RETURN OF GLAMOUR MAKES SUITS, DRESSES BIG SELLERS FOR SPRING
NEW YORK--Dresses and suits are in the midst of a retail revival, and makers are charged up for a blockbuster spring. Whether they sell to mass chains or upscale department and specialty stores, dress and suit makers feel they've stolen market share from career sportswear, which they say has become stale. They point to the relative affordability of ready-to-wear compared to separates as a key factor, but more importantly, they say dresses and suits are capitalizing on some hot trends. These include: Dress ensembles, mixing dresses with jackets or coats. Shiny satins, silks and matte jerseys, often mixed together, as well as textured goods. Body-hugging dresses and jackets, with an emphasis on the waist--including dresses and jackets with slim belts, jackets with nipped-in shapes and curvy dresses. Simple, colorful casual looks, such as rompers, short suits, fit-and-flares, coatdresses. Pantsuits with cigarette pants and short jackets. As reported, retailers are experiencing a big fall rtw season, and are looking for the momentum to continue for spring. Nicole Fischelis, fashion director for Saks Fifth Avenue, said dresses and suits should be "extremely strong for spring, because there are so many strong options." A big trend is dress ensembles, Fischelis said, particularly "simple little dresses" under long trench jackets or coats. Pastels and candy brights should give dresses and suits "impulse power" with consumers, along with a mixing of fabrics, notably shiny goods paired with matte fabrics. In suits, safari looks should make a comeback for spring, and cigarette pantsuits with curvy jackets, which have sold well for fall, should continue to be strong, she said. Lavelle Olexa, senior vice president for fashion merchandising at Lord & Taylor, said, "The whole glamour movement in fashion is having a positive effect on dresses and suits and should be a real shot in the arm for business for the rest of the year and into spring. "Shaped jackets in suits and in dress ensembles are important and have been all over the runways in Europe and New York," Olexa added. "The great colors I'm seeing should be very refreshing for spring. We're extremely excited about dress and suit businesses, which are very important categories for our stores." As they dive into market weeks, rtw executives are ecstatic about their category's fall performance and are eyeing big gains for spring. "We're seeing a rebirth in dresses and suits, and we're leaving sportswear in the dust," said Morris Marmalstein, president of The Warren Group. "Young women that grew up with sportswear are looking for something new, something that's versatile and offers more value." The hottest line for The Warren Group right now is its two-year-old DW3 collection of updated, contemporary one and two-piece dresses and soft suits. Wholesaling for $59 to $89, the division is on track to reach $15 million in volume this year, Marmalstein said. "Based on the current success we're having and the reaction to previews with retailers, it's going to be a terrific season," Marmalstein said. Carolina Herrera is planning a 10 to 15 percent gain for spring, said Michael Pellegrino, president and chief executive officer. The collection features short-sleeve linen dresses and suits, beaded silk organza gowns, and silk and satin-faced organza fluted evening gowns with matching jackets. "We see success when we offer something truly different. A good design will sell at any price," he said. "The hardest thing to design is something that is not controversial but that makes a statement." In an attempt to cover more territory earlier in the spring season, Herrera will conduct three trunk shows simultaneously in different regions of the country, Pellegrino said. "Spring is usually a great dress season, and with dresses doing so well at retail for fall, it looks like a great season coming up," said designer Cynthia Rowley. "With the strong return to femininity, dresses really show off a woman's shape better than sportswear. Dresses have become the real put-together look." Rowley said silhouettes that emphasize the bustline and waistline are important as an overall trend of close-to-the-body looks. Flirty bias-cut dresses should also be key for spring, Rowley said. "Last spring's slipdresses got a lot of people back into dresses as a sportswear alternative," Rowley said. "There are also a lot of sportswear influences in dresses now. Women aren't afraid to look sexy anymore, and there's nothing sexier than a hot-looking dress." Bud Konheim, president of Nicole Miller, said, "The major change in styling is coming in dresses and suits. There is no hot sportswear idea out there except maybe for kilts, and they're not new and they're not for everybody." For spring, designer Nicole Miller is offering a wide color range in easy bodies. Konheim said rtw has also taken the lead in using and developing new fabrics, particularly new stretch goods and a mix of shiny and matte finishes. "Dresses are easier to buy and wear," Konheim said. "After two springs of disappointment, it looks really terrific for us. We don't have one order in yet for spring, but I've planned our fabric buy up 15 to 20 percent." Dress house Tom & Linda Platt is planning at least a 20 percent increase for spring, said principal Tom Platt. Fit-and-flare dresses and A-line dresses in silk crepe or linen should fuel spring business, he said. "The ripped jeans and Gap T-shirt era is over. Customers are more discerning and sophisticated," Platt said. "It's our responsibility to make a better product in terms of quality and fit, to make women want to replenish their wardrobes." A 30 percent gain is projected for spring at Mary McFadden, according to Dede Shipman, president. To get a jump on spring this year, McFadden will kick off its 45-store trunk show tour within two weeks, instead of after Thanksgiving, she said. The spring collection mixes sheer soft layers under more structured pieces and less beading, giving the looks a lighter and more feminine feel, said Shipman. "People are buying more glamorous clothes," Shipman said. "They're willing to get dressed up again." At McFadden's secondary line, MMCF, division president Bob Pitofsky projects a 30 to 40 percent increase for spring. Pitofsky said ensemble dressing--coats or jackets with dresses, tunics over dresses--is key, highlighted by a variety of jacket shapes--from officer's looks to mandarin. "Dress and suit business has been very good this fall," Pitofsky said. "Sportswear has reached a saturation point and has become so repetitious that it no longer interests the customer. Grunge looks are dead. Glamour and femininity are in, which falls into the lap of ready-to-wear." Jon Levy, president of The Gillian Group, said he's seeing a "large increase in suits and a nice increase in dresses." "Suits are being accepted more by women as a good investment and a better value than sportswear," Levy said. "There's a new feeling of energy and creativity in the dress and suit market. Clothes in general got redundant the last few years, and it's the ready-to-wear market that's come up with the new shapes and ideas." Levy said based on early bookings and a strong Dallas market, he's planning on at least a 15 percent increase in all his divisions. Liz Claiborne's segmenting of its dress business into three separate elements--Collection, Nights and Liz Now--is proving successful for spring, said Harriet Mosson, president of the dress and suit division. "We feel 1995 is going to be a really good dress year," Mosson said. "Spring is off to a very strong start and there are a lot of great trends happening." Mosson said color blocking, long column dresses, pantsuits and ensemble dresses are selling well. The new Liz Now line of soft, contemporary dresses was well received at the Dallas market, Mosson said, with long, easy dresses and crystal pleated A-lines doing well. "From East Coast to West Coast, dresses seem to be the outstanding item in the stores," said Robert Adler, ceo of Kellwood Co.'s Halmode division. "Our bookings are way ahead for early spring. In some cases we're 80 to 90 percent sold out, and we still have a lot of major stores to see in November." Adler projects a 35 to 40 percent increase for spring. He said sales are robust in all of the firm's dress divisions--the M.H.M. --Sunshine/Starshine popular-price division, the moderate-price Vintage Dress juniors line, and the moderate-price Kathie Lee for Plaza South unit, where structured suits are also strong. "The customer is responding to dresses in long and short silhouettes, and that's a healthy sign," Adler said. "The price-value equation remains very important in the consumer's mind right now, and ready-to-wear seems to be benefiting by it." At the Kasper Suits division of The Leslie Fay Cos., considered the country's largest suit resource with a volume of about $350 million, a 20 to 25 percent gain is expected for spring, said Greg Marks, president. Marks said the company's in-stock program, which provides immediate delivery on a umber of styles, has been strong, and pantsuits continue to be important. Special touches such as detachable collars and suits with matching scarves are important, along with textured fabrics, like polyester microfibers, slubby rayons and silky acetates. In Kasper Dresses, a 20 percent increase is planned for spring, said Camille Passaro, division president. Passaro said dresses are on track to reach a volume of $50 million this year. Coatdresses are the mainstay of the line, Passaro said, with dress and jacket ensembles also getting good reaction. At the two-year-old Constance Saunders division of Depeche Mode, bright colors such as pink, coral, blue and orange are being shown in fitted, structured suit jackets and dress ensembles. On the softer side are romantic floral print dresses and tunics over skirts. "The feedback I'm getting from buyers, as well as consumers at trunk shows, is that women love the diversity in dresses and suits," said designer Constance Saunders, who projects 25 percent increase for spring. "There's a lot of repetition in sportswear, while ready-to-wear is offering more design detail. That only makes it a better value."
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