NEW YORK — After a first half that was better than expected, dress and suit firms are banking on an up cycle for tailored clothing and one-price dressing to lead to solid increases in the third and fourth quarters.

Executives pointed out, however, that beating last year’s figures shouldn’t be too difficult given the economic lethargy that befell the nation after Sept. 11. But they also noted that beating those numbers doesn’t mean that business will be booming, and that they have lots of challenges ahead before they declare 2002 a success.

Kasper Suits, a category leader in the better suit market, is running about 13 percent ahead of initial projections for the year, said Gregg Marks, president.

He said that where suits normally drop off a little as the weather warms up, sales increased after Easter. Marks projected that the division will be up by about 20 percent by end of the year, since fall is traditionally its strongest selling season.

Eric Kristjanson, Kasper’s design director, said a key will be the line’s emphasis on using lighter-weight, seasonless fabrics. Marks, on the other hand, credits the consumer.

"It’s not that our line for spring was so much better than it was before," Marks said. "It’s because women are wearing suits. There’s a return to conservatism."

Kasper is also beefing up its day-to-evening offerings to represent around 30 percent of the business from just 10 percent previously, Marks said. As reported, Kasper reintroduced its sportswear line, Kasper & Co. for fall, which is expected to be in 800 doors, Marks said.

As reported, Kasper ASL has been operating in Chapter 11 bankruptcy since February. For the first quarter ended March 30, Kasper posted net income of $5.7 million against a loss of $717,000 in the year-ago period. Excluding reorganization costs of $1.6 million and taxes of $4.1 million in the most recent quarter, income would have been $11.4 million.

Revenues fell 7.4 percent to $113.6 million. Wholesale sales dropped 7.2 percent to $98.8 million, due mostly to planned reductions in certain business lines, while retail sales declined 8.9 percent to $14.8 million, mostly from the closure of 28 outlet stores as part of the bankrupt company's restructuring plans.Leslie Fay Co. chairman John Pomerantz said he plans to play his business close to the vest for the remainder of the year.

"We’re not planning incredible increases, but we’re planning on running our business properly, and there’s a better feeling about consumers than there has been during the past six months," Pomerantz said.

He noted that stores have less inventory than they did a year ago, which translates into fewer markdowns and a faster turnaround. As reported, Leslie Fay was taken private last year by its primary investor, Three Cities Research, and in March named former Joe Boxer executive W. John Short as its new chief executive officer, succeeding Pomerantz.

At Trio New York, acquired last year by Leslie Fay, three-piece items on a single ticket have become important, according to division president Steven Garfield. Garfield projected business to be up 7 percent in the second half.

"We had a little bit of a bounce [this spring]," Garfield said. "I feel in my heart that it’s slowing, but my sales don’t show it. My fall stuff is selling and re-ordering."

Despite that gut feeling, Garfield said his company is experiencing a growth spurt. Trio New York Evening, internally dubbed the blue label, as well as Trio’s suit business are areas the company is looking to cultivate.

Montreal-based Raffinalla Collections is undergoing a transformation under president Steven Salpeter, who bought the business from his uncle and a partner two years ago.

The 20-year-old company is planning for sales gains of 20 percent by ditching the classical elements of the line and updating the image to be more modern. The result is a combination of dressy pieces like cocktail dresses, tailored suits in leather and wool, and fur-trimmed coats to be worn over some of the more casual sportswear items.

For holiday wardrobes, Raffinalla created a tight group of about 15 pieces, all in black. Satin-back crepe was the main fabric, which lent a romantic but dressy look, Salpeter said.

The line is manufactured at the company-owned facility in Montreal. Though Raffinalla has its own store in downtown Montreal, Salpeter said he’s trying to elevate his U.S. presence by upping distribution at major department and specialty stores.At the David Meister division of Kellwood Co., deeper distribution at existing department store accounts is a main focus for the rest of the year. Design director David Meister said bookings are up between 25 and 30 percent so far. For 2002, Meister said he expects his business to reach between $15 million and $20 million in sales.

"As far as the major [department stores go], we’re in all the doors," Meister said. "But we’re always adding new accounts and our business has been strong. We found our niche and people know of us as a label. We’ve hit our stride."

An important area for the company, according to Meister, is evening separates. Currently the line has a 60-40 ratio of evening to daytime dresses.

Even though she’s set to re-enter the cosmetics market and has created a group of bags as a guest designer at LeSportsac, Diane Von Furstenberg is still recognized for her signature dresses. But according to the designer, the separates business is an increasingly important sector at wholesale and at her West Village store and will soon reach 50 percent of the collection.

"Our tops are just flying," said Von Furstenberg. "Every kind — little solid tops, dramatic print tops and blouses. The [goal] now is to become more important to fewer people."

Additionally, Von Furstenberg said she is looking seriously at expanding her retail presence, starting in January with a new shop most likely on the Right Bank in Paris.

Liz Claiborne Evening, an extension of the brand’s dress license with Leslie Fay, is set todebut for fall, retailing at stores such as Lord & Taylor, Nordstrom and Macy’s West, according to Liz Claiborne Dresses president Steve Anastos. Deliveries begin in August at 140 doors, he added.

Evening separates are a key focus for the line — making up 50 percent of the mix— since they offer different looks and eliminate fit problems for women, according to vice president of design Greg Ventra.

Within Liz Claiborne’s daytime dress division, the black cocktail dresses now represent 40 percent of sales, up from 15 percent last year. Anastos said the group is turning into a year-round category. Two-piece dresses and jacket dresses are another important area for the fall and holidays.At Oscar de la Renta Ltd., president and chief executive officer Jeffry Aronsson said 2002 sales are up 40 percent, and plans are to renovate the brand’s five shop-in-shops in the next nine months. The company is eyeing an expansion to 12 to 15 locations in the U.S. in the next six months or so.

Aronsson said year-to-date fall business is up by more than 33 percent. Expanding business with existing customers and efforts to expand the customer base are projects for the rest of 2002.

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