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."Now, we're 40 percent career, 40 percent casual and have held social steady at 20 percent," he said.Pamela Grunder, president of The Design & Source Co., the licensee for Generra women's and children's wear, said Generra's denim dress offerings will be about 12 to 15 percent of the line for fall, which will mark the first major presentation for dresses. The company had a capsule dress selection last fall and for spring.Denim dresses and jumpers are easy to wear, she said, "and women are throwing them on like a pair of jeans."They are also big for dress-down days in some work environments, and the jumpers are easily combined with a shirt to get a sportswear look, she said.Silhouettes are mostly loose, long -- often to the ankle -- and have an Empire waist. The company is using blue denim in various washes and black denim, because darker colors are becoming more important this fall, Grunder noted."Dress codes are relaxing at offices, and people are not wearing as many suits," said Michele DeGraaf, who is in advertising for Linda Lundstrom Ltd., a Toronto manufacturer. "So dresses, particularly softer, less-structured styles, are the future. We specialize in softer dressing, so stores are coming to us more now."The company offers its better-to-bridge-price dresses and sportswear in misses' and plus sizes, she said."We started with plus sizes in Canada last spring," she said, "and they got a good reception, so we see that as a growth category."She said soft knits in simple styles are key, citing Lundstrom's "Milano Knits" group, in which dresses wholesale for around $100. A Tencel-based group wholesales from $105 to $160.Miss Ashlee, which markets dressy suits and dresses under the Miss Ashlee label and casual dresses under Ashlee, is aggressively diversifying its distribution base."We are broadening our horizons and going beyond the department store," said Melody Fast, West Coast sales manager for the Los Angeles-based firm. "You have to diversify, given this difficult climate."Specialty stores now account for about 30 percent of the business. Miss Ashlee is also developing a private label business for specialty and department store accounts, as well as for catalogs. Private label now accounts for almost half of its business.Miss Ashlee is also focusing on items, which are about 50 percent of the business. They include denim rompers and denim dresses."Consumers are not buying full wardrobes and are looking for specific novelty looks," Fast said.The line wholesales from about $40 to $65.

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