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Beyond the Fringe: Southwest

DALLAS -- A number of Southwest vendors are studying the classics.<BR><BR>They're expanding their offerings of traditional styles in a bid to broaden their appeal and to attract cautious, conservative consumers.<BR><BR>The firms include those that...

DALLAS — A number of Southwest vendors are studying the classics.

They’re expanding their offerings of traditional styles in a bid to broaden their appeal and to attract cautious, conservative consumers.

The firms include those that once offered only embellished Southwestern looks, dress houses that have spun off traditional styles via sportswear lines and young companies that have taken the tack from the start.

Firms interviewed projected total sales up 15 to 25 percent this year, partially propelled by the classics.

“Customers started talking to us about non-Southwest looks about six months ago,” said Penny Hays, co-owner of Gerard here, a better separates maker. “We needed to broaden our base.”

The four-year-old firm, known for upscale Southwestern looks, answered the call with a capsule collection of traditional looks, including body-conscious denim and linen dresses.

“We’re trying to streamline the collection to make it more appealing across the country,” Hays said. “This helps us reach more country classic stores and regular women’s boutiques, too.”

About 30 percent of Gerard’s summer styles will take the traditional approach. In this group are pima cotton or linen sundresses, tropical wool handembroidered cropped jackets and slim cotton twill trousers, among other looks.

Wholesale prices for January range from $36 for cotton twill shorts to $295 for a handcrocheted cotton skirt.

“Offering classic, traditional styles is a way to diversify,” said Hays, clarifying that Southwestern looks will still abound at Gerard. “For fall and winter, western and Southwestern silhouettes will dominate. For spring and summer, though, traditional may eventually get more emphasis.”

Gerard is anticipating a 15 percent sales jump this year, partly attributed to the infusion of traditional styles.

“We heard that traditional looks were popular in the Northwest,” said Hays. “And the business that we get out of Los Angeles as well as Chicago is all traditional. We can show anything in those two cities as long as it doesn’t have a western hat.” The company also shows in Atlanta and Denver.

“The appeal of traditional clothing is the casual elegance,” said Mike Ferguson, owner of Focus Apparel, a dress and sportswear firm here. “It’s an enduring, conservative look.”

Focus launched its Hill Country Clothiers traditional label two years ago, and sales are booming.

Volume for the line is projected to hit $4 million this year, up 60 percent over 1993’s $2.5 million.

“We’re getting lots of play in the Southwest since we’ve denim-based the line,” Ferguson explained. “But as we expand into other fabrics, other regions of the country are showing interest, too.”

For early fall, to be shown at market, the 125-piece line will be cut from cotton twills, wool blends and denim, among other fabrics. Colors include brick, hunter, chamois and black.

Prices range from $19 for a 19-inch cotton twill skirt to about $50 for a color-blocked denim barn jacket. Other silhouettes include vests, pleated trousers and long side-button skirts.

Focus, which shows in markets across the U.S., is projecting total sales of $23 million this year (1994), up almost 10 percent.

Rebecca Harrison, who founded her dress firm here about two years ago, moved into traditional sportswear last year as a way of fostering further growth.

Her sportswear line updates traditional shapes with trendy colors, prints and details. The line, called Richard Ellis, is named for her husband and business partner.

“Classic shapes are not overpowering, are less regional and they don’t go out of style,” reasoned Harrison. “Accessories, buttons and detailing are pivotal to the look.”

The Richard Ellis summer sportswear collection will wholesale from $79 for a linen and rayon jacket to $89 for a lightweight double-breasted blazer. Other looks in the 40-piece collection include zippered cotton-twill pants, vests and shirts.

For summer, the Rebecca Harrison dress collection will feature lined linen sundresses in transitional colors such as lavender, teal, jade and cocoa, wholesaling for $79, and lightweight dresses with jackets, at $92. Prints include a starfish and stripe combination as well as abstracts. Hemlines vary from 25 to 33 inches.

The two labels are projecting sales this year of $500,000 each, up 20 percent over 1993.

Both lines are represented at markets in New York, Dallas, Atlanta and Charlotte, N.C. The company is considering showing on the West Coast and in the Midwest.

While some firms have used traditional styles as a springboard to new business, other startup companies have taken a traditional approach from the outset.

“Traditional apparel is timeless, not trendy,” said Barbara Mason, a principal at Henry & Harvie Inc., a traditional sportswear firm here, founded almost two years ago. “With the economy, people want things that don’t go out of style — looks that a woman can mix with existing items in her wardrobe.”

“The traditional market is definitely becoming more individualized, too,” added Leslie Light, also a principal. “It’s not a set look anymore. Customers are seeking a modern edge that doesn’t scream ‘trendy.’ Looks with kicky yet classic buttons and trims are hot.”

The firm, founded almost two years ago, is projecting sales of $850,000 this year, up 25 percent.

At market, the firm will show four groups cut from fabrics such as sandwashed cotton and linen, paisley cotton jacquard and cream and blue ribbon-embroidered rayon and acetate.

Silhouettes include wide-leg drawstring cotton pants; long side-button, A-line rayon skirts; mandarin-style cotton and linen vests, and ruffled cotton shirts.

Prices start at $28 for a white cotton shirt and climb to $72 for a lined, glen plaid cotton jacket.

Henry & Harvie is shown in wholesale markets in Dallas and San Francisco, and the line is shown on the road across the Midwest.