By  on January 11, 1994

DALLAS -- A continuation of soft, feminine styling augmented by the return of the short skirt and the jacket is expected to drive up spring sales by five to 15 percent. After a lackluster fall, retailers noted that designers have addressed their career customers' rejection of relaxed cuts and limp layering by producing a myriad of jackets -- from waist to fingertip length -- that often have minimal shoulder padding.

"The business woman still wants some structure -- a jacket in some shape or form," observed Joan Kaner, senior vice president and fashion director at Neiman Marcus. "She has become accustomed to it. It works for her lifestyle, and she's learned to build a wardrobe around it." Soft styling hasn't been a complete flop, however. Customers bought into it for casual and eveningwear, and some retailers expect the move toward less aggressive power suiting will have a lasting impact. Others anticipate that a bit more structure will return next fall. Lucille Klein, fashion director at J.C. Penney Co. Inc., Plano, Tex., predicted that soft styling would assert a broad influence this decade. "We're in a different era," Klein reflected. "We are more self-confident with the power within ourselves, so we don't have to dress that way to make that statement." Penney's is committed to soft looks for spring and will show two-piece soft print dressing, wide pants, long vest tunics, ruffled blouses and softly tailored jackets with minimal shoulder pads -- clothing that is soft, but not limp. "I'm very, very bullish about spring business and soft dressing," enthused Jim Hailey, president of the women's division, projecting at least a 10 percent gain for the division. "We've gotten some of the merchandise in a little bit early, and it's selling." He expects sportswear and accessories, especially fashion jewelry and handbags, will lead the women's division at the moderately priced chain. High-end retailers also were upbeat.

"I think soft will be much better for spring; for fall it got a little too classic," observed Ron Frasch, senior vice president and general merchandise manager at Neiman Marcus here. "There is a lot less confusion over skirt lengths -- there's no long-short debate -- and I also think we'll have color, print, texture and normal 21-inch skirts, so those are all positives for consumer confidence." Frasch declined to reveal Neiman's plan, but said he expected spring would be better than last fall, when an overdose of black and spare styles failed to excite fashion shoppers, who sought novelty items instead.

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