Consumers Warm to Minis

From juniors to contemporary to designer, miniskirts are this spring’s fling - and fall apparently loves it, too. Here’s a report from the retail front.

NEW YORK — From juniors to contemporary to designer, miniskirts are this spring’s fling — and fall apparently loves them, too.

This story first appeared in the April 9, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Whether it’s a harbinger of an improving economy, a yearning for the simpler days of the Swinging Sixties or simply boredom with long skirts and pants, minis are being scooped up by teenagers and women from their 20s to their 50s. Despite the cold weather and snowstorms that hit the eastern half of the U.S. in the last four days, designer retailers said they can’t keep minis in stock, while such specialty chains as Express claim minis now account for 50 percent of their skirt business.

Moreover, the mini is having an impact on silhouettes generally, with skirt lengths shortening across the board to a few inches above the knee. And with business remaining tough, fashion retailers can only hope the adage holds true that as skirt lengths rise, so does the economy.

Ranging anywhere from 12 to 18 inches, minis are selling well in several different styles, including pleated, A-line, flounced and khaki cargo, and in fabrics such as denim, cotton canvas, chiffon, satin, twill, tweed and sailcloth. Although some denim and junior boutiques downplay the trend, saying it illustrates how desperate retail is for any glimmer of a new idea, others point out that the strength of the mini this time round is that it can be worn in a variety of ways — from bare legs and flip-flops to over jeans or leggings.

Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president of fashion direction of Bloomingdale’s, said, “We’re having tremendous success with the mini already. We launched the mini with our private label and put them in the windows in February. We sold all 600 pieces for $68 apiece. At the moment, we have 10,000 miniskirts on order because this is a major trend. We think it’s here for a long stay because women like to show their legs.”

Bloomingdale’s also ordered minis from Chanel, Donna Karan and Celine for the designer floor.

“We did a window at the very beginning of the season showing miniskirts, with everything from Chanel to Marc by Marc Jacobs to Dolce & Gabbana,” said Robert Burke, vice president and senior fashion director of Bergdorf Goodman. “Our tracking shows they have done very well, and I expect them to do perhaps even better for fall because we saw them with leggings or knee boots or in versions that were a little longer.

“I get a little nuts when people say [minis] are only for women who are 20 years old and 6 feet tall. I think you’ll see them on a wider range of customers than people think because there are a lot more alternatives to make people feel more confident about wearing miniskirts,” said Burke.

Sue Patneaude, vice president of designer apparel at Nordstrom, said consumers’ eyes are just becoming adjusted to the shorter lengths, although Nordstrom has sold skirts all this spring season. Nordstrom is so confident about the return of the short skirt that it advertised in Vogue this month, showing Roberto Cavalli’s “Cheongsam” printed skirt. According to Patneaude, that skirt saw a 50 percent sell-through through the first week.

“Right now, the younger the customer, the shorter the skirt. That’s one thing we know for sure. And in the more contemporary departments, the short skirt is definitely casual. So it’s denim, cargo, satin. In the designer departments, it’s a little more serious and a little more dressed up. For instance, Chanel satins and tweeds, Dolce & Gabbana’s silver astronaut skirt, Cavalli’s denim embroidered [skirt] or Versace’s turquoise leather. Those have all been good,” she said.

“We think as the weather gets warmer the skirts will get shorter and coming into fall, the customer’s eye will totally be accustomed to the short skirt.”

Patneaude said that, in terms of lengths, Nordstrom is betting on 18 to 21 inches as the most popular skirt length for the general audience, while 15 to 18 inches will be the length for the contemporary and designer arenas.

“The customer is loving the skirts,” she added. “Because they’re on the casual side [now], they’re with sandals and bare legs but we think with fall, the opaque leg will be important in color, pop-art colors, black texture. We think it will be important that the customer focuses on what she does with the leg, and we think it will bring a revival of textured hosiery and over-the-knee boots.”

Barbara Atkin, fashion director of Holt Renfrew, the Toronto-based department store retailer, noted the store has been selling minis since last summer and now is seeing them everywhere. “We’ve already brought in ones that are really summer-looking, from the 13-inch looks from Dior and Dolce & Gabbana, and they’re already selling out at designer prices. We’ve also done them in our own private label, in a version that’s about 18-inches long, and that’s selling out as well.

“It’s for a customer who’s in shape, but at all ages. We’re finding our 55-year-old customers with a pocket book are the ones buying right now, because they’re the ones who have personal trainers and are already in perfect shape, with tanned legs.

“Like all trends, eventually we’ll see it everywhere on the streets, even on customers who maybe shouldn’t be wearing miniskirts. Especially a younger customer, even if she’s not in shape, will end up buying it in the name of fashion. It’s like the denim jeans last year when we saw that the lower the rise, the higher the sales.”

Equally important as the mini, though, is the impact it is having on skirt lengths overall, according to Jaqui Lividini, senior vice president of fashion merchandising, communication, at Saks Fifth Avenue. For women who wouldn’t dare wear a 14-inch skirt, a few inches above the knee is the new standard, Lividini noted. Saks devoted two pages to the miniskirt, displayed it in windows across the country and included it on the retailer’s “Short List,” which highlights the season’s key items.

“There’s a major gesture to move the eye up the leg,” said Lividini, noting the more exaggerated miniskirts seen on the runway can be found in the contemporary and designer markets. “Spring skirts from last season just look a little long. When women are in the stores buying, they’re more accepting of a shorter length.”

LaVelle Olexa, senior vice president of fashion merchandising at Lord & Taylor, said miniskirts are selling well even though the store is still waiting on its biggest deliveries. Bestsellers include Ralph’s 14-inch denim with embroidery skirt for $60; Ralph’s pintucked 14-inch skirt, also for $60; Guess’ heather gray terry 14-inch skirt for $38; a white, 15-inch skirt with a studded belt by ABS for $160, and also by ABS, a camouflage, 15-inch skirt for $170.

On the longer side, Olexa said a 16-inch black denim skirt with graphic embroidery from Cynthia by Cynthia Steffe is selling well at $140.

“They are being merchandised and worn with Ts and tank tops, some in embroidered sheer fabrics, some cropped, most of them sleeveless — the Guess terry has a matching cropped tube top and the Steffe has several fabulous tops, including a topstitched black cotton short jacket with laced-up back at $340.”

Olexa said miniskirts will be included in future promotions at Lord & Taylor.

At Proffitt’s/McRae’s, an Alcoa, Tenn.-based division of Saks Inc., mini bestsellers include a 15-inch self-belted denim skirt at $24.99 and a 15-inch denim skirt at $29.99. But bridge buyer Janine Owen said long skirts still sell best with bridge customers who want coverage, especially for clothing to wear to church.

J.C. Penney Co. plans to play up miniskirts — mostly belted styles — for spring from brands such as l.e.i., Mudd and Paris Blues, according to a company spokesman. Early spring bestsellers include a 16-inch denim miniskirt with a necktie belt from l.e.i. at $19.99. “Although indications for miniskirts have been good so far this year, it seems the jury is still out on whether our customers will go for the supershort lengths in a big way,” noted the Penney’s spokesman.

“In misses’, we are not doing miniskirts per se, but one of our strongest sellers in bottoms is a mini-length St. John’s Bay twill skort at $28. We call it the ‘misses’ mini’ and it’s blowing out the door. It has an all-around panel instead of just a front panel like most skorts, so the ‘short’ is completely covered.”

As for designer boutiques, Stefani Greenfield, owner of the New York-based Scoop stores, said, “Miniskirts are just blowing out. We’ve always carried them, but they’ve become such a big trend. We are selling all lengths and styles: casual to more sophisticated, denim, wool….It’s all about the leg this season.”

Greenfield said she has been selling minis as short as 12 inches in the store’s own private label, as well as minis by Juicy Couture denim, Peter Som, Marc Jacobs, and Diane Von Furstenberg’s unfinished-hem mini.

“As long as they are sexy but tasteful, the minis sell very well,” Greenfield said.

Meanwhile, Paul Raffin, executive vice president of merchandising at Express, said that miniskirts now represent more than 50 percent of Express’ skirt business. “Generally, 15-inch skirts are selling and a couple are 12 and 13 inches, but 15 inches seems to be the right, universal length,” said Raffin.

He noted that customers are pairing the skirts, which retail for $30 to $50, with mini T-shirts with pockets. “We have a full assortment of sexy camisoles with ruched details, laced details, lingerie-inspired tops that work well back to the minis,” he said. “We certainly emphasize the look on mannequins and at point of sale, but our advertising this spring has focused on the flight pant with a sexy camisole as the look of the season. But we do see miniskirts continuing into fall. It came down the runway in a strong way, and we appeal to a young girl in her 20s, and she looks great and wants to show it off.”

A spokeswoman at H&M said miniskirts are a big hit for the fast-fashion retailer. The top sellers include cargo miniskirts for $25, in beige and khaki green; a lightweight corduroy mini, for $15, popular in red and blue; a wrap mini for $25, in khaki colors, and a faux-suede mini for $25.

“Both the young merchandise and ladies’ merchandise departments are doing well with miniskirts,” the spokeswoman said. “For late spring and early summer, the young collections will start with terry and mesh minis, average price about $19, and in women’s, there’s going to be a lot of satin, also at $19.” At Rich’s-Macy’s, Laurie Hummel, divisional merchandise manager, juniors, said that minis were performing well for spring, but not as a number one category. Denim has sold best, followed by twill, with no particular vendor or style emerging as dominant yet. Hummel reported more crossover this season than usual from misses’ customers. Rich’s-Macy’s will feature minis in advertising throughout the season.

Melissa Greenhouse, owner of Moxie, a Buckhead contemporary boutique in Atlanta, has dedicated more than 30 percent of her merchandise mix to miniskirts, with brands ranging from contemporary lines such as Shoshanna and Tocca to more vintage-inspired styles by Diane Von Furstenberg

“We started selling minis early this year and they’ve remained strong throughout the season,” said Greenhouse, who retails skirts from $140 to $220.

Greenhouse attributes the resurgent miniskirt craze not only to warmer temperatures, but also to customers wanting to return to smarter, sexier looks. “For so many years, the long pencil skirt and peasant look have been dominant forces,” she said. “I think women want to show a little more skin and look a bit sexier right now. Legs are definitely back in fashion.”

Simplicity is driving items to be paired with miniskirts, said Greenhouse, who noted a big movement in white T-shirts and tank tops. Moxie began an aggressive direct-mail campaign last week alerting customers to a new denim miniskirt line she offers called Blue Colt. The line features short skirt lengths in two dark washes.

At Bill Hallman Boutique, miniskirts also have been among top sellers for spring-summer, with wrap bodies by Juicy Couture and sporty silhouettes by Puma selling extremely well, said owner Bill Hallman.

“The most popular silhouettes by far have been denim,” said Hallman. Cotton and cotton blends, in colors such as black and red, have also done well. Retail price points average from $45 to $110. Located in the trendy Virginia/Highlands neighborhood of east Atlanta, Hallman’s key miniskirt customers are mostly in their late 20s to 30-years-old, as well as a large contingent of college-age clients from nearby Emory University.

BB1 Classic, a two-unit women’s better-to-designer retailer in Houston, praised the return of miniskirts as a great trend to generate excitement and appeal to younger and edgier fashion customers, especially those who wear smaller sizes.

“Cargo-style miniskirts look really great, as do basic black or retro-style minis, like those from Castings,” said Cali Saitowitz, owner. “For social occasion, we have some wonderful beaded miniskirts from Arend Basile that are just fabulous and look so chic with some sexy shoes.”

At New York’s Atrium, buyer and manager Alison Mangaroo said that miniskirts are the main kind of skirt the store carries. “We’re doing pretty well with it — we’re selling denim minis, silk minis, really cute pleated minis from Cavalli, cargo minis,” she said, adding star lines are Earl Jean, Diesel, Seven, A.G. Adriano Goldschmied and Fornarina.

However, not all buyers contacted believed the miniskirt was taking off as a strong trend.

“We’re selling them, but I really don’t think it’s a thing for the whole category,” said Thomas George, owner of E Street Denim, a jeans boutique in Highland Park, Ill., a suburb of Chicago. George said that particular miniskirts have done well, citing Mavi, Lucky Brand, Hudson and Joie as having styles that have been in demand in recent weeks.

“There’s some good stuff out there and certainly some people have some awfully cute skirts,” George said.

But he thinks the attention being paid to the category is overblown. “I don’t see every woman jumping into a miniskirt and going, like, ‘Oh my God, if I don’t have one in my wardrobe, I have to,’” he said, adding the focus on minis as a trend was an oversimplification. “That’s what’s wrong with the market. Everybody is trying to make the category hot, but it’s not the category. It’s the item.”

At Washington, D.C.-based chain Up Against the Wall, which has 19 stores around the capitol and in California and will open its 20th unit in California this week. Fashion director Wendy Red also said that miniskirts haven’t been a standout trend with her customers.

“It’s not like it is so prominent that I’m going, ‘oh my God,’” she said. “It’s not like that for me. I have other things that are hotter right now….I’m not opening my report on Monday morning and saying, ‘Wow, I sold 80 miniskirts from this vendor.’ It’s not like that at all.”

She cited throwback jersey dresses and cargo pants as styles that have been outperforming miniskirts in recent weeks.

On the West Coast, it’s miniskirt madness as retailers are reporting the look is reviving early spring business. There isn’t one particular version that’s selling the best, but the category across the board is racking up brisk sales.

Foothill Ranch, Calif.-based Wet Seal began testing the micro mini in December and, based on the favorable response, made the decision to roll out the look chain-wide in some 500 stores. For spring, the chain singled out the look in store windows, displaying a “cheerleader” mini worn over denim. “We’re selling everything from pleated plaids to solid color to denim,” noted Steven Strickland, the chain’s spokesperson. “It will be one of our strongest categories through autumn.”

Micro minis in black and white, stretch herringbone twill and khaki cargo minis with side pockets have been checking at Planet Funk’s nine stores in Southern California. A stretch satin mini with toggle-strap detail is another strong item.

“It’s really driving the skirt business, which had been weak before the mini hit the scene,” noted Oren Hayun, principal of the young contemporary chain, noting the category started picking up steam in the last six weeks. The mini’s flexibility, able to be kicked up a notch with boots or dressed down with flip-flops, has added to its appeal, he added.

Macy’s West’s 141 stores in the western region have been selling everything from an edgy white pleated mini to dressier versions with beaded hems and satin trims to basic denim, according to Durand Guion, women’s fashion director. “The initial response gives us a great indication it will be a hit through the back-to-school cycle,” he said.