By  on May 31, 1994

DALLAS -- Some label it contemporary and others call it the California connection, but there's no debating that Southwest stores are stocking up on casual and leisure silhouettes.

Retailers, citing more laid-back lifestyles, said customers are requesting loose and easy looks cut from natural fibers for weekend, work and after-five.

Some stores are even devoting their entire mix to the style, and they project sales up 10 to 15 percent.

"The leisure category is one of the fastest-growing businesses at Neiman Marcus," said Butch Mullins, senior vice president and general merchandise manager for casual, bridge, intimate apparel and hosiery at the 27-unit chain. "The demand was there all along, but we were not servicing our own customers' needs in that area. We did a lot of internal examination about three years ago and discovered that the need was being met by our competition.

"We had a five-year plan for leisure, and we're right on track," he said, projecting gains of at least 10 percent this year.

Best-selling vendors are CK Jeans, DKNY, Freewear, Body Action Design, Kenar, Against Gravity, Fitigues, Tape Measure, David Dart, Vittadini Sport and several private label items such as T-shirts and shorts.

"Leisure apparel is appealing to the customer because of the value -- it's more versatile," said Mullins. "Also, more companies are allowing Fridays to be casual-dress day." At The Cotton Club, Houston, a two-unit business, co-owner Lisa Spain said the casual contemporary market was definitely on the upswing.

A new 4,000-square-foot Cotton Club opened in February at Houston's Woodway Village shopping center, with sales projected at $1 million. The Cotton Club's 6,000-square-foot original store at Houston's River Oaks shopping center is aiming for $2.5 million in business this year, up 15 percent over 1993.

"People are dressing a little more funky and hip," Spain reasoned. "And they don't want to be so serious, especially for spring.

"It's a Nineties attitude," she added. "Even women lawyers are coming in and looking for alternatives to the navy suit. And more shorts and pants are showing up in the office. It used to be a Friday-only thing."Spain and co-owner Pam Singer shop markets here and in New York and Los Angeles for their offerings, including best-selling lines like Eileen Fisher, Gretzinger, Isda, Isabel Ardee, Ghost and David Dart.

"Soft, draped and fluid describes what women want now," noted Spain. "A shirtjacket and soft skirt are usurping the structured suit."

The Cotton Club aims to keep prices in reach of most pocketbooks, which translates to a ceiling of $200 for most complete looks.

Each of the two stores is divided into three boutiques. Cotton Club Women stocks women's and children's sportswear as well as after-five and career, Cotton Club Sport is devoted to women's casual clothing and Cotton Club Men features men's sportswear.

Tonya Borisov, owner of Colours, Houston, a women's contemporary store, said clean and sophisticated styles are driving her business.

"Lifestyles are changing -- comfort and simplicity is paramount," said Borisov. "It's a California mentality. But women also like contemporary offerings because of the price points." Prices at Colours generally peak at $250.

Best-selling labels for spring at the 1,200-square-foot store included CP Shades, Fitigues and Johnny Was, as well as long dresses from several vendors.

Though Southwest women are typically thought of as ardent fans of color, they're bucking the stereotype at Colours, according to Borisov.

"The muted shades are becoming accepted down here," she explained. "Earth tones -- anything to do with ecology -- are popular. I've trained the customer to be more muted."

Though she's projecting sales gains of at least 10 percent this year, Borisov said sales could be stronger if there were more newness in the marketplace.

"The market hasn't changed very much in the last couple of years," she said. "The women's market is depressed because there's nothing new and dramatic -- no trends forcing women to buy."

In hopes of capitalizing on the void, Borisov has designed a small collection of contemporary styles for women and children that she will launch this summer at her store.

She described the looks, to be cut from natural fabrics, as contemporary accented with novelty detailing. Retail prices will span from $50 to $250. Loose and easy dresses, both long and short and cut from vintage fabrics, will be key.Borisov said it's too early to project how much volume to expect from her designs, which she may eventually wholesale.

Vickie Jackson and Sheree O'Roark studied the Dallas retail market and noted a lack of contemporary styles with a feminine and romantic edge. Sensing an opportunity, they decided to open Byzantine, at Inwood Village shopping center here, in February.

The 1,330-square-foot store's relaxed ambience is cast with wrought-iron detailing, yellow walls and stained cement floors, and the laid-back approach continues with the merchandise mix.

Soft and flowing silhouettes cut from mostly natural fabrics are proving customer favorites. Lines such as Newfield, Rated R by Biya, B.C.B.G. and Antony Moorcroft are among the bestsellers.

Prices stretch from $34 for a camisole to $225 for a dress.

"Structure isn't as important," said Jackson. "Women want to be more relaxed. It's an attitude we really started noticing in this area about a year and a half ago."

Jackson termed the trend understated romance. "Dallas women want to look more feminine -- they don't want to just wear jeans. Casual is important for day and evening. Long and flowing dresses are important."

She projected first-year business at $450,000.

In Santa Fe, N.M., dressing casual has always been a way of life. To set apart her women's contemporary store there called Zephyr, owner Robin Finlayson goes for soft looks with a fashion edge.

"We've got every chain imaginable out here and competition is stiff, so I have to differentiate with my offerings," explained Finlayson, in business about 13 years.

"I carry only soft, two-piece dressing that's contemporary," she said. "One of the dictates in Santa Fe is wearing long skirts -- I can't sell short. Pants are hot in several widths."

Top resources for spring include Ballinger Gold, David Dart, L. Bates, Eileen Fisher, Karen Kane Action Wear and Platinum. Prices peak at about $260 for a jacket.

Sales at Zephyr are forecast up by at least 10 percent this year, the same pace charted in 1993.

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