NEW YORK — There’s a burgeoning democracy in spring dresses.

The category was prominently featured throughout the last runway season with a wide variety of looks, from the slimming lines at Narciso Rodriguez and the saucy cocktail looks at Gucci to the frilly styles at Chanel and the leg-baring, printed-chiffon gowns from Roberto Cavalli.

At Oscar de la Renta’s show, roughly 40 of the 60 looks he sent down the runway were dresses. Styles ranged from printed cotton for day to full-length chiffon gowns and flirty beaded cocktail frocks for night.

“Both our large retail and specialty store accounts are enthusiastic with Mr. de la Renta’s focus on dresses,” said Rachel Barnett, chief operating officer of Oscar de la Renta Ltd. “Retailers feel that the breadth of the collections in prints and novelty fabrics for day and evening dressing bring increased selling opportunities.”

Breadth of product in the dress category is also being found in the mainstream brands of the better and moderate markets.

At Jones New York Dress, president Barbara Kennedy said the runway shows aren’t as influential as might be thought, since the company plans so far in advance.

“We do have something in the company we call fast track, and if there is a trend we think is important, we’ll absolutely go after it,” Kennedy said. “But I do $100 million just in Jones, so we need to be focused because there is such an enormous amount of sku’s.”

Besides Jones, Kennedy oversees the Evan Picone and Nine West dress businesses. Since Jones New York is completing its acquisition of Kasper A.S.L., Kennedy will add the Kasper, Anne Klein and Albert Nipon dress lines to her stable of brands beginning next year.

“For Jones, Evan Picone and Nine West, we just came out of bookings and had a fantastic reaction to color,” Kennedy said. “We had the best reactions to our April and May deliveries, which had lots of prints, great little short sheath dresses and soft styles.”

Lavelle Olexa, senior vice president of fashion merchandising at Lord & Taylor, said the interest in dresses has been a two-part shift, first from pants to skirts and now skirts to dresses.“I can use myself as a barometer,” Olexa said. “I am someone who almost exclusively wears pants and that’s not been the case over the past season. I think the consumer is ready for dresses and for skirts, and that will be reflected in the coming season.”

Daytime cotton sundresses were a key trend last spring and that will continue in 2004; however, dress designers and executives said there are subtle changes this time around. Examples include details that give the dresses more movement, such as flounces, and the use of drapier fabrics.

“The newness is either in full, soft Fifties skirts or little soft flounces at the hem to make it more flirty,” said dress designer David Meister. “Last spring there were great little cotton dresses, but now it’s about adding movement at the hemline.”

Liz Claiborne Dresses will ship its first full collection produced through its new licensing agreement with Kellwood Co. for spring. The deal was established after L.F. Brands transferred the dress and suit license to Kellwood earlier this year.

According to Lynne Russo, vice president of merchandising and product development, creating a well-balanced group of merchandise in the opening price point of the better market will be key for the line under Kellwood.

For the first and second quarters next year, the number of doors that bought Liz Claiborne Dresses jumped to more than 425, while it was only in about 100 doors during the same period last year, according to Lou Iacorino, executive vice president of Liz Claiborne Dresses and Suits.

The division’s biggest accounts include Dillard’s, Burdine’s, Rich’s and Parisian department stores.

Several executives at large Seventh Avenue firms said the Fifties sundress trend that started showing up last spring will be a top performer in 2004, especially during second-quarter shipments in April and May.

“The dress money last year was dramatically cut,” Russo said. “Department stores have to be shown that a category has merit before funding gets put into it and I think that’s happening. The stores are giving dresses more real estate and it doesn’t hurt to have a great name like Liz Claiborne back in that arena.”The desire for dresses is even catching on in the moderate market, according to Richard Silverstein, chief executive officer of The Dorby Group at Kellwood, which includes Nine2Nine, DB Collection, Miss Dorby, DBY, Hipnotix and XOXO Dresses.

While the misses’ market has been mainly pants-driven for about the last seven years, Silverstein said, those customers are being drawn toward more feminine clothing, and adding more skirts and dresses to their wardrobes.

“I think it’s the whole return to femininity in fashion,” said Laura Azar, vice president of merchandising at The Dorby Group. “That’s kind of where we’re headed and dresses are the obvious choice when that happens. It’s nice to see a change from black capri pants and sandals.”

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