By  on January 30, 1996

NEW YORK -- The difficult retail climate is expected to continue through the summer, but dress firms hope the value associated with their category will help them score some gains.

Many makers are finding that an interest in unique fabrics and novelty treatments, as well as an increased demand for casual dresses, are most important in prodding reluctant consumers to buy.

At NR1, a better-priced house based in Hawthorne, Calif., business is expected to increase by 10 to 15 percent this year in a tough climate, said Dori Bardavid, who owns the company with her husband, Robert. The line is geared toward specialty stores, with wholesale prices ranging from $65 for a simple one-piece dress to $115 for an ensemble.

"Stores are very cautious and price- and quality-conscious," Dori Bardavid said. "They're waiting to see what business is like over the next few weeks. Consumers are concerned about their jobs, and there's not much new and exciting out there.

"A dress has to be a good value, but it also has to have something special to spur the impulse buy," she added.

Bardavid said NR1 is offering such treatments as textured fabrics, combinations of different fabrics and novelty trims on its collection of day-to-dinner dresses and suits.

Ben Altshuler, president and owner of Wild Rose, said business over the last six months has been up 17 percent, and he feels his business will continue to keep pace.

Retail, however, will continue to be difficult through the summer season.

"Stores are overinventoried, and my concern is the amount of product they have to move," he said. "MAGIC attracts a good cross-section of specialty stores that don't generally attend other regional markets, so I'm optimistic we'll do good business there."

Sam Klapholz, vice president and national sales manager of Jerell in Dallas, said business casual has been a driving force at the Dallas-based firm for a year. As reported, the company is launching a new moderate line -- 1431 -- which is aimed at the department store customer and designed to retail between $59 and $79.

Jerell's dress business is up about 20 percent for spring, and the percentage devoted to casual dresses has increased. A year ago, its mix was about 70 percent career, 10 percent casual and 20 percent social.

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