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Dressed to Sell

The prevalence of dresses on international runways helped push the category into double-digit gains this spring at many stores.

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NEW YORK — When Louis Vuitton opened its spring runway show with a train of candy-colored satin daytime dresses, it was a clear sign the category was in for a bright season at retail.

According to retailers in New York — where the weather has been anything but favorable for dresses — as well as boutiques and department stores around the country, the spring and summer dress category is perennially important. For the one-year period ending in March, the sector generated $3.6 billion in sales, according to The NPD Group.

The prevalence of dresses on the New York, Milan and Paris runways helped push the category into double-digit gains this spring for many stores.

“Pucci dresses are money in the bank,” said retailer Janet Brown, who owns her eponymous store in Port Washington, N.Y. “We are selling dresses. My business is up about 15 percent for May.”

The daytime dress business at Neiman Marcus is ahead 70 percent coming out of the current selling season, according to Amy O’Connor, vice president and divisional merchandise manager of Galleria dresses, who also said she’ll continue to sell dresses at full price through July. The average price for a daytime dress at Neiman Marcus is between $250 and $275, she said.

“We’re blowing out of the girly, Fifties’ theme,” O’Connor said. “We’re selling halter, strapless and sheath dresses. At Neiman Marcus, we will always sell dresses at this particular time of the year. But this season, because it was a fashion trend, we captured a customer who may have worn sportswear.”

Brands including Kay Unger, David Meister, Diane Von Furstenberg, Tracy & Michael, Tracey Reese and Nanette Lepore have been among Neiman’s top sellers.

According to Shauna Stein, owner of On Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles, European brands including Roberto Cavalli, Blumarine and Ungaro Fuchsia are her best-selling dresses this season. Since so many junior brands that distribute in Los Angeles jumped on the vintage sundress theme, Stein said she bought dresses that were still sexy, but aimed at a slightly older customer.

“My customers see a lot of young-looking things in other stores,” said Stein. “So I have to offer something more mature. A dress for daytime is either for a luncheon or a meeting. Women in L.A. don’t walk around in dresses, they go somewhere in a dress.”

Though Stein said she underbought the category for spring and summer, her sell-throughs of what she did buy have been solid. More than half of her $50,000 order with Roberto Cavalli were dresses, she said.

Overall, her business is up about 3 percent over last year, though Stein said she expected to be up as high as 8 to 10 percent since her business is only four years old.

According to Robert Burke, vice president and senior fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman, Marc by Marc Jacobs, Diane Von Furstenberg, Tracey Reese and Nanette Lepore are top sellers in the contemporary market.

In a larger sense, Burke said the vintage dress trend has been so prevalent for spring and summer because the style lends itself to the season’s overall color and pattern trends better than other styles.

“The Marc Jacobs main line had a lot of that inspiration, as did Moschino Cheap & Chic,” said Burke. “They had flirty dresses with a great mix of pattern, color and ruffles.”

At Janet Brown, Pucci, Barbara TFank, Petite Thérese and Rohka are selling through at a rate close to 100 percent, according to Brown.

Prim and proper styles à la Jacqueline Kennedy and Grace Kelly to go from day to evening are key, though Brown acknowledged the category can be difficult to buy since there are so many types of dresses.

“A beautiful dress needs creativity to make it beautiful,” said Brown. “Each customer wants a different type of dress. Sometimes you have to be Harriette Houdini when buying.”

At Scoop, owner Stefani Greenfield said dresses are the key to a strong spring and summer business. Diane Von Furstenberg’s long halter chiffon dress for $295; Theory’s strapless side-ruched dress for $195; Marc by Marc Jacobs’ strapless cotton sateen for $288 and the striped crinkle cotton dress for $258, and Juicy Couture’s $85 cotton terry smock dress sold over Memorial Day weekend in her East Hampton store, even though it rained every day. Her private label Hawaiian-print strapless minidress has been a strong seller this season, too.

Business at Scoop is up about 15 percent over last year and the company is operating with leaner inventory, she said.

“For summer it’s all about the leg — soft and flowy,” said Greenfield. “A dress is like a handbag. If it’s awesome and has value, it will sell out in a minute. I wish we could find more young designers that are dresses first and then sportswear rather than sportswear with some dresses.”

At Lord & Taylor, cotton sateen dresses in coral and sage continue to be strong sellers, as well as lightweight black cotton dresses. Top performers include Laundry, Depeche, Ruth, ABS, David Meister and Betsey Johnson, said a spokeswoman.

At Metairie, La.-based Chatta Box, buyer and co-owner Rebecca Nordgren said her customer is walking out the door with colorful dresses in lightweight fabrics including seersucker and cotton from lines such as Kathlin Argiro, Yansi Fugel and Poleci. Her floor is about 40 percent dresses, she said. noting that business is up about 5 percent over last year.

“Any sundress I get in is going to sell,” said Nordgren. “I think it’s the designers finally paying attention to what the customers want.”

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