By  on January 30, 1996

NEW YORK -- The daytime dress and suit market isn't on the ropes just yet, but the loosening of corporate dress codes and an increase in workers who can do their jobs at home are causing some better and bridge makers to rethink their approach to growth.

To meet the new options in dressing today, some of the strategies ready-to-wear companies are employing include:

* Focusing on eveningwear. Women still have special-occasions and evening events, and if they are dressing down during the day, they will still splurge on something new for evening.

* Maintaining prices to capitalize on value.

* Making tailored apparel with more comfort and better fit.

The work-at-home universe expanded by three million households to 39 million between the second quarters of 1994 and 1995 -- a 7.6 percent rise, according to IDC/LINK, a market research division of International Data Corp.

The firm projects that telecommuters will be the fastest-growing segment of at-home workers. This group includes employees of outside companies who work at home at least part-time during normal business hours.

The shift in work styles is one reason some women are reevaluating their overall purchasing plans.

Marie Drum Beninati, a partner in the retail practice of CSC, a consulting firm, said there has been a "Europeanization" of the American woman's wardrobe and her attitude about buying.

"People are finding that they don't need 20 of anything, they need one or two really good things," she said. "Europeans will spend a month's salary on a fine designer outfit, and wear it a lot."

There is still a need for a more serious, professional look Monday through Thursday, especially at an executive level. Consequently, dresses and suits continue to do all right, even in these difficult times.

Another plus for the market is that dress-down for women has not been well defined, resulting in as much confusion about the right thing to wear on casual days as there has been about hemlines that see-saw up and down. If women don't know what to wear, they don't know what to buy, so they stick with the old reliables, according to some observers.While unit sales of tailored dresses and suits rose 16.2 percent and 17 percent, respectively, in the first nine months of 1995 compared to the same period in 1994, dollar sales were up less -- 5 percent in dresses and 11.2 percent in suits, according to the NPD Group, a Port Washington, N.Y., research firm.

This indicates that prices not only have not risen, but there has been deflation in the categories, said Beninati. It spotlights the importance and appeal of value. Dressing from neck to knees for one price with a dress or suit has been one of the category's drawing cards for several years.

"It also means that markdowns occurred much earlier than ever," Beninati noted. "The dress-down and work-at-home trends don't appear to have hurt the day dress and suit markets. This reflects the success of the Talbots of the world."

Beninati suggested that while "business casual" has been well defined for men, the fashion industry still has not come up with a casual workwear uniform for women.

"Tailored clothing also represents the countertrend," she added. "If the consumer sees all these casual clothes in the stores, and she wants to look a little different, what is she going to buy? Tailored."

But business casual is here to stay because people are not going to give up comfort, she said, adding, "The key is making tailored clothes more comfortable and with better fit."

In other parts of the country, the South and West, for example, wardrobes are more casual all week long. In New England and the Midwest, dress is more conservative, she pointed out.

"The shift has strengthened the evening portion of our business," said Alan Geller, president of the Kenar Dress division of Kenar Enterprises. "It has redirected women's needs, and manufacturers are prompted to make the dress that much more special. The consumer might be buying fewer dresses, but she's still buying, and she's willing to spend more for something of better quality."

Geller said the company's established Kenar Dress and Schrader divisions were up about 25 percent in spring bookings, but that hearty new growth was expected from its new AJ Bari line of evening and dinner dresses and suits.Kenar bought the Bari trademark when its parent, the Gillian Group, was liquidated last year. The collection is hitting stores for spring, and first-year volume is projected at about $10 million.

Richard Elias, president of Renlyn New York, said his overall strategy is changing because he is exploring new territories with existing lines and launching new products.

His newer E.R. Gerard suit line, which is less expensive than the bridge-priced Renlyn collection, is selling well -- the lower price point has proven to be attractive, he said.

He is also doing more work with catalogs, and is launching a new large-size suit collection through a license with Delta Burke Designs. The suits, as reported, will retail for under $200, and will make their debut in March for fall. First-year sales are projected at $2 million to $3 million.

"We feel we'll avoid some of the effects of that reduced demand," Elias said. "But the key is in restructuring your business to rein in costs and have quick turn. Retailers are holding back on ordering, so you have to be able to turn very quickly. Manufacturers who have foreign production could have a tough time, because they have to work much further in advance."

Tom Murry, president of Tahari Ltd., said the company's sportswear division is being affected by casual Fridays more than its dress and suit division. It's having a neutral impact in terms of sales, but the sportswear area is changing more in response to the trend.

Murry stressed that Tahari's niche is upscale career clothing, and he said the company's choice has been to remain focused on that area. He said eventually the company will launch a casual division, and that unit will be fully focused on casual apparel.

"There's always a danger in losing your focus," he said. "We've tried to maintain our focus, and we will not do anything that doesn't work with a working woman's wardrobe."

Murry observed that the fashion industry will "no doubt overreact to this trend," then it will subside and finally it will level off.

"I haven't seen a trend yet that didn't cause an overreaction," he stated.He said there has been an increase in Tahari's pant business, and more sweater sets have been selling. Knitwear has increased to 18 percent of Tahari's business, from 4 percent just two years ago. There has been some tradeoff with blouses. Sweaters and vests, which are also easy to dress up or down, are alternatives to the jacket.

"Our jacket business is still strong, but when we make a jacket now, we make sure it has multiple uses, that it can be worn for the office with skirt or dress or with casual pants or even jeans," he said.

In the dress and suit area, there is a great emphasis on price, as value is still a key component of this market, he added. The bridge-price evening dress business is performing well, and Tahari is going after a solid daytime dress business "at a price."

Rusty Ruster, president of the licensed Mary McFadden Suits collection, said the changes could "put a bit of a crimp" in daytime business, but noted, "People still want to look good and feel good about how they look, so there's room for both."

He said one key to McFadden's suits, which wholesale from $99 to $179 and made their retail debut for spring, is that they are versatile, and can go from the office to dinner or a party.

The main thrust of the line is dressier daytime and evening suits, and the look is achieved through detailing -- special buttons, piping, frog closures, novelty zippers and such treatments as petal cuffs -- and textured fabrics, like a cotton and rayon hopsack, rayon and acetate piquA. The wardrobe change that's spreading across the country is "revolutionary, as big as any of the past several hundred years," said consultant R. Fulton Macdonald, president of International Business Development.

" 'Corporate casual' still calls for clothing Monday through Thursday that commands respect from workers, but is not highly tailored and formal," said Macdonald.

He noted that since Latin and European business people still tend to dress more formally, anyone dealing with these groups will be more likely to dress formally. Traditional suitings, however, are becoming more of an option in all aspects of business."Suit and dress makers have an opportunity to respond to this style and tailoring change by reducing the amount of padding, tailoring and formality, lengthening dress skirts so they're not sexy, constructing lightly padded jackets and designing mix-and-match rather than more formally linked outfits," he said.

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