JUNIOR TRENDS BOOST BETTER BUSINESS

NEW YORK--This fall, junior looks--including tartan kilts, tight Lycra spandex T-shirts and jumpers--are giving the better sportswear market a spark at stores around the country. Knit dressing continues to be strong, including knit tops and layered looks. And with tailored career outfits trending down for the past few seasons, items such as military-style jackets, vests and tapered pants have become the must-haves for the career wardrobe this season.
Here, a look at what's checking throughout the country.

Northeast
"What looks like the hip schoolgirl look is selling in our market," said Kevin McLaughlin, design director at J. McLaughlin, a wholesaler that operates four stores--two here, one in Westport, Conn., and another in Princeton, N.J. "The fabric may be a little different, and the hemline is a little longer, but the look is the same."
One of the biggest sellers is its $98 tartan kilt, of which some 300 units were sold over the past four-week period. Other hot items include ribbed cotton mock turtlenecks at $98 and $38 cotton Lycra spandex T-shirts, worn with its navy and gray wool flannel jumper at $184. About 96 units were sold in both styles of tops in the past four weeks.
McLaughlin said the jacket business has been strong. The best-selling looks are the military style, riding jackets and tartan plaids with velvet collars. About 40 blazers with velvet trim, priced at $268, were sold over a four-week period.
At Sealfon's, a five-store chain based in Ridgewood, N.J., long vests worn over leggings, chenille sweaters and silk knit sweater sets are strong, according to Jean Reynolds, a sportswear buyer and merchandise manager.
Sealfon's best-selling labels are Carole Little and Platinum, although the store also does well with its private-label merchandise, which accounts for about 25 percent of its business. Talbot's, the 350-unit retailer based in Hingham, Mass., said vests, tartan plaid kilts, and jumpers were the biggest sellers this month at its stores across the country.
"We noticed that the same trends across the board nationwide were selling," said Jackie Corso, vice president and general merchandise manager at the chain.
Over the most recent four-week period, the chain sold about 8,000 vests, from novelty patterns to foulards. The vests are priced from $68 to $88. Several thousand units of $98 21-inch tartan plaid kilts were sold over the same period, said Corso. Pants sales continue to outpace skirt sales, with the most popular style the $112 tailored wool crepe with cuffs. Best-selling colors included charcoal and black, Corso said.
At the Jordan Marsh store in downtown Boston, best-selling labels include Jones New York, Evan-Picone, Rena Rowan of Saville and JH Collectibles.
The $208 double-breasted wool single-button blazers, $98 tartan kilts, as well as $108 straight A-line skirts, all by Jones New York, are among the bestsellers, according to Anne Coleman, a saleswoman.Midwest
At Dayton's, Hudson's and Marshall Field's, vests continue to be hot, especially in woven fabrics. Velour is also doing well, and is expected to be strong for holiday, said Barbara Dovolis, senior buyer for Liz Claiborne sportswear and misses' suits and blouses.
The rugged outdoor look, such as corduroy walk-shorts, pants, novelty sweaters and casual jackets, is also a strong category, she said. Suits are also doing well, especially by Kasper in wool or synthetic crepes with novelties like velvet or contrasting collars and with piped or banded treatments. Plaid is another key look, Dovolis said.
Among the Liz Claiborne labels, the Collection is doing the best, she said.
At Carson Pirie Scott, based in Milwaukee, better sportswear has been performing below expectations and is flat on a comparable-store basis, said Tony Buccina, senior vice president and general merchandise manager, female apparel.
High points in the chain's business are better collections and separates, which are recording increases of 9 percent, including such vendors as Jones New York, JH Collectibles, Kasper and Saville. Strong looks include wool crepe jackets in various silhouettes, he said.
Among the Liz Claiborne groups, Collection and LizSport are the strongest areas. Carson's is also doing well in private-label separates in crepe, wool gabardine, cashmere and merino wool, he said.
Casual lines such as Jones Sport and Liz & Co. are also doing well, Buccina noted, with that category up by 36 percent.
Sears, Roebuck & Co. is doing well with an Eccobay set of acrylic knits with gold buttons and piping in black and red that retail for $40 for a cardigan-style jacket and $26 for a skirt, a spokeswoman said. Also strong: a Sag Harbor jacket at $70 and matching fully lined skirt at $38. Best-selling colors are red or a houndstooth with velvet trim. A group by Michael K. in rayon acetate faille is also moving well, she said. The group consists of a jacket, $48, a twofer (vested blouse), $32, a belted skirt, $34, and pleated pants, $30. Sage and black are the best-selling colors.

Southwest
Novelty jackets, chenille sweaters and a variety of leggings have been the fastest movers at Neiman Marcus, where fall sales of better sportswear are meeting plan.
"Novelty jackets with collar and lapel treatments, mixed patterns or patched pockets and military jackets with lots of buttons have been great," explained Deborah Kaplan, vice president and general merchandise manager. "The jackets can be worn with leggings, a skirt or jeans, so they can be dressed up or dressed down."
Topping the sales charts are jackets retailing for $188 to $250 by Equator and New Frontier.
Neiman's private-label sweaters and leggings also ranked as bestsellers, including chenille sweaters selling for $98 to $140 and ribbed or knit stretch leggings priced from $88 to $108.
"We see the leggings being worn with the novelty sweaters and jackets," Kaplan added.
The firm declined to reveal how many units have sold, except to say that the sell-through has been consistently in double digits.
Neiman's also has done well with short pleated skirts and kilts and knit layering pieces, Kaplan added.
At Scarbroughs women's specialty store in Austin, Tex., top lines in better sportswear have been Karen Kane, David Dart, Nota Bene and Episode. Business perked up in September, and sales are running 5 to 7 percent ahead. The store does almost half its volume in better-priced merchandise and also carries bridge lines and some designer collections.
"What we're seeing do well in fashion this fall is very expressive of what the lifestyle here is, which is very active," noted Nancy Scarbrough Wilson, vice president. "The bestsellers are casual, item-driven, fun and novelty with a little bit more contemporary styling."
Karen Kane's expresso brown velvet cardigan for $128, tank ($58) and pull-on pants ($108) achieved a 75 percent sell-through within two weeks.
"Throughout the store, we've seen response to texture and velvet and acceptance of rich espresso as a new basic color," Wilson pointed out.
She praised David Dart's collection for capturing easy dressing for contemporary and misses' customers, noting that Dart's strongest fall group included a charcoal charmeuse reversible quilted jacket for $162, pants for $138 and slip jumper dress at $168. They had a 50 percent sell through in 10 days.
Nota Bene also racked up a 50 percent sell-through with its solid black or red crepe novelty jackets with jeweled embellishment or embroidery for $220 to $225.
In addition, Episode's garnet trimmed knit black cardigan for $130, matching crewneck sweater at $88 and pants for $120 have achieved almost a 50 percent sell-through.
Sportswear styled in soft, fluid fabrics and wool has excelled this fall at the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, which is based in Dallas and operates 428 military exchange stores worldwide that are comparable to department stores.
Sales are flat, but that's on plan considering there's been a decrease in the customer base, according to Roger Muhlenkamp, merchandise manager for women's wear.
Top sellers have been tunic vests, vests and pants by Jones New York and Liz Claiborne.Southeast
At Rich's, the better business for fall has been "quite good," and is showing increases in the high single digits, according to Sheila Kamensky, vice president, fashion merchandising.
Jones New York has shown double-digit increases and is the leading resource in jackets, particularly novelty looks, such as Peter Pan collars, fitted shapes and velvet trims. In Liz Claiborne Collection, classic looks such as gabardine trousers and novelty pleated skirts and kilts have been strong. Corduroy and novelty patterned walk shorts have been good from Liz Sport.
Fabric interest, such as Tencel and prints have driven business by Karen Kane, and the Karen Kane's Lifestyle line, with vests, woven shirts and soft skirts are performing well.
Best-selling updated looks include Laundry's suspender pants and dresses and David Dart's black velvet and satin group and tank and suspender dresses.
In the casual category, five-pocket relaxed fit and stonewashed jeans from CK have sold well. So have casual dresses in denim, velour, sueded jersey and cotton cashmere.
At Birmingham, Ala.-based Parisian, customers have responded to texture, such as ribbed velour, chenille, pinwheel corduroy and thermal cottons, as well as new color palettes, such as wine and hunter, said Arlene Goldstein, fashion director.
Sportswear dresses that are part of sportswear collections have been strong, as well as leggings and novelty sweaters. Novelty vests are still big, worn by career customers as jacket substitutes, said Goldstein.
In other career areas, Theo Miles, Liz Claiborne, Dior and Bicci have been good lines, she said.

West Coast
The better market has been a growth area for I. Magnin, the upscale retailer based in San Francisco. I. Magnin uses the category as an entry-level price point, with jackets at or under $200 each. Joan Bergholt, senior vice president and general merchandise manager, said the category is strong because it gets a crossover customer: Both the designer customer looking for something casual as well as a new customer who hasn't shopped the store before.
"I have an 18-year-old daughter and without any direction from me she came in and bought Eileen Fisher's chenille rollneck sweater with velvet leggings," she said. "Last fall we blew out hundreds of units of this, and it's starting this year, from teenagers to someone in their 50s. There's not an age with some of these things."
Softer, easier pieces are selling best at I. Magnin, with velvets, chenilles, animal and novelty prints, cropped sweaters and narrow pants most popular. Eileen Fisher and David Dart are two of the leading better resources for the store.
"We're starting to hear that structure is coming back, but I haven't seen that," she said.
A bestseller has included David Dart's rayon velvet jacket with scroll design ($154) with a silk shell ($78) and rayon velvet pants ($110). More than 20 units have been sold in just three days on the floor, and the store has included the outfit in its holiday catalog.Tracking Better Sportswear Trends
The Checking Trends
Tartan plaid kilts
Jumpers
Cotton and Lycra spandex T-shirts
Tapered pants with cuffs l Suspender pants

Trends With Staying Power
Layered knit dressing
Knit tops, including chenille
Vests
Item jackets
Leggings

Just About Over
Palazzo pants
The long straight skirt

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