EVENINGWEAR GLISTENS AT RETAIL

Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK--The return of glamour has eveningwear manufacturers ready to dance all night.
Boosted by a strong overall dress category for fall, retailers are projecting buoyant business for eveningwear through the end of the year.
Although it generally doesn't start to pick up steam until late October, eveningwear kicked in a few weeks earlier this year, retail executives said.
The phenomenon is not limited to any one price range. Moderate-price stores like Parisian and J.C. Penney Co. as well as high-end shops like Bergdorf Goodman project eveningwear gains of more than 10 percent.
Slim silk column dresses, sleeveless sequined cocktail dresses and polyester organza ball gown skirts are a few of the leading looks.
At Bergdorf's, there has been "a tremendous response" to body-conscious clothing, according to Joseph Boitano, senior vice president and general merchandise manager of apparel. With matte jersey dresses selling "extremely well," the company was planning for a 10 to 15 percent increase for holiday, he said.
"Anything that's bias-cut has been strong," Boitano said. "We're selling very sensual and sexy clothes that are sophisticated at the same time."
Whiting & Davis, Nicole Farhi, Melinda Eng and Paco Rabanne were some of the leading resources at Bergdorf's, he said. Black is easily the best-selling color, but there was some response to brights, he said. Short dresses accounted for 60 percent of all sales, Boitano said.
Eveningwear sales are the strongest they have been in three years at Rich's, a 24-unit chain based in Atlanta, according to Sheila Kamensky, vice president and fashion director. The firm plans for a double-digit percentage increase for holiday.
"We're in a period of real glamour, and women are excited about the styles," Kamensky said. "The mood is to be dressed up, fashionable and a little bit sexy."
Beaded dresses with coordinated jackets by Stenay and Lawrence Kazar were important holiday looks, she said. Each line retails from $80 to $250.
Separates such as Patra's silk organza blouse and a rayon crepe tea-length skirt were also boosting sales, she said, as were long rayon crepe dresses.
Long dresses in rayon velvet or rayon crepe by En Français, Ever Beauty and Jessica Howard were key resources for Rich's and have strengthened sales, Kamensky said. At Penney's, T-shirt dresses and halter dresses in sparkle Lycra spandex have been exceptional performers, according to Patti Evans, buyer for special-occasion dresses. "Business got off to a boom early this year. We saw sales pick up in mid-September," Evans said. "We try to keep our goods under $150; that's where the volume is."
Rayon acetate dresses and polyester georgette dresses in a variety of lengths by Patra, Cache and After Dark were selling well, she said. Merchandising Jump, Zum Zum and a few other junior dress resources with women's lines, she added, created a "tremendous amount" of crossover buying.
Evening separates, selling in dress departments, were essential eveningwear items at Lord & Taylor, according to Lavelle Olexa, senior vice president for fashion merchandising. Consumers were buying bustiers, illusion tops and polyester organza ball skirts by Oleg Cassini and Chetta B, because they easily update any look, she said.
"The whole emphasis on the bodice brings newness to consumers. Glamour is new again," Olexa said. "When people are dressing up, they like to look glamorous. If it's fashionable, that's even better."
Jacobson Stores, a 10-unit chain based in Jackson, Mich., plans for at least a 10-percent increase for eveningwear, according to Herman Heinle, vice president and divisional merchandise manager for sportswear and dresses.
Many consumers were purchasing pantsuits, since the myriad of skirt lengths is confusing, he said. Rayon crepe or silk pantsuits by Joseph Ribkoff and Farouche were leading looks, Heinle said. The collections sell for about $160 to $220.
Liz Claiborne Nights, introduced at Jacobson's in early September, had quickly become an important component in the eveningwear business, he said. The line is expected to enhance holiday volume by 8 percent.
With retail prices ranging from $218 to $278, Claiborne's knee-length styles, such as a polyester crepe slim skirt with a beaded jacket, had generated a good deal of business, he said.
Looking to differentiate itself from major department stores in the area, Jacobson's picked up Liz Claiborne Nights and a few other better-priced brands that are selective in their distribution, he said. Compared with last year, consumers are spending about 11 percent more on holiday eveningwear.
Eveningwear at all price points has traditionally meant big business for Saks Fifth Avenue, according to Nicole Fischelis, vice president and fashion director.
Evening suits with cinched waists, tuxedo looks, ball-gown skirts, bustiers, corsets and other separates are some of the major trends.
After receiving a strong response from its first special-occasion catalog last year, Saks will send another national catalog in March.
A.J. Bari, Laundry, Carmen Marc Valvo, Oleg Cassini and After Five are some of the best-selling resources for Saks, Fischelis said.
"We have had incredible success in eveningwear," she said. "It's a growth business for us. We plan to intensify each level in the store." Saks has been working to promote Heidi Weisel, Jan Purcell and other young designers "as much as possible," Fischelis said. The company has developed its young designer area by holding trunk shows and maintaining exclusive distribution of their lines.
Liz Claiborne Nights has also been a strong performer at Parisian in Birmingham, Ala., where cocktail suits and lightly beaded dresses are key items, according to a company spokeswoman. Most customers select items from Claiborne's new line, which retails around $250.
Eveningwear sales picked up in mid-October, after the company sent a special occasion direct-mail piece to consumers, she said.
Tuxedo dressing has been an important element of holiday looks and A.J. Bari's polyester crepe black tuxedo vest with velvet trim and rhinestone buttons and a column skirt at $240 were among the top sellers at Parisian.
Two-piece dressing has been an important part of the eveningwear business, she said. Positively Ellen's polyester organza long-sleeved blouse in burnt gold at $70 retail with a long rayon velvet skirt or polyester crepe narrow pants at $78 was a bestseller.
A polyester crepe Empire beaded dress by Donna Morgan for Maggy, at $220 retail, and Carmen Marc Valvo's polyester silver Lurex pantsuit at $470, were popular items this fall, she said.
"There's been a very strong reaction to anything elegant," she said. "A lot of people are buying separates, which has opened up opportunities in terms of our special-occasion business."

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