NEW YORK — So long, casual Friday?

This year, two investment banks — Lehman Brothers in March and Bear Stearns in September — reverted to a business formal dress policy. Certain divisions within other corporations, such as Morgan Stanley, also unofficially changed their position in favor of a dressier code.

Apparel industry executives said the changes are a reaction to Sept. 11 and dot-com fallout, while others claim the suit never went out of style to begin with. In any case, the women’s suit business is starting to percolate again. And the stakes are high — according to research firm NPD Fashionworld, the category kicks up $3.6 billion at retail annually.

Frills and barely there sexy looks might be dominating the European runways for spring, but in the stores, whether it’s for a luncheon, board meeting or dinner after work, retailers say women are looking for suits with dressier, novelty fabrics, men’s wear influences and constructed styles.

Here’s what a sampling of makers and merchants had to say about their suit business.

Kim Roy, president, Ann Taylor Stores: "The return to professional office attire plays into our brand equity as a career destination. We are getting calls from corporations asking us to assist in educating their associates for appropriate dressing. The suit is never dead at Ann Taylor. Suitings are very important in our downtown locations, where we have a high career profile."

Bestsellers: Men’s wear suitings paired with a ruffled blouse to balance the contrast, and long jackets worn over wide-leg pants. Textured bouclé jacket-dress suits translate well from the office to dinner, Roy said.

Trends: "Triacetate is the core of our business and is versatile, seasonless, drapes and travels well. Colors such as black, gray, red and pinstripes are reminiscent of men’s suits, as are textured fabrics."

Kristen Walecka, suit buyer, Saks Fifth Avenue: "Business has been good, especially where we went after suits with marketing support. We put out catalogues each month and that’s really helped. I think that sportswear became very important and that skewed the suit business, but there is definitely a customer for it." Stores in the South and Midwest, most notably Texas, are top-performing stores for suits, Walecka added.Bestsellers: Kay Unger, Teri Jon and Tahari.

Trends: Novelty skirtsuits with feminine details, such as embroidery and fur trims, have sold well for Saks, Walecka said. Besides career suits, special-occasion suits like mother-of-the-bride, luncheon and day-to-dinner have performed well. Suits with leather trim are also popular.

Gregg Marks, president, Kasper ASL: "Suits are selling. We’re finding our basic black replenishment skirt and pantsuits selling about 15 percent per week. Our petite business is excellent, it represents about 45 percent of our sales. It’s one of the best businesses in the stores because it’s a good value. For $100 to $150, you walk out of the store with a complete outfit.

Bestsellers: "Our three-piece suits that come with a coordinating sweater."

Trends: Marks said there isn’t one key trend since longer coats, but one-button, three-button and bolero jackets are all selling well. Skirts are starting to pick up because things are going back to a more feminine look, he said. Green, orange, camel and wine are strong.

Jackie Linitz, president, Jones New York Suit: "Tailored suits have become important and consumer reaction is quite positive. In the workplace, there’s been a combination in the past of casual career [clothes]. While casual will continue at Jones, the career woman is dressing up for the workplace. We’re seeing it throughout the country."

Bestsellers: Pantsuits and long-skirted suits.

Trends: "Novelty fabrics such as bouclé and tweed. With all the interesting novelty fabrics, I think women are reacting positively to [the suit]. In the past, I think there was a tendency on suit floors that everything was solid and basic. I don’t believe the customer is reacting to that anymore."

Ruth Meyers, owner, Ruth Meyers, Oklahoma City: "Suits have been a staple, they’re always going to sell. Jackets will be better one year, twin sets will be better another. But so many women don’t want to wear a sleeveless dress, so they’ll buy asuit. Most people are lunching or working with a committee and it’s a lot of above-the-desk type work. So a good-looking collar or neckline is important."Bestsellers: Louis Féraud, Yansi Fugel, Calvin Klein, George Simonton, Albert Nipon. "One woman came in last week and bought $10,000 worth of clothes. She bought three Albert Nipon suits. [Albert Nipon] is one place we never have a markdown."

Trends: Pantsuits are selling better than skirtsuits, Meyers said. "Most women have blemishes and pants cover everything up. If your ankles swell when you’re traveling, pants work better."

Bill Dodson, president, Lilly Dodson, Dallas: "Suit sales are ahead 30 percent over last year, and fall business in general is up 15 percent. Suit business, especially styles from high-end vendors, is stronger than it has been in many years. They look fresh, new and are a reason for women to buy."

Bestsellers: Louis Féraud, Mondi and David Rodriguez, who is doing suits that are reminiscent of Thierry Mugler with nipped waists and wide collars, Dodson said. "They’re cut on the bias with an hour-glass shape. One-button jackets are really important for fall and look good on a variety of figures."

Trends: "The ladylike trend is coming back. We’ve been seeing so much item and sportswear business for the last few years, now it’s time for suits to shine again. We had a record-breaking Peggy Jennings trunk show recently and suits were a major component of it. And they have been the strength of many other trunk shows that we’ve done, too."

Ellen Berlin, co-owner, Berlin’s, Charleston, S.C.: "For two years, I’ve said we can’t make a living selling T-shirts and sweater sets. When Target and Wal-Mart started carrying cute casual items, I got out of moderate altogether."

Bestsellers: Elie Tahari, Yansi Fugel, Yigal Azourel, Renfrew, MAG, and Teri Jon’s cocktail suits.

Trends: Constructed suits with fitted jackets are popular, along with mixing men’s wear looks with feminine underpinnings. New fabrics, such as washable wool and softer synthetics have created interest. Starting last fall, customers became more interested in investment dressing than in throwaway clothes, Berlin said.

Steve Skoda, vice president of merchandising, Julian Gold, San Antonio: "Sales are dead even, but I’m hoping it will be better for holiday. The classic suit is dead, but what is happening is eclectic things, like little inlay pieces of lace that give it more pop."

Bestsellers: Alberto Makali’s chocolate crepe matador-style jackets and pants with lacing; Zion’s black textured pinstripe skirtsuit with a paisley-print blouse. Julian Gold has also done well with Albert Nipon’s skirtsuits that have kick pleating and ruffles, and Zanella sportswear assembled into suit looks.

Trends: Styles remain constructed and are in traditional fall fabrics such as crepes, gabardines, tropical weight wool and Prince of Wales plaid. Men’s wear styling was stressed, but what pops is femininity, Skoda said. "What is kicking off now are items that lean toward cocktail and have more dressiness and flair.’’

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