CLASSICS RING CHRISTMAS REGISTERS

Byline: Alice Welsh, New York; Anne Dukes, Atlanta; Michael Marlow, Los Angeles, and Rusty Williamson, Dallas

NEW YORK--For a lot of shoppers, it was a classic Christmas.
Cashmere sweaters, cotton turtlenecks, velvet leggings, chenille sweaters and merino wool separates were among the top sportswear picks as customers took the safe-and-sure route.
To spice up their selections, many shoppers showed an increased interest in color--brights as well as pastels. And not everything that moved could be called classic. Also hot were such trendy items as polar tech casualwear, satin shirts and knit dresses.
Still, the basics drove the market. As Arlene Goldstein, Parisian's fashion director, put it, "Essentials with a modern twist are what our customer is buying. They want clothes to have more of a shelf life--not trendy gimmicks."
Items that come in sizes small, medium and large are the ones that "sell most" during the holidays, said Teresa Tymoski, vice president and general merchandise manager of Henri Bendel.
"It's harder to buy pants, skirts and jackets as gifts," she added. "I expect these sales to pick up after Christmas when customers come in with Christmas money."
Bendel's reported "outstanding" results with private label active polar tech looks that include vests, jackets and little skirts retailing from $68 to $128. Other hot items were private label chenille sweaters from $90 to $125.
"Of course, red is always strong at Christmas, but all the brights have been terrific," said Tymoski.
Cashmere started out slowly at Bendel's, but picked up and passed expectations, said Tymoski.
"The twin set was number one, but we also did well with handknit tunics," she said. "Customers really responded to the pastels, and, of course, red was outstanding."
Cashmere pieces retailed from $150 to $600. Fitted satin shirts in pastels, brights and metallics were big gift items at $70.
Saks Fifth Avenue had strong sales in chenille. Tunics and short cropped styles in pastels and jewel tones were popular. Saks sold 15,000 chenille sweaters from $58 to $120, mostly private label, according to Sally Pearson, senior vice president and general merchandise manager for women's apparel.
Merino wool layering pieces, retailing from $59 for a crew neck to $120 for cardigans, were strong, with 20,000 units sold. The store offered 25 colors, and brights did best. Cashmere also moved, mostly at regular prices from $100 to $248, said Pearson.
Polar fleece was strong, in casual styles from a variety of vendors. The strongest colors were yellow, green and white. Saks sold 15,000 units at $50 to $250. Saks also did well with a private label cashmere jacket, selling 2,000 units at $500.
"It was a great item, and the traditional colors--red, navy and black--were the strongest," said Pearson.
According to Dawn Mello, president of Bergdorf Goodman, the retailer sold a lot of structured sportswear for Christmas. The store sold 22 of 25 units of a black based, multicolored embroidered Richard Tyler jacket for $1,395, and 21 of 24 units of a classic navy blazer from Giorgio Armani at $1,200.
From Gucci, the store sold 18 of 21 black jodhpurs at $257 and 14 beige suede jackets at $495. It sold all 31 pieces of an Isaac Mizrahi plaid big shirt for $565, according to Mello.
Bergdorf also scored with cashmere.
"We sold tons of it. Almost every piece of bright-colored cashmere was sold. Twins sets were strong, as well as styles with novelty stitching," said Mello. She noted that Malo, Tse and the store's private label were strong performers. A particular success was a reversible jacket-type sweater from Lyle & Scott that sold out at $700. Bergdorf's also sold 17 of 21 short-sleeved cashmere sweaters from Calvin Klein for $260.
Kmart Corp., based in Troy, Mich., moved basics during the holidays. The strongest items were velvet leggings, cotton turtlenecks and novelty Christmas-motif fleece sweatshirts, according to Rick Pellino, divisional vice president of women's apparel.
At Parisian stores, based in Birmingham, Ala., classics were also the big sellers. Fashion director Arlene Goldstein said turtlenecks from Eagles Eye were strong in all colors for $15. A private label group of reverse French terry almost sold out. Styles included a V-neck sweater, pull-on pants and cardigans from $36 to $49. An oversized garment-dyed sweatshirt performed well for $39, especially in purple.
Also big was a wool and cashmere blend jacket from Harvé Benard in black, evergreen and red for $158. Goldstein was somewhat surprised at the popularity of sportswear knit dresses. A long column style in both solid and Black Watch plaid sold well for $48 to $68.
In California, holiday sportswear sales were led by cold-weather items. At Theodore, a six-unit chain in Los Angeles, skiwear and ski-inspired sportswear from the The Wave and Blue System were hot, as were classic sweaters, jog suits and other hooded styles, all in cashmere. A private label cashmere collection in pastels, with items selling from $200 to $500, was the store's best-selling line overall, according to owner Herb Fink.
At Gottschalks, a 27-unit department store based in Fresno, Calif., recycled vintage men's jackets in small sizes were a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy junior sportswear area, according to Joe Levy, chairman and chief executive officer. The store sold more than 1,000 units per week at $19.99 each. Cashmere from various vendors was popular at Gottschalks, particularly in sweaters.
Anything cashmere was by far the hottest seller at the Neiman Marcus store at Atlanta's Lenox Square, according to a spokeswoman.
Sweaters with matching elasticized-waist pants in all colors have been popular, she said, with tops from $127 to $301 and pants from $179 to $194. Sweater styles ran the gamut, from cable knits to turtlenecks and mock turtles and crew necks, she said.
Loungewear that can also be worn as ready-to-wear, featuring a long tunic over a pull-on pant in navy or beige, sold well at $400, she said. Donna Karan's 95 percent cashmere blend slouch socks at $60, regular socks at $40 and knee-highs at $70 have been part of Neiman's yearly cashmere promotion, which offered special prices on the luxury fabric from Thanksgiving until Christmas, the spokeswoman said.
Novelty sweaters, especially "Nutcracker"-themed ones by Michael Simon at $198, were terrific sellers, she said. Military-style beaded and embroidered sweaters by Marisa Christina, from $120 to $250, were snapped up, she said.
At Isaacson's, Atlanta, president Louise Bernard found cashmere as popular as it was at Neiman's. Cashmere and cashmere-blend blazers in red and navy were sold out the week before Christmas. Cashmere sweaters, either turtlenecks, mock Ts or pullovers, from $170 to $300, and T-shirts from $60 to $80 were also popular, said Bernard.
Isaacson's also sold many leisure outerwear sets by Escada Sport.
"I'm not sure people are buying these as gifts, or just because they're so comfortable," said Bernard. Jogging outfits and a reversible quilted jacket in plaids or solids, from $300 to $600, did extraordinarily well, she said.
Velvet was the top seller at Rexer Parkes, a women's specialty store in Atlanta, this year, said co-owner Marie Rexer. California manufacturer BCBG's tops and pants in crushed velvet or regular velvet have been popular with her customers since September, she said, adding that velvet has become more than just a party look, and goes with jeans and casualwear.
Brown and black separates by Karen Kane, at $90 to $120, sold well and some navy silk velvet by Susie Tompkins was also popular. Rexer noted that a separate button-front top, which can be worn as a jacket, in black or ivory, at $188, was a winner.
Led chiefly by casual silhouettes, sportswear showed gains of 6 percent over last year at Carson Pirie Scott, Milwaukee, according to Tony Buccina, senior vice president and general merchandise manager for women's apparel.
He added that special-category sportswear, including petites and large sizes, was up at least 10 percent.
Velour blends, mostly tunics over matching pants, was a hot category from makers such as Liz Claiborne, Jones New York, Sag Harbour, Alfred Drunner and Great Lakes, Carson's private label.
Casual knits, typically rendered as cardigans or tunics over pants, were bestsellers from Liz & Co., Jones New York and Hot Cotton. Casual silk jog sets from Murelli also checked quickly.
Carson's reported a brisk business in merino wool, cashmere, fine-gauge, acrylic knit and cotton sweaters from several vendors, with $28 to $79.99 the most popular price range.
At Mercantile Stores Co., Fairfield, Ohio, sportswear bestsellers included Marisa Christina Collection's handknit animal-print cotton sweaters, at $150 to $160; David Dart's white and blue striped Tencil sportswear group, at $56 to $140; Seattle Gear's quilted white cotton knit sportswear collection, at $80 to $260, and Eileen Fisher's taupe and navy yarn-dyed laundered linen sportswear group, at $80 to $110.
Nautical collections at $35 to $90 from Norton McNaughton and McNaughton Wear also proved hits, according to Pat Fowler, divisional merchandise manager for women's sportswear at the 103-store chain.
A spokeswoman for J.C. Penney Co., Plano, Tex., said sweaters--from fine and delicate styles to novelty tunics--were a big holiday hit.
The chain sold about 80,000 ramie and cotton embroidered tunics from its Worthington private label sportswear line; they were available in six colors at $38. Other popular styles from various vendors included fine-gauge sweaters from $28 to $32, cardigans at $29.99 to $48 and novelty sweaters at $42 to $98.
Tops in styles from simple T-shirts to embroidered blouses to vests were strong.
Bestsellers included embroidered and embellished white polyester blouses, at an average price of $36, from Kathy Che and Penney's private label Christie & Jill; polyester tunics and oversized shirts at $29.99 to $32 from Christie & Jill; velveteen or brocade vests at $25 to $29 from several makers, and cotton and rayon T-shirts at $15 from Worthington.
Men's wear-style trousers from Worthington, at $29, also were a holiday success at Penney's.YULE BESTSELLERS
Cashmere sweaters
Velvet tops, pants and leggings
Novelty sweaters
Casual outerwear
Blazers

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