NEW YORK — Hands down, this spring is about the suit, and fortunately for ready-to-wear firms, the dress isn’t too far behind.

Vendors are expecting a strong spring season, with most suit and dress companies forecasting double-digit sales increases compared with last year. Currently, executives said suit sales are up about 30 percent on average over last year, while dress sales are up about half as much.

This would be a well-needed rebound for the rtw market. According to the NPD Group, volume of women’s tailored clothing — including dresses and suits — dropped 8.3 percent to $14.6 billion for the year ended September.

This was the result of the tough economy and casual dressing patterns. But now that there’s signs of a turnaround to a more formal way of dressing, suit and dress executives are upbeat for next year.

Bud Konheim, chief executive officer of Nicole Miller, said his general outlook for spring is bullish.

“For ready-to-wear, spring is always a good season because you have events that drive business such as proms, garden parties and weddings,” Konheim said. “But for the first time in a while, our business at retail has increased month after month.”

Konheim is attributing the positive market to the healthier economy and said business is doing well at Miller’s chain of 30 signature stores and retail accounts across the country.

To take advantage of the current business climate, Nicole Miller will launch a line of higher-end merchandise this spring. Composed of pricier evening gowns, the line will be sold exclusively to Neiman Marcus and select specialty boutiques during the first season.

Konheim will bring on a new salesperson to handle the line, as well as source new factories for production. The company has not yet decided what to call the line.

“Nicole loves to design high-end stuff and it’s fun to have a customer buy it,” said Konheim. “As long as it’s got a place to go, we’ll do it efficiently. We won’t try to push it on someone that doesn’t have the customer base.”

Nicole Miller opened a shop last month in Richmond, Va., which has performed well, Konheim said. The Southern customer has responded strongly to the product, so the companyplans to open a location in Charlotte, N.C., in 2005.However, most executives in the dress and suit business are focusing on increasing sales with wholesale accounts.

At Carmen Marc Valvo, president Christian Knaust is forecasting business to be up between 15 and 20 percent for the first half of next year. The rtw firm is also celebrating its 15th year in business next year and will more aggressively promote the brand’s milestone.

“Our fashion show will be more elaborate, there will be increased promotion and advertising to make a big splash,” Knaust said. “Our public relations team is going out to Los Angeles to work with the Emmys and the Oscars.”

In addition, Carmen Marc Valvo will be the exclusive designer in a fashion show on Thursday to celebrate the renovation of the Neiman Marcus Las Vegas store.

The brand’s higher-end line, Carmen Marc Valvo Couture, features product between $1,500 and $3,000 retail and is currently a top performer. However, the company recently created a CMV division, which carries daytime dresses between $300 and $400 and will ship this spring to Neiman’s and select specialty store accounts. That line is expected to generate about $2 million in first-year sales, Knaust said.

Carmen Marc Valvo has entered into a licensing agreement for evening shoes with Italian brand CC Calzature Ltd. that will be shown to stores in January. Also, the brand plans to finalize licensing deals for fine jewelry and bed linen next year.

In the better market, the dress and suit divisions of major brands such as Liz Claiborne, Jones New York and Tahari Arthur S. Levine are all reporting strong forecasts for the first half of next year. Currently, suit sales have increased as much as 30 percent compared with last year.

Arthur S. Levine, whose suit line with Tahari isn’t yet two years old, said he’s on par to break $200 million in sales next year.

“We took practically half of the suit business in less than two years,” Levine said. “Suits are probably the hottest category at retail right now. I don’t see any slowdown.”

Levine said the market is currently in a suit cycle that hasn’t been this strong since the Eighties. As a result, the company is going to open its first store in early 2004 in Las Vegas. Currently, Tahari Arthur S. Levine has about four outlet stores, though the new 1,800-square-foot location at the Tropicana Hotel & Casino will be the brand’s first signature boutique.Jackie Linitz, president of Jones New York Suit, said business is expected to be strong in 2004. Her strategy is to offer a mix of key trends and classic sellers to attract new customers and keep existing ones.

“I believe in balancing,” Linitz said. “Last year at this time, dressy suits were not performing, so many stores were surprised that we offered them again this year. I never walk away from anything entirely and my dressy suits are doing really well.”

For spring, Jones will offer bouclé fabrics in soft colors such as beige. Novelty fabrics, such as herringbones, tweeds and stripes, will also be strong next year for skirt suits and pantsuits.

Liz Claiborne Dresses & Suits transferred its license earlier this year from LF Brands to Kellwood Co. This spring will be the first time the line will be entirely designed and produced under Kellwood, and Denise Miller, president of Liz Claiborne Dresses & Suits, said she believes the timing to enter the market could not be better.

Miller said, “So many stores walked away from career, but they’re coming back and approaching it, so our timing is good.”

Miller said the suit business has increased 20 to 30 percent over last year and doesn’t expect sales to slow. Dresses are not performing quite as well as suits, she said, but dress sales have steadily increased during the last six to eight months.

Miller said, “The little black dress is driving sales in soft versions in chiffon and crepe.”

The little black dress, in fabrics such as matte jersey, is also doing well at Citrine, a better dress line designed by Sully Bonnelly. Printed cotton sateen dresses performed well at retail last year and are expected to do well again this spring, according to Robert Maslin, president.

Since Citrine is owned by Canadian firm Groupe J.S. International, production is out of Canada, which means turnaround time is quick.

“We can turn out product in four to six weeks,” Maslin said. “If we have something that’s checking in early spring, we can get back into it quickly, which is one of the reasons why business has been successful.”Spring business at Citrine is expected to be up by 50 percent and the brand will continue to build its distribution by attending trade shows and bringing on new specialty store accounts.

For David Meister, sales are expected to be up 20 percent.

“For evening, I would say things with irregular panels and uneven hemlines are key,” said Meister. “For day, it’s sheath dresses in great prints.”

After success with the day and evening dresses, stores are increasing their business with David Meister’s sportswear line, which launched earlier this year.

While several brands are increasing business in the U.S., Diane von Furstenberg is driving up sales on a global basis. Earlier this year, the company opened a boutique in London, which continues to exceed expectations, according to president Paula Sutter.

However, elsewhere in Europe the company is increasing its distribution, especially in Germany, where volume has doubled. Other markets around the world where von Furstenberg is selling include South America and Australia

“We’re doing almost one-third more business at wholesale,” Sutter said. “Our sportswear business continues to grow but it’s also a big dress season, which is a business we own.”

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