resort offerings, each collection has increased its offerings by 20 percent to include more silk, rayon crepe, polyester crepe and other seasonless fabrications, based on strong selling last year on such items.
By offering a variety of sleeve and skirt lengths, the resort collections are appropriate for all regions of the country, he said.
"Now we'll be selling to people who normally wouldn't buy until November," said Marmalstein, noting that resort dresses will feature pastels and brights mostly in solids, mixed with some prints.
Sales are running 35 to 40 percent ahead this year at Halmode Apparel, according to Robert Adler, president. The multidivision company, which has offerings ranging from popular to moderate prices, is on track to generate $120 million this year in dresses, a 20 percent increase over last year.
Adler projects overall volume will be $160 million this year, showing steady growth since 1991, when volume was $73 million.
The firm's Vintage Dress division is "on a roll with slipdresses," Adler said, and will continue that look for early spring. This includes branded merchandise to department stores and private label dresses to national chains. Volume in this division should hit $20 million this year.
The firm's three-year-old Kathie Lee for Plaza South moderate-priced collection is on track to hit $50 million in sales this year, compared with $35 million in 1993. Sunshine-Starshine/Melissa Harper, Halmode's popular-priced dress lines aimed at the mass market, will do a combined $35 million this year in branded and private label merchandise, Adler said.
"The state of retailing is changing, with a shift to lower-price goods at the moderate department stores and a greater emphasis on fashion at the chains," Adler said. "Since we're very price-driven, that helps us. The recession has sobered people up, and you can no longer differentiate the needs of the mass market customer from the department store customer."
Slipdresses have been fueling sales in all divisions at Expo, said David Mercer, president, a trend that should continue for resort.
Mercer said he expects resort to be "phenomenal." Sales are expected to increase by 20 percent in the Expo division, while sales for Expo Night should see increases of 15 percent, said Mercer. A 25 percent increase is projected for Beau David, the firm's better-priced line.
"I've never seen anything happen so quickly and to such depth," Mercer said of the slipdresses. "It started on both coasts, but now it's all over the Midwest."
At the Scarlett Nite division of Dalil Fashions, business is ahead by 30 percent so far this year and is expected to continue through resort, said Holly Thorner, executive vice president. A big plus has been increased distribution in chains, such as Sears, and in Europe, notably Germany and Holland, as well as Russia, the Czech Republic and South America.
Key resort styles include long slit dresses and short black T-shirt dresses, with rayon crepe and satin acetate the top fabrics.

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