By  on January 10, 2002


Fabulous fetes and glitzy black-tie affairs are not the only suitable venues for dresses.

Fueled in part by the popularity of feminine looks, manufacturers -- most of which hail from the contemporary world -- this spring are increasing offerings of dresses designed for casual, daytime use.

"I think people are just tired of pants with the little top look -- It's been popular for so long," said Michelle Smith, co-founder and designer of New York-based bridge-priced collection Milly, which is increasing its dress offerings for spring-summer.

Spring-summer looks include fuller skirts with fabric belts, twist bra fronts, sweetheart necklines and ruched busts with bows. On the fabric front, Smith uses chiffon and floral chintz in shiny finishes. She said the most sought-after looks include the peasant aesthetic, lace trim, piping, flouncy ruffles and strapless styles.

"The collection is very much about fabric textures and finishes," said Smith. "It's pretty and vintage a la Sarah Jessica Parker in 'Sex and the City."'

Looking into her crystal ball, she added, "For holiday 2002, I plan to pair chiffon pieces with cozy sweaters."

Smith said the popularity of dresses stems from their versatility. "I love wearing dresses to work and then into evening," she said.

Angela Taylor George, principal and design director of New York-based contemporary firm Alice & Trixie, agreed that dresses are suitable for a variety of occasions.

"The great thing about dresses is you can throw on a pair of flip-flops or platforms and go," George said. "Plus, they're cool for hot weather, comfortable, and guys like to see legs."

Alice & Trixie's dresses, which for spring-summer will account for 50 percent of the line, include flutter sleeves, fabric strips that look like streamers, tank styles with ruched fronts, lace-ups and ruffles.

Tired of silk chiffon, the company instead is opting in the spring for silk crepe de chine. "It's easier and more appropriate for daywear," she said.Alice & Trixie's palette features subdued colors, including sherbet colors in coral, greens and yellows that lie "somewhere between pastels and brights," George said. Dresses also include small-scale florals, gingham and Japanese kimono prints.

Alice & Trixie's fall 2002 collection will consist of Edwardian-looking styles, including puffed sleeves, frilly fronts and high necks, in addition to velvet, burnouts and soft silk dressing.

"I think fall will be equally big, especially with the Edwardian and Renaissance trends," she said.

Jill Sohegian, the owner and design director of Los Angeles contemporary firm Jill Michelle, said dresses get her creative juices flowing more so than other pieces.

"Sportswear just isn't as interesting, because it's more solids-driven, and you can't get as creative, such as with prints," she said. "My favorite part about designing dresses is shopping for all the beautiful fabrics," she said.

Sohegian said sales of dresses began increasing last fall. To accommodate buyers "who are more open with feminine looks now," she designs one sexy, one sophisticated and one conservative dress per group. "Our customers really like that they have a lot to choose from," she said. "We also try to do three fabrics per month."

Aside from adopting an edgy, "non-missy" formula, Jill Michelle has become popular for its sexy, bra-friendly styles, some of which have a vintage look. For spring, Sohegian said the peasant and prairie looks are the most popular. Examples of the two aforementioned looks include tiered skirts, allover eyelet lace pieces, subtle ruffles and off-the-shoulder necklines. On the flip side, there are dresses with vintage floral prints and stripes with full skirts and halter, sweetheart or boatneck tops. "It's very Fifties or Marilyn Monroe," Sohegian said. "The fabric looks like vintage wallpaper."

Novelty pieces are driving the business at Los Angeles contemporary firm Portrait Clothing, which offers pieces reflecting the Gypsy, cowgirl and Victorian looks.

"Our goal is to provide those small details," said design director Anita Cha. "Our theme is sexy and feminine with punk elements, or mature with a rebellious spirit."Cha, who said that 40 percent of the line consists of dresses, said, "Whether you're wearing or designing them [dresses], you don't have to worry about matching a top and bottom." Portrait Clothing's spring collection includes chiffon, neutral palettes, flocking, lace detail, asymmetrical hems and graffiti prints.

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