DALLAS — Knits have had their decade in the casual sun, so now it’s time to share the spotlight with wovens.Blouse and shirt makers are riding high on the surge in sales of woven tops, after a long period in which they seemed to fall off the radar screens of many shoppers. As manufacturers scramble to fill reorders during a season that has far exceeded expectations, they are hopeful this is just the beginning of a long fashion cycle for blouses and shirts.“We are just getting into it now and it has quite a few years left,” said David Merk, designer for Drama, which has about a dozen styles of shirts in its sportswear line. “People haven’t bought woven tops in so long that it is a new novelty.”Perhaps the business has been driven by the idea that blouses and tops look fresh — from peasant tops to ruffled looks — compared to the sea of knits in many women’s wardrobes.“In the better world, soft structured looks are coming back, and an updated blouse or shirt is the perfect accent to that for fall,” said Kathy Bradley-Riley, merchandise manager for women’s sportswear at Doneger Group, a New York-based retail buying office. “As we move into spring ’03, all of the flowing sheer chiffon and georgette versions will be great.”Pointing to the newfound popularity of blouses, business has grown substantially this year at Rayure, a shirt and blouse line imported from France through its U.S. distributor, RD Enterprises Ltd. of Houston. Rayure’s detailed, feminine tops wholesale for about $80.“Both we and our retail accounts continue to be amazed at the fast sell-throughs,” said Brian Downey, partner in RD Enterprises. “Knits had dominated the category for years and a return to blouses was inevitable. If the styling stays fresh, there is no reason that it will slow down for several years.”Downey said Rayure has opened concept shops in 22 of Saks Fifth Avenue’s top doors, including on the fourth floor of the New York flagship, where 12 mannequins don its blouses.Some vendors said the blouse revival represents a broader return to classicism.“It’s a way people dressed for centuries, and it’s really classic with softness,” said Stanley Kitman, owner of Pretty Talk, which makes Ishyu and Carlie’s Court tops.Still, as popular as woven tops have been this year, nobody is sounding a death knell for knits.“Retailers still evaluate the whole shirt/blouse category very carefully because they don’t know that anybody believes it will ever take the place of knits, and I agree with that,”said Bradley-Riley. “With the easy care and easy wear of knits, I don’t see them dying. Blouses and shirts are just another alternative — they’re not a replacement for anything.”“It really is a search for balance between knits and wovens that are compatible in a woman’s wardrobe,” Kitman said. “The consumer benefits from having more choice rather than going from extreme to extreme.”But how long will blouses be in the limelight? Kitman said as long as they can maintain momentum with designers coming up with fresh styles and treatments. “We are entering a blouse and shirt cycle, and optimistically it will be very long term,” he added.Bradley-Riley said, “A lot of action has been solid, and they can do stripes, contrasting, prints. We see it as a cycle that is just beginning.”Peasant blouses, ruffled shirts, printed chiffon, lace and combinations of knit bodies with woven collars and plackets are the current bestsellers. Future styling will move into varied surface interest and lighter-weight fabrics.“After all the crisp shirts, I’m trying to get more toward silk blouses,” said Heather McNeill, a partner in Finley, which is known for shaped, detailed white shirts and was just nominated for a Dallas Fashion Award. “That has been gone from this industry for a long time and that’s where I see the future. We are focusing on finding some silk and cotton blends and things that we can make more drapey. We’ve been doing crisp shirts for so long I see people getting worn out on it.”McNeill of Finley said her business is up 20 percent this year and the company is producing reorders as fast as possible.“It’s been crazy,” she said. “We’ve had some late deliveries because we’re not used to sewing that fast.”Kurt Erman, chairman and president of Notations Clothing Co., sees woven tops going sleeveless for spring with a lot of gingham and the continuation of ruffles. Camp shirts and printed chiffon blouses over pleated shells sold well for spring, and sales of peasant and lace styles have far exceeded expectations.“The biggest surprise is how well the peasant style sold for the moderate woman,” Erman said. “It is junior-y, but it has been one of our biggest checkouts. We sold close to 85,000 pieces in gauze in two silhouettes with embroidery. We probably had 15 to 30 stores reorder in the last month.”Notations has sold more than 200,000 lace blouses since February in a variety of styles, including a ruffled look and a peasant silhouette, he added.“They retailed really terrifically, which surprised us because sometimes lace doesn’t really sell that well to the moderate customer at Penney’s, Sears, Dillard’s and Foley’s,” he said. “It’s interpreted for the misses’ customer, who is bigger, and you have to be very careful to make sure it will look good on them.”

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