DALLAS — There’s nothing staid about this season’s crop of knits.

Knitwear has moved away from being a cold-weather basic with limited appeal, according to retailers, to be at the forefront of the season’s trends. Merchants said knitwear has evolved into a versatile, year-round classic that’s creating consumer interest during a tough economic period.

Fall bestsellers include off-the-shoulder cashmere sweaters, cutout or midriff-baring lace camisoles, fine-gauge peasant tops, textured or chunky knits and the all-important muffler.

"We love knitwear," said Bob Benham, owner of Balliet’s, an Oklahoma City specialty store. "Knitwear is in a long-duration fashion cycle and is doing extremely well at retail. Women love it because it’s ageless, seasonless and virtually wrinkle-proof. It’s a wonderful look for traveling."

Balliet’s top sellers include St. John Knit’s spectrum of ready-to-wear and novelty knitwear from Stizzoli. Sales are up 2 percent for the year at Balliet’s, although September had a 15 percent surge thanks to strong trunk shows.

"Knitwear has become one of our most successful categories. It’s giving women a reason to buy and is flying off the racks," said Karen Daskas, co-owner of Tender, a specialty store in Birmingham, Mich., who said business is up slightly against a year ago.

"It’s practical and comfortable for sure, but it’s also very sexy and trendy," Daskas said. "Knit tops have all but replaced jackets this fall, and women, especially those 30 to 45 years old, can’t get enough of cashmere and silk blend knit tops, which they wear year-round. In the past, it was predominantly a fall and winter business. It’s increasing at Tender each season."

Daskas just returned from the spring shows in Europe and booked cashmere sweaters from British designer Louise Roswald, and cashmere and silk sweaters and tops from Italian designers Cividini, Matilde and Brunello Cucinelli.

"Knitwear transcends ages and seasons. Women can’t get enough of it, especially tops," said Bobbie Baldridge, buyer and vice president at Tres Mariposas, a specialty store in El Paso, Tex. "It’s driving many of our categories. Zip-front and hooded knit jackets, bohemian and novelty knits, and wonderful textures and colors are just a few of the many knitwear looks that are hot for fall, especially from Semplice, Juicy Couture, Custo Barcelona and Forte. Knitwear is so versatile and can be reinterpreted every season with ease."Tres Mariposas recently underwent an extensive renovation and expansion, and knitwear is now one of the merchandising stars at the nine-year-old store. Sales are up by single digits against a year ago.

"The only time knitwear goes on the markdown rack is when it doesn’t appeal to the senses," Baldridge added. "It has to feel good in the hand and on the body and look beautiful to the eye. Boring doesn’t sell."

At Lilly Dodson in Dallas, knitwear items are important components of sportswear collections, said Bill Dodson, president.

"I can’t think of a sportswear collection that doesn’t include a good portion of knitwear," Dodson said. "It’s modern dressing and so chic. Fall bestsellers include knit tops from Escada and Mondi. Our customers travel and encounter a range of climates, and knitwear can move with grace from a suitcase to a luncheon or cocktail party. Thin fine-gauge knits are sophisticated and sexy."

Sales at Lilly Dodson are up by double digits so far this year, with trunk shows playing a big part in the increases.

Beall’s Department Stores, a 72-unit moderate and better chain based in Bradenton, Fla., has an extensive private label knit program that continues to grow each year, said Conrad Szymanski, president.

"Each season, we sell more and more knitwear," he said. "It’s grown from a basics program to now include a Lycra-based fashion segment and lots of fancies. Younger women are discovering it because of the stretch and fashion element."

Fall’s top performers include retro-printed knit tops, brights and textures, especially a thermal knit shirt with three-quarter sleeves and cotton piqué and rayon satin trim at $14.99.

Knitwear sales are ahead by low double digits, while overall women’s sales are up mid-single digits, said Szymanski.

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