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.

But dress houses need not put the Champagne away: There is still a customer who drops thousands of dollars on an entrance-making dress. And novelty is what retailers said makes a designer-priced sale this holiday season.

WWD asked several retailers what has sold this holiday season. Here’s an overview:

Saks Fifth Avenue, Jaqui Lividini, senior vice president fashion merchandising: "There has been a strong comeback with the little black dress in the designer, contemporary and bridge categories. Cocktail overall is the best-selling trend. Evening separates seem to get stronger, and are doing well for us. It’s part of an individuality movement where women are buying a few pieces and mixing them to create several looks. It’s a more modern approach to eveningwear."

Bestsellers: At the designer price point, evening separates from Badgley Mischka and Helen Morley are strong resources. Monique Lhuillier and Vera Wang are solid, as is Carmen Marc Valvo, who’s chiffon separates and pleated silk georgette gowns are key, said Lividini. In bridge, Chetta B., David Meister and Laundry are top-selling brands.

Trends: Strapless and bustier looks and evening separates, as well as dresses in light colors such as pink for Southern markets. "The old taboo — where you wore dark colors in the winter and light colors in the summer — that’s changed," said Lividini. "The new rule is there are no rules."

Wilkes Bashford, San Francisco, Mena Farakos, women’s buyer: "Fabulous pieces are selling and it doesn’t matter if it’s a gown or jacket, it just has to be incredibly beautiful. Real high-end things are [selling well], if they’re things people don’t find other places. For holiday, I’m seeing a different kind of trend, where it’s not, ‘I need,’ it’s ‘I want.’"Bestsellers: Farakos said she sold out of Oscar de la Renta and evening coats from British designer Caroline Charles. She also sold all three Anouska Hempel gowns at around $10,000 apiece.

Trends: Top colors include plum, dark green, chocolate and black. Pieces with evident handwork, including embroidery and appliqué details, were popular, as were evening coats in velvet.

Bergdorf Goodman, Robert Burke, vice president, senior fashion director: "What’s interesting is clearly the ready-to-wear day market has greatly influenced the eveningwear market. Women are more confident about mixing clothes right now and that’s evolved over the past few years. They’re doing it in daytime, which is more eclectic and bohemian, and that’s translated into evening. Whether it’s a corset top with pants or a skirt or an evening sweater set, evening separates are more creative."

Bestsellers: Badgley Mischka, Oscar de la Renta, Yves Saint Laurent, Douglas Hannant and Lela Rose.

Trends: Separates in various fabrics, such as the layering of lightweight fabrics. Women are stepping away from head-to-toe looks from a single designer, Burke said. Short cocktail dresses, sheer fabrics and pieces with ornamentation are selling.

Auer’s, Denver, Fran Stamper, designer, couture, bridal buyer: "Evening separates are selling because the versatility gives them more than one way to wear them. A cocktail sweater and skirt may look more modern than a cocktail dress. It’s unusual to sell so many evening pieces, like cocktail pants and sweaters. You always sell evening separates, but I would say we’re selling 25 percent more than last year."

Bestsellers: Oscar de la Renta’s patchwork dress for $4,600 and his heavily embroidered miniskirt and matching sweater at $3,700 and $1,600, respectively. Louis Féraud’s black cocktail suit and evening separates from Badgley Mischka, such as a mink-trimmed white sweater.

Trends: Embroidered details and embellishments such as mink and sequin trims. "If it’s basic, she probably has it in her closet," said Stamper. "It’s very novelty driven. Nothing is very basic."

Henri Bendel, Allyson Krowitz, merchandise manager: "I don’t think there is a true evening trend right now. A few years ago, it was the ballskirt, but I have noticed more ready-to-wear vendors are using velvet and offering tuxedo styles."Bestsellers: Beaded camisole top with matching skirt from Mandalay, retailing for $798. Long, printed wrap tops with long, black skirts from Diane Von Furstenberg and long, black matte jersey gowns from Stephen Burrows for $898. Peter Som’s double silk charmeuse halter dress in ivory for $898 also sold well, Krowitz said.

Trends: Long, strapless dresses in black and red that are understated but dressed up with accessories. Velvet and tuxedo looks.

Tres Mariposas, El Paso, Tex., Bobbie Baldridge, buyer: "People are a little more willing to spend because they haven’t had a new dress for a party, and we are doing well in evening separates," said Baldridge, who noted that eveningwear sales are up 40 percent over 2001. "It’s way up because it completely died last year, and it took a long time to build up again."

Bestsellers: St. John Knits’ eveningwear is a perennial bestseller, such as cutout and embroidered blouses for $850 to $1,200 over side-slit pants for $420. Sue Wong’s printed silk slipdresses with handkerchief hemlines and matching fringed stoles have been the top-selling dresses at $485. Mature women responded strongly to Ursula’s $310 ensemble of a black beaded jacket, shell and matching pants.

Trends: Slipdresses, high-low hemlines, burnout fabrics, ruffles and embroidery checked well, while short cocktail dresses, tiered ruffles and allover beaded gowns flopped.

Barneys New York, Judy Collinson, executive vice president, women’s general merchandise manager: "This has been an extremely strong eveningwear season. As everywhere else in the store, clients are buying emotionally and it’s about what is distinctive and what has incredible detail and color."

Bestsellers: Everything from Ungaro is selling, said Collinson. Other top resources include Peter Sorenen, Collette Dinnigan, Sybilla and Vera Wang.

Trends: Dresses that are young in feel and stand out through color. Gold is hot. Prints and lace are also key trends. Women are responding to fabrics that are fluid and feminine; lace is also important. "The column shape is strong, but the big ballgown is not," said Collinson. "Cocktail length is a much larger portion of this business, as are separates."

Berlin’s, Charleston, S.C., Ellen Berlin, co-owner: "Eveningwear accounts for 35 percent of women’s apparel and is selling better than last year. We’ve reduced inventory about 20 percent since last year and that’s resulted in better profits. Separates have grown to 50 percent of sales, up from last year."

Bestsellers: Long, fitted V-neck, bra-friendly gown, priced around $600, from Sue Wong. Daymor, Jovani and Sherri Hill and smaller lines such as Baratelli, Paul Cormack and E-An are also successful.

Trends: Key looks include novelty blouses with beading and pleating, or bustiers. Trends in gowns and separates include more embellishment.

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