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Exceeding Expectations

NEW YORK — The moderate suit and dress customer still likes to spend less than $100 on an outfit, but today that purchase had better look like it set her back quite a bit more.<br><br>The bar has been raised over the last five years in terms of...

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NEW YORK — The moderate suit and dress customer still likes to spend less than $100 on an outfit, but today that purchase had better look like it set her back quite a bit more.

The bar has been raised over the last five years in terms of bang for the buck, according to moderate suit and dress executives. The new moderate shopper expects suits to be made of expensive-looking tweeds or feature extra details such as novelty buttons, while dresses should emulate fresh-off-the-runway appeal. Nowadays, winning over that customer means offering product that just simply doesn’t look inexpensive.

“I remember when you could just re-interpret past successful styles from a prior season for the moderate customer,” said Linda Larsen German, president and chief merchandising officer of L.F. Brands Inc. “You can’t do that [anymore]. Today, you have to have a designated design team, utilizing the same trend services, interpreting the same runway influences and incorporating all of the trends of the season.”

For Barbara Kennedy, president of Jones New York Dress, which houses the Evan-Picone moderate line, to offer product that exceeds consumer expectation usually starts with finding the right fabric.

“In Evan-Picone, we try to find the best quality fabrics that look more expensive than they are. If it doesn’t look more expensive than it is, we absolutely won’t do it,” said Kennedy. “The [end] product looks at least 20 percent higher in price.”

Kennedy has overseen the Evan- Picone Dress brand for two years and has grown it to what industry sources say is a $20 million business. The line was previously designed by the Evan-Picone sportswear team before it was transferred to the Jones dress division.

Though the moderate market for dresses and suits is largely a promotional business, Evan-Picone, whose average dress is $84 retail, refuses to add 99-cent endings to its prices.

“Our business is not promotional, where a $79 dress is really worth $59,” said Kennedy. “The value of my $89 dresses is higher because of better fabrics and factories.”

Richard Silverstein, who recently took the chief executive officer post at The Dorby Group, one of Kellwood Co.’s larger divisions, recently hired Laura Azar as vice president of merchandising and two new designers to revamp the Miss Dorby dress line and the DBY suit line. It also moved to a modern-looking showroom at 1400 Broadway to further drive the point home with buyers.

This story first appeared in the August 20, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“These were two very profitable lines that needed freshening up,” said Silverstein. “Just because it’s inexpensive doesn’t mean it can’t look nice.”

So as not to abandon the DBY and Miss Dorby customer, Silverstein’s strategy is to grow business with existing accounts, as well as get a fresh crop of new stores by adding a more modern line within the moderate range called DB Collection, which will hit stores in December. Silverstein also added junior brands XOXO Dresses under license and Hipnotix in-house.

In addition to a wide range of regular sizes, most moderate dress and suit firms are offering product for petites and plus sizes.

Le Suit, Kasper A.S.L.’s moderate suit line, runs from size 4 in petites to a 24 in women’s and is the fastest-growing division in the Kasper stable of brands. As reported, Jones Apparel Group has agreed to acquire Kasper, along with its signature suit and Anne Klein businesses, for $216.6 million.

Le Suit retails from $99 to $139, which is slightly higher than the moderate dress prices due to construction costs associated with tailored merchandise. Despite that, the value is evident when compared to designer-priced suits, which can easily run into the four digits, such as Carolina Herrera’s $2,580 wool flannel skirt suit currently available on saksfifthavenue.com.

Though the moderate customer probably wouldn’t spend that type of money on a suit or dress, it doesn’t mean she’s not paying attention to fashion, executives said.

“She reads In Style and Allure and knows what’s going on,” said Bernard Holtzman, president of Harvé Benard, a roughly $100 million company. “I think the perception of the moderate customer was that she was out of shape, older, had a low income, and it’s simply not so. I think it’s a younger woman who goes to work and likes to be fashionable but doesn’t have the ability to spend [a lot of] money on clothes.”

Harvé Benard suits wholesale for $39 to $49 and many are machine washable to avoid dry cleaning costs. While Holtzman sells to department stores, the most significant growth is in off-price operations such as Loehmann’s and Steinmart, he said.

“If you look at projections for increases for fall, these guys are the top end,” said Holtzman. “Department stores are hard pressed to make their margins. If the growth is not coming from department stores, then it means the customer is not in the department store.”

Regarding trends, LF Brands’ Larsen said fashion is hitting the moderate market at the same time as the better department. This is a departure from past practice, she said.

As a result, the moderate consumer has a lot more fashion options from which to choose, she said. But implementing the details to transform a basic garment into a more fashionable one can run up the price, so finding other ways to keep costs down is a challenge, Larsen added.

“It’s very important to pass the value on to the consumer and to make sure the selling price is always in our mind,” said Larsen. “We don’t lose sight of how much the consumer is willing to pay. We’re challenged to look at every garment and ask if our customer is willing to pay for it.”

The entire Leslie Fay Dress line, save for a couple of styles, sells for under $100 retail, and Larsen noted that the company has sometimes had to reengineer a product to make sure it maintains that selling price.

Since a dress is an entire outfit, it has to have something special to make it stand out, such as a color, fabric or a design detail.

“They can add their own flair in sportswear,” Larsen added. “But a dress has to do it.”

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