DALLAS — Career apparel has been given a promotion.

Seeking job security in the midst of a shaky economy and rising unemployment, women at all income levels are dressing for success and survival. They’re abandoning casual apparel on the job in favor of more stylish silhouettes they feel project confidence and power, including sleek sportswear, softly shaped suits, elegant tops and updated dresses with subtle touches of trends, according to retailers and vendors.

It’s good news for moderate and better vendors and retailers, who said career apparel continues to expand, diversify and beat many other women’s categories.

“We’re definitely seeing a resurgence in career sportswear and having gains in the category,” said Ken Mangone, vice president and divisional merchandise manager at J.C. Penney Co. “In a tough economy, women need an edge and a means to stand out from the competition. It’s the antithesis of the relaxed dress code. Women are realizing that looking good can mean being taken more seriously.”

Mangone said career started to soar in July and August for early fall merchandise.

“We’re taking a two-pronged approach in merchandising career — the category is planned ahead for fall and has lots of growth potential,” Mangone said. “The fashion separates business is very strong, including stretch and more tailored bottoms and related jackets. With separates, women can mix and match and look polished. We’re seeing a strong response to more refined and feminine sportswear, pretty blouses and woven shirtings. It’ll never be like the overly aggressive Eighties power suits.”

In a bid to reach a wider range of career customers, including young professional women, Penney’s is promoting career apparel in fall advertising, including catalogs and newspaper inserts that devote the opening pages to career.

Early fall top sellers include related career separates and sportswear, such as more traditional styles from Joneswear, Norton McNaughton, Koret, Hearts of Palm and Sag Harbor, contemporary looks from Clio, Bisou Bisou and Parallel, and a range of silhouettes from private brands such as Mixit, St. John’s Bay and Worthington.

Classic apparel firms are seeing strong gains in career styles.Pendleton Woolen Mills, the $250 million knitwear firm known for its myriad woolen knit styles, is charting high-single-digit gains in its career collections, said Pat Fowler, women’s wear division manager at the Portland, Ore., firmfounded in 1862.

“Career is leading the pack and is our largest growing business in the apparel area,” said Fowler. “Our skirt and jacket sales are really accelerating. Women are really into a head-to-toe pulled-together look for work. That can mean a suited look or a knit or leather-front cardigan sweater, suede jacket, silk blouse and some terrific trousers. We stay within the classic vein.”

Pendleton has more than 400 retail accounts and owns about 50 namesake stores across the U.S.

Fall bestsellers include three-button blazers, reversible pleated skirts, silk and cotton blouses, leather and suede jackets, and tailored pants, all in harvest tones such as cranberry, maize, mallard and pumpkin. Plaids and equestrian prints are favorites.

Wholesale prices are $58 for silk and cotton blouses to $208 for wool, leather or suede jackets.

Apparel World, a Dallas-based moderate and better company, is widening its focus to include updated styles for career consumers.

“Our retail accounts have started asking for more updated groups, and we’re definitely responding,” said Sundeep Chhrabra, co-owner, who said business is ahead by a few percentage points. “Women are moving away from basic, overly casual and drab styles in favor of a more polished look. They want to have an edge, especially given the current economic climate. Looking your best can only help a career path.”

For spring, Apparel World is showing embroidered, beaded, fringed and screen-printed styles on classic shapes, including both fitted and flared skirts, collarless cardigans, jackets, cropped and full-length pants and its trademark slinky acetate silhouettes.

Colors are mostly citrus and fruit tones, such as lime and watermelon, rendered on prints and embroideries such as abstract paisleys, florals and dots. Wholesale prices are $12 for a shell to $32 for a jacket.

Violetta, a better bottoms collection owned by Northport Apparel Group in New York, launched for spring with half the styles designed for career, said Paula Marx, national sales manager.“The dress-down trend got taken too far. It reached a point where women needed to pull back and reassess their look, and I think they’re doing it now,” said Marx. “Now they’re dressing up more and buying items to have more styling options, such as a pair of pants or a skirt paired with a nice shirt, blouse or sweater.”

Violetta is projecting first-year wholesale volume of $4 million to $6 million and is courting specialty retailers.

“We have a big focus on tailored and fitted pants with hidden zippers and clean-lined skirts with a forgiving fit and modern look,” said Marx. “It’s a dressed-up, cleaned-up approach. We’re also showing flood pants and cargo pants, all in dressy career fabrics such as super twills, French twills and blends of viscose, polyester and elastic.”

Colors include stone, parchment, khaki, black and white. Wholesale prices are $36 to $54.

BB1 Classic, a two-unit women’s specialty business in Houston, merchandises with related fashion items to offer shoppers more options, an approach that translates well for career consumers, said Calli Saitowitz, co-owner.

“We offer knits, blouses and tops to go back to every single bottom on the floor, providing career women with a wide range of options, from an outfit with a structured jacket or just a dressy top that looks great in the office and then afterwards for dinner,” Saitowitz said. “Women increasingly want options so they can be as corporate or comfortable as they need to be.”

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