NEW YORK — Mrs. Claus better slip out of that red smock if she wants to fit in this holiday season, because retailers across the board cited evening separates as the hit of the 2002 holiday season.

It’s their versatility — as well as their availability at a range of prices, from moderate to designer — that merchants cite for the stepped-up demand. Since retailers said dresses can sometimes be limiting, separates offer a modern look to the often traditional evening market. Further, the consumer’s tendency to mix and match for day is carrying into night. This stems from value, they said, since separates easily create lots of looks.

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