NEW YORK -- In the midst of a spring slowdown for apparel in general, retailers and manufacturers agree that suit business has never been better.
Spring suit sales were so strong that some manufacturers and retailers say they are stocking up for another shopping blitz for fall and holiday. Several manufacturers, such as Tahari, Kasper, Gillian and David Bijan, say they are gearing up for what could be the biggest fall season yet.
Driven by what they say is the inherent value of suits versus separates and a market that's gone beyond traditional career wear -- offering a host of fresh trends -- retailers are looking for big numbers come fall.
Key trends include
Softer silhouettes designed for day-to-evening dressing.
Jewel tones, pastels and unusual colors.
Pantsuits with coordinating vests, a take on the men's wear trend.
Short skirts, notably flippy styles and A-lines.
Wool crepe dress suits.
Velvet trim, gold braid and novelty detailing.
At Macy's East, the leading suit labels of the 30 brands carried are Kasper, Christian Dior, Jones New York and Tahari, according to Benny Lin, fashion director. Lin said a resurgence in suits is expected for fall. While Lin wouldn't give an actual projection, sources close to Macy's East said a low double-digit increase is expected.
Short wool boucle jackets with A-line skirts, tailored wool gabardine pinstripe suits and wool crepe tank-dress suits are some of the hottest styles, Lin said.
"The biggest thing is color. Jewel tones will be big in urban places, and in the South they're crying out for pastels," Lin said. "After all, there are only so many black suits you can own."
Kasper and Le Suit dominate the suit departments at P.A. Bergner/Carson Pirie Scott, said Tony Buccini, senior vice president and general merchandise manager of ready-to-wear.
"The suit business is really stealing the career customer business from sportswear departments," he said. "We've seen consistent double-digit growth in suits over the past 18 months, and there's no reason that shouldn't continue."
Tahari, Christian Dior, Gillian and Herbert Grossman are the bestsellers at Lord & Taylor, reported Lavelle Olexa, senior vice president of fashion merchandising. Olexa said A-line skirts with short soft-line jackets should drive sales.The designer suit is one of the hottest categories at Henri Bendel's, according to Tracey Butler, a designer, sportswear and couture buyer. Retail prices start at $750 and range to $3,000, with most customers spending $1,000 to $1,200. Armani Le Collezioni, Byblos, State of Claude Montana and Genny are the top-selling labels, she said.
Butler said 80 percent of the orders taken at a recent Armani trunk show were for suits, and Claude Montana's upcoming trunk show is expected to be 85 percent suits. In-store appearances planned by Michael Kors, Victor Alfaro and other designers are expected to boost suit sales through September, she said.
Saks Fifth Avenue is so bullish about the prospects for fall suits that it's planning a 20 percent increase, according to Sally Pearson, general merchandise manager for ready-to-wear. Bicci, Herbert Grossman, Christian Dior and Tahari have been strong sellers.
"The whole influence of Jackie O is going to continue, especially since we've been seeing all those shots from the Sixties of her in fashionable suits," Pearson said. "She's on people's minds, and I expect that to continue."
No longer restricted to offices, this fall's suits offer novelty such as velvet trim, short kilts and unusual buttons, said Joseph Boitano, Bergdorf Goodman's senior vice president and general merchandise manager.
"I think the classic go-to-work suit is a thing of the past. Now they're faster with a little bit of a twist. They're less banker-looking," he said.
Tahari's spring suit sales were 40 percent ahead of last spring's and the fall offerings should finish 50 percent ahead of last fall, said Elie Tahari, chairman and chief executive officer.
Tahari said suit sales have been consistently strong all year, especially those made of rayon, silk and other "seasonless fabrics."
Key looks such as short skirts, slip skirts, A-lines and cigarette pants will drive sales, Tahari said, with wool tweed and wool crepe the leading fabrics. In addition, velvet piping, fitted vests, small velvet cuffs and other details accentuate this fall's modernized retro look.
He also said pantsuits are a logical alternative for career dressing.
"A lot of women are confused about skirt lengths. They're going to pants because it's a safe and secure choice," Tahari said.Having designed 90 styles in a variety of silhouettes and colors for fall, Bill Blass said the suits should sell themselves. He said at least a 30 percent increase in suit sales is expected, and early sales indicate strong business throughout the country.
"This fall's collection relates to women. These are real clothes that they can wear and go places in," Blass said. "Anything colorful will sell. Black is certainly not going to be a factor."
Yaelle Nazmiyal, a partner with her husband, David Bijan, in the firm bearing his name, said business should be 25 percent -- or $1.2 million -- ahead of last fall's volume since prices are 8 percent lower than last year.
David Bijan's fall suits wholesale for $49 and $75. The lower prices reflect a tighter margin for the company, claimed Nazmiyal, asserting that production and sourcing remain the same. Of the 35 suits being offered this fall, Nazmiyal said acetate and rayon pantsuits in silver or eggplant are leading early fall sales.
Bookings are also ahead of track at P.S.I. and Bicci, according to Jules Wachter, president and ceo of both companies. He projected a 5 to 10 percent increase -- just under $1 million -- for P.S.I., which wholesales for $175 to $225. This fall's sales for the Bicci career-oriented misses' line, wholesaling for $150 to $200, should finish 30 percent ahead of last year, bringing in about $4 million in sales. Wachter also said sales for Bicci Petites are expected to double, for an increase of $1.8 million. Some of the surge is attributed to pantsuits, which comprise 30 percent of each of the three lines, he said.
On the heels of opening its first concept store -- at Columbus Avenue and West 74th Street here -- YL is forecasting an increase if at least 20 percent in suit sales, according to Richard Gottlieb, vice president. Wool crepe pantsuits and wool bouclÄ dress suits should lead fall sales. For holiday, dressier looks such as a wool crepe suit with lace sleeves or a long wool crepe jacket with velvet panels and a chiffon skirt should ring up sales, he said.
Updated looks are the focus for fall at Liz Claiborne Inc., according to Harriet Mosson, president of the dress and suit division. Collarless jackets and other soft silhouettes are checking well, she said. Some of last year's long silhouettes were updated by adding peacoat pockets or two-line collars or by removing buttons. A three-piece suit with a dyed-to-match blouse performed so well last fall that it's being featured in six different silhouettes and in a variety of colors, including teal, moss green and cinnamon, Mosson said.With wholesale prices ranging from $90 to $150, most customers purchase suits near the $200 mark, she said.
"Price is always the number-one selling point," she said. "To purchase sportswear components is almost twice the price."
With a 20 percent increase in offerings, Oscar De La Renta's sales are expected to jump by 20 percent, according to Hank Waeckerle, director of sales and marketing, with the basic double-faced wool suits wholesaling for $500 to $1,050. He said slim dress suits will offer an alternative to the traditional suit.
Caroline Herrera's Studio collection for fall has 15 suits -- five more than last year -- and that should drive sales by at least 10 percent, according to Michael Pellegrino, president. He said the wool crepe or crepe-back satin suits, which wholesale for $165 and $195, "have to be able to stand alone as much as a $1,000 couture suit." He continued: "Above all, in this competitive environment, there has to be value for the price."
Pellegrino also said fit is a factor in buying suits versus separates.
"Suits look good on short-waisted women as well as long-waisted women, and they can be worn from work to the theater," he said. "Women don't have to worry about, 'Here's the top -- where's the bottom?"'
Gregg Marks, president of the Kasper for ASL division of The Leslie Fay Cos., said this fall's suit orders are already 40 percent ahead of last fall and bookings have never been received so early. The company's suit business has increased by 20 percent each year, and should see the same kind of gains this year. Last year's volume was about $350 million. He said petites consume 35 percent of all suit sales and that number is on the rise.
Fabrics used in the line include triacetate crepe, viscose jacquard and novelty wool plaids, and wholesale prices range from $80 to $149.
Last year more price-conscious customers contributed to a 50 percent sales increase for the division's Le Suit moderate-priced line.
With wholesale prices ranging between $59 and $79, these "Kasper knockoffs" are a better value compared with separates, he said.
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