By  on June 1, 1994

NEW YORK -- When jeans sales started to slump last year, denim manufacturers pinned their hopes on shorts as the category that had the potential to earn high marks in an otherwise lackluster market.

Now, as spring segues into summer, both retailers and manufacturers say that shorts sales are more than making the grade -- and that the category is becoming a year-round business.

One selling point is that shorts are a relatively new look in a market that's searching for a fresh jeans silhouette to get the consumer excited again. A demand for new styling within the category also gets partial credit -- early in the season, women seemed to be looking for styles that could be worn slightly oversize, over leggings or tights, and with heavy boots that made them wearable even in chilly weather.

"There's more fashion in shorts than in the five-pocket business right now," added Eric Rothfeld, president and owner of Sun Apparel, which makes the new Code Bleu and X-Am lines, as well as Sasson jeans. "There's a variety of lengths. There's the frayed cuff and the rolled cuff. There's a button waist or a plain waist."

Executives on both sides expressed surprise at how early the shorts season started -- in some cases, in February. That's what happened at Parisian in Birmingham, Ala. "It was still cold here," noted fashion director Arlene Goldstein, who said that slightly longer lengths, around five to seven inches, lead the pack.

Although retailers declined to give specific units sold, they all said shorts had become one of their hottest spring sellers, in both misses' and junior categories.

"Denim was absolutely the headliner of the shorts department, with linen running a distant second," she said. "We were very pleased with the Grass Rags, Levi's 550 and Chazzz lines."

In addition to the classic indigo, white and natural were key colors, and Goldstein added that her customer was not as interested in the frayed hem, preferring the neater cuffed and tacked or clean-seam finishing.

"She doesn't want a lot of bells and whistles," said Goldstein. "She can be funky up top. We're selling a lot of eco-inspired T-shirts."

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