NEW YORK — With the economy down, the prospect of war looming and colder weather just recently setting in, women across the country are being extra careful with their fall and holiday buying — selectively spending on sportswear that feels fresh and new, while skipping on the basics.

The thirst for newness is being driven by a combination of motives: Shoppers want to feel they are getting intrinsic value for their money, and feel the need to escape with novelty amid the stresses of financial and personal insecurity.

"Across the board, the customer is responding to anything that’s new or novel," said Kathy Bradley-Riley, merchandise manager for sportswear at The Doneger Group, the retail buying office here. "Good fashion items have done well, but overall, business has been tough."

Yet, one thing is clear: Shoppers are looking for value, said Marshal Cohen, co-president of NPDFashionworld, the Port Washington, N.Y.-based national consumer tracking firm.

"Brands that are on sale or less expensive are doing well, but consumers are also willing to pay more for items that will last," he said. "It’s what I call investment wardrobing. Women have changed the way they buy and the brands that are understanding this are the ones that are doing better."

Cohen said sales of fall-weather items should heat up as the weather continues to be seasonable.

"Consumers are purchasing more in season than ever before and part of the problem is that retailers are bringing in merchandise so early," said Cohen, adding that women’s apparel spending was down 3.8 percent to $53.1 billion for the year through August, compared with the first eight months of 2001. "You add the socioeconomic and climate issues in, and people are worried about a lot more things than shopping."

Lavelle Olexa, senior vice president of fashion merchandising at Lord & Taylor, said: "So much of the business is weather related, so sweaters, with the exception of cashmere, have gotten off to a slower start. We’re probably looking at a stronger show once the weather stays constantly cold."

Overall, the same trends that are performing well in contemporary have permeated the better zone, namely denim, skirts, femininity, velvet and active items, Olexa said. "While the fit may be different, this customer is still looking for the same fashion trends," she added.Woven shirts and knit tops are the two big winners this fall, said Scott Baskin, president of Mark Shale, which has stores in Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas, St. Louis and Kansas City, Mo.

"In today’s world, you get a couple of these pieces and you almost create a statement or new outfit because the tops are very statement driven," Baskin said. "The season is definitely more item driven and I don’t know if it’s the economy or just the market itself. But there’s still an awful lot of sameness out there, so when you see one or two great items, they jump out of the pack."

Meanwhile, on the West Coast, a thick blanket of clouds hovering over the Los Angeles basin during most of October was just the boost sweater sales needed at Ron Herman’s five Los Angeles-area stores in Brentwood, Beverly Hills and at the Fred Segal center at West Hollywood, Calif. The boutique owner said customers are gravitating toward close-fitting cashmere sweaters with unfinished hems or sweaters with a handknit look.

"We’ve already reordered once. Nobody’s calling about jeans anymore," he said. While noting that the store still sells a good amount of denim, Herman added: "When other things like sweaters come up, it makes the business really interesting."

At Macy’s West, brown is getting a lot of play, according to women’s fashion director Durand Guion at the stores’ San Francisco headquarters. He said women are pairing the fall color with winter white and gray. "You really can’t get much chicer than brown and gray," he said.

In addition, embroidered styles are also checking well, he said, especially in moderate, where peasant-style tunics are seeing lots of action. Ethnic details are also proving successful in outerwear. "If she’s buying a winter coat, it’s embroidered suede," Guion said.

This fall, what’s retailing well in moderate is also retailing in better and bridge sportswear, said Angela Ahrendts, executive vice president at Liz Claiborne Inc. Referring to some of Claiborne’s brands, Ahrendts said: "Across the board, anything lace-looking or textured is doing really well — from Sigrid Olsen, to Laundry, City DKNY, Dana Buchman and Kenneth Cole. Also, woven shirts with any type of novelty or different engineered sleeves are doing well."The downturn of the economy plus the unseasonably warm weather earlier this season helped boost sales of lightweight knit tops, which are usually priced lower than sweaters. But now that the weather has cooled down, sweater sales have picked up, she noted.

"Anything with a turtleneck neckline, mostly textured or featuring an interesting stitch is selling the best and are the number-one bestsellers at City DKNY, Liz & Co. and Kenneth Cole," she said. "And as the weather turned, our cardigan business really took off."

Susan White, president of the better-to-bridge knitwear maker White + Warren, stressed that anything novel is what’s driving the sales in sweaters this fall. White’s best-selling retail performers so far have been a leather-trimmed polo sweater with snap cuffs, retailing at $218; a cashmere slash-neck sweater with detachable silk chiffon cuffs for $218, and three-quarter-sleeve cashmere cardigans with hook-and-eye closures at $170.

At the moderate and updated company Ninety, vice president of sales Jamie Gorman said her top sellers have included bell-sleeved, V-neck tops in onion-skin fabric, tunic tops and embroidered voile blouses and pants.

"Because they are novelty key fashion pieces and priced well, averaging about $34 retail, they are easy to sell," Gorman said. "Customers are looking for value and style."

Turtlenecks, crew necks and mock-neck sweaters from Lauren by Ralph Lauren and private label brands are performing best at Nordstrom, a spokeswoman said. Denim pants, skirts and jackets continue to be strong, as do wrinkle-free basics, novelty shirts and washable suedes.

Similarly, private label suede separates and romantic blouses by INC, and Lauren by Ralph Lauren, are the top performers at Bloomingdale’s, said Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president of fashion direction.

"Romantic blouses are sort of the follow-up to the peasant blouse," he said.

Faux-suede separates and chenille knits are selling well at The Elder-Beerman Stores Corp., the moderate chain based in Columbus, Ohio. Top items have been mock turtlenecks in rust, loden and camel.

At Bealls Department Stores, based in Bradenton, Fla., peasant looks continue to evolve from gauze to onion skin and printed mesh, while color palettes are moving toward earth tones such as camel, browns and rusts, said Conrad Szymanski, president.Brands that are performing well include Columbia Roc pants, Gloria Vanderbilt fashion denim and Designer Original cotton sweaters.

"Knits are generally strong [this time of year]," he said. "And there is an increasing expectation for Lycra in the knits."

Along that theme, stretch denim in vibrant fall colors is a bestseller at J.C. Penney, said Joe Cox, divisional merchandise manager for casual sportswear.

"Fleece jackets, denim jackets and feminine and peasant tops are important, and our sweater business has been outstanding, with nordic-style sweaters being a key look this season," Cox said.

Ken Mangone, divisional merchandise manager for career sportswear at Penney’s, said hot sellers have been feminine tops in peasant and ruffle styles, solids and prints.

"Skirts and pants are good in both solids and patterns," Mangone said. "Woven shirtings are selling well, especially white and novelty. Suede separates have also been good."


Novelty items


Denim separates


Woven shirts with new details

Knit tops

Turtlenecks with texture and stitch details

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