NEW YORK — Thanks to the fast pace of fall and holiday orders, dress and suit manufacturers are looking for a big turnaround in the second half, following a generally disappointing first half of the year.
Whether they sell national chains or upscale stores, ready-to-wear makers feel strong early ordering for the third and fourth quarters is a result of several factors, including:
- Low inventory levels at many stores, resulting from a combination of strong late-season spring selling and tighter inventory controls.
- The rise in importance of day-into-evening looks as a versatile and pragmatic way of dressing.
- Hot trends such as A-line, Empire and slip shapes in both categories, and the increasing acceptance of pantsuits.
In the moderate-priced Expo line, A-lines and slipdresses are leading the way in short and long lengths. Day-to-dinner looks are important in the firm’s better-priced Beau David line, while in the Expo Night line, holiday gown business, which was considered the “whipped cream on top of the cake, has become the cake,” Mercer said.
Despite the overall problems at The Leslie Fay Cos., in Chapter 11 since April 1993 and hit by an ILGWU strike on June 1, fall bookings at its Kasper Suits division, a leading resource in the suit business, are 40 percent ahead of a year ago, said Greg Marks, president of the division. The fastest-growing area of the division, which had a volume of $350 million last year, is the Le Suit moderate-price line, which had 50 percent gains last year and continues at that pace.
Marks said fall orders have come in earlier than ever, and is looking at an overall gain of 20 percent this year.
For better and bridge firms, keeping a lid on prices and capitalizing on hot trends are key for second-half selling.
At Liz Claiborne’s dress and suit division, a sharp refocusing of product that reflects an emphasis on “versatile clothes with a special twist” has begun to pay off in late spring and early fall business, said Harriet Mosson, president of the division.
“We feel business really gaining momentum,” Mosson said. “Fall bookings have met our plan, and the new Night division is sold out.”
Mosson said knits are a big factor for fall and holiday, as are soft suits and dinner dressing. While Mosson wouldn’t give a specific projection, she said she thinks the dress division has truly turned the corner after some disappointing seasons. Claiborne’s dress and suit division had a volume last year of $130 million.
Cynthia Rowley, a designer who has her own dress company, said overall fall bookings are 20 percent ahead of last year. Comfortable A-lines and slipdresses are selling, Rowley said, with lots of color. For holiday and resort, a bit more opulence is making its way into the line, with a metallic snowflake sheer silk fabric in the top-selling group in “short, sexy little dresses,” Rowley said.
“I believe the second half will be markedly improved over the first half,” said Bud Konheim, president of Nicole Miller. “A tremendous May made the first half acceptable. The good thing is that inventories are under control, which sets the stage for a rebound after a lackluster first half.”
A wider range of colors is booking for fall, which he feels portends well for some “serious replacement business.” The bestsellers continue to be a variety of Empire and A-line shapes. Konheim is looking at 25 to 30 percent second-half gains.
At Tahari, “orders for fall and holiday are incredible,” said designer and owner Elie Tahari, who projects a 50 percent gain in dresses and suits in the second half.
The company is going away from its benchmark structured coatdress into what Tahari calls a “soft, fluid tailored look,” using crepe fabrics such as cool wool, satin-back silk and four-ply rayon.
“Suits are getting very strong” at Augustus Clothiers, said Sally Krieger, vice president. “Fall has been better than anticipated. Stores are very low on inventory because they bought light for spring. We’ve already gotten reorders on an initial early fall group we shipped, so I’m optimistic that it’s going to be a good second half.”
New items getting good reaction include a group of ensemble pieces comprised of a dress, jacket and coat, a group of jumper and sweater sets, dinner suits and short tank dresses under matching jackets.
At the new Rena Rowan for Saville Dress division of Jones Apparel Group, “fall orders were placed early and are on track with an aggressive first-season plan,” said Helen Merrill, president of the division.
Fall is seeing a return to a more tailored, structured look, Merrill said, with styling that “takes a woman from nine to nine.” Top looks include Empire, A-line and fit-and-flare, done predominantly in wool crepe and satin back-crepe in bright colors. For holiday, tricotine, silk georgette and knit jacket dresses are important.
At the upper end of the market, trunk shows continue to drive the business.
Dorothy Widder, national sales manager for Christian Dior Suits, a licensed division of Jones Apparel Group, said fall is turning out to be a “sensational season.”
Sales seminars with store personnel and trunk shows remain the backbone of the business, said Widder, noting that at fall shows this month at Gus Mayer stores in Birmingham, Ala., and Nashville, 114 suits were sold, for sales of about $50,000. Important items included three-piece wardrobers, day-to-dinner suits and soft moss crepe suits.
Dede Shipman, president of Mary McFadden, said special orders taken at trunk shows should account for 50 percent of fall volume. Overall the company does about 90 to 100 shows a year.
The key look so far, Shipman said, is long, hand-painted chiffon gowns that are fitted at the top and long and fluid at the bottom. Shipman projects an increase of 8 to 10 percent for fall and holiday.
Hank Waekerle, director of sales at Oscar de la Renta Ltd., said fall orders are up 20 to 25 percent, and early trunk shows have been “very successful.” Top sellers include short dinner dresses and suits, a lace strapless dress with matching poncho and paisley print suits and dresses. “Fall and holiday has been very strong, and we’re eager to get resort out there,” he said.
Paced by record-breaking fall trunk shows, Bill Blass is seeing 15 to 20 percent increases for the season, said Steven Porter, director of sales.
Porter cited a nine-day run of shows this month at Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman here that combined for $1.1 million in sales, and a $500,000 show at Neiman Marcus in Houston, as reasons for optimism.