By  on June 12, 2007

Dresses remain a key to retail success — and there's no sign of a slowdown.

Whether shoppers' ongoing interest in dresses is being spurred by simplicity or post-feminism values is open to debate among retailers, but they agree the category will remain robust through fall and even into next spring. And as dress sales boom, they are boosting growth in other categories, from leggings for fall to key accessories such as shoes and belts.

Dress sales generated $5.06 billion at retail for the 12-month period ended April 30, up 30 percent from the $3.88 billion the prior year, according to The NPD Group Inc., the Port Washington, N.Y.-based market research firm.

"Dresses are on fire right now," said Ken Downing, senior vice president and fashion director at Neiman Marcus. "The fall runways had one great dress after the other. Even in the resort collections we are seeing now, the dress is still of-the-moment. There are numerous types of silhouettes and they look equally terrific."

With dresses selling across the board, Downing was hesitant to single out any particular label, but allowed: "The Neiman Marcus customer always loves something a little more feminine, detailed and [colorful], of course. There's interest in embellishment and embroidery, and we're seeing that as we move into resort."

The fact that designers continue to play with different shapes and silhouettes only helps the cause, Downing said. Heading into fall, he expects the sheath and chemise to catch on, especially when paired with "a great little jacket" or lightweight coat. "Depending on a person's body type and personal taste, there is a dress for everyone," he said.

For the past five seasons, Louis Boston has been building on its dress sales and "that's what is selling," said owner Debi Greenberg.

She offered a more introspective view of the trend. "The dress was everything for my mother's generation in the Fifties — from the housedress to the cocktail dress. In the Sixties, it was the mini, and in the Seventies, separates took over. Separates were comfortable, and in the Eighties, the power suit entered the workplace as a way to look professional. Then there was the casual and dot-com trend and everyone was wearing jeans with nice tops. It was comfortable, casual and a little sexy and flippant. The way times are now, the U.S. is not as rich and domineering. In a global society, Americans aren't top dogs anymore and that flippancy is not as appealing."While women no longer have to wear suits to prove they can compete in a man's world, they like having a uniform — whether that be a dress with a jacket or a sweater, Greenberg said. "They need something they feel good in and there's a lot of versatility by wearing a dress," she said.

Women are also confident enough to wear away-from-the-body styles even though those silhouettes "won't make them look the thinnest they have ever looked," Greenberg said.

Daytime dresses from Marni, Sari Gueron, Brian Reyes and Mayle are Louis Boston bestsellers. "Of course, the shoe has a lot to do with it. There are a lot of heavier shoes. You need the right shoe and the right belt — it's an education. That's what's changing….Women are willing to try."

Michael Fink, vice president, women's fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue, analyzed the trend in a more straightforward way. "What could be easier? That's what it boils down to," he said.

Like the other stores polled, Saks Fifth Avenue is seeing dress sales climb across the board — from designer to bridge to contemporary. Akris, Punto, Ellen Tracy, Milly, Diane von Furstenberg, Marni and Vera Wang are among the many labels racking up dress sales. "And it's not as though people are looking for the least expensive dress," Fink said.

At this stage, the dress has become a staple in most women's wardrobes and Fink is one who is ready to see the next trend. "What's interesting to me is how all the girls in the building are wearing shirts and shorts. That's the new direction. I find it exciting and interesting. I don't even bat an eye anymore when I see them."

But designers are still keen on the dress trend. Dresses, especially the bubble style, have been a draw at Maria Cornejo's two stores, but now her new eveningwear is catching on, she said. Dresses embellished with Swarovski-encrusted straps are boosting sales, she said. "My designs are very much a reflection of my lifestyle. I've had to go out more and to get dressed up, so I'm doing eveningwear for the first time."Thakoon Panichgul said, "In this day and age, the dress is the easiest thing for women. It's something they can put on in the morning and not have to think about. The pencil, short, mini and long work with how busy women are today."

At Lord & Taylor, the dress business continues "to look better and better," said Lavelle Olexa, senior vice president of advertising, sales promotion and public relations.

"People are understanding that they can get a lot of mileage out of the piece by layering and accessorizing," she said. "We see a huge opportunity with new customers who continue to discover the dress and realize it is a wonderful, modern way of dressing."

Lord & Taylor's bestsellers this season include a $295 Laundry gold Lurex baby doll, a $260 BCBG strapless navy cocktail dress, a $192 Anne Klein black halter and a $178 OC by Oleg Cassini matte jersey dress.

Ann Watson, vice president and fashion director at Henri Bendel, agreed that simplicity is a selling factor. "It's really that one easy piece with many lives. It's easy to accessorize dresses, especially with statement-making jewelry," she said.

Bendel's shoppers are spending anywhere from $250 to $900 for such items as Alice + Olivia's sequin dresses, Ashish's sequin backless mini, Milly's printed shift dresses, Abaeté's brightly colored shift dresses, Rory Becca's V-neck belted dresses and AKA New York's smocked dresses. More floor space is dedicated to dresses since they accounted for a larger percentage of Bendel's spring-summer buy, Watson said.

"The Bendel girl is inherently feminine and nothing is more feminine than the dress," she said. "The Bendel's customer first shops by look, then fit and then price. Price is not the determining factor for her."

Watson also noted how dresses are great wardrobe pieces and should continue to be so even as the covered-leg trend picks up again in the fall. "In the spring, girls wore dresses with leggings and now it's the bare leg. In the fall, they will wear them with layered legwear or tights," she said.

Bendel's made a point of reminding shoppers what the key spring-summer trend would be by showcasing dresses in its Fifth Avenue store windows and its atrium for a week beginning at the end of February. Billed as The Little Bendel Dress event, the displays featured Tibi, Alice + Olivia, Milly and Ghita. Designers from each label turned up at the store Feb. 27 for a panel discussion about dresses and the role the category plays in their respective collections. Gen Art cohosted the event.At Ultimo in Chicago, shoppers are searching for daytime dresses. "Absolutely — people want that perfect colored dress instead of skirts or shorts and a shirt," said owner Sara Albrecht.

"It's nice. People for the first time want to wear a dress — and not just a black dress. They're looking for brights, prints and colors," Albrecht said. "A dress is actually the perfect outfit. For a long time, wearing a dress meant you were a woman. Now you can wear a dress and still be a good employee, a good chief executive officer or whatever. You don't have to dress like a man."

The Milan label Gio Guerreri is a winner "for the perfect easy dress," Albrecht said. Charles Chang Lima and Stella McCartney are also in demand at Ultimo, she said. Many women are buying styles in the $600 or $700 price range, but the retailer also sells looks for $200 and $3,000.

"Designers don't make great dresses all the time," Albrecht said. "I'm pleased because I'm a dress person. It's a trend that should carry into fall, which is nice, as well."

Regardless of price or end use, the short, simple dress is the hit of the season at Holt Renfrew, said fashion director Barbara Atkin. Contemporary daytime dresses are strong as well as short, knee-baring dresses in all categories including designer and cocktail numbers, she said. "Short gala styles are flying off the racks as soon as they are put on them," said Atkin.

More women can wear dresses due in part to the importance of the legging as a layering piece, she said. They also can be dressed up or dressed down. In addition, tunics and T-shirt, geometric Mod and kimono styles are most forgiving and can hide a multitude of figure faults.

Shoppers' favorite looks at Holt Renfrew include Phillip Lim's $575 white rosette T-shirt dress; Helmut Lang's $200 gray simple shift with geometrical pockets; $375 printed dresses from Julie Brown, Nanette Lepore, Vena Cava and Milly, and a Diane von Furstenberg vintage dress, also for $375. In terms of the designer arena, a Marni sleeveless sack dress at $895, a Chloé long-sleeve silk dress at $2,295 and Etro printed jersey dresses retailing from $725 to $895 have been popular.

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