By  on June 10, 2008

Now that dresses have become a wardrobe staple, major retailers are trying to further interest with a garden variety of styles, window displays, look books and other strategies.

Many designers used dresses to open their fall runway shows and a plethora of dresses are being shown in resort collections, both of which bode well for the category, which has seen robust sales for the past few years. Aside from being "an instant outfit" as noted by J. Crew's creative director Jenna Lyons, this season's dresses are more diverse than they have been in recent seasons. In addition, dresses are helping to prompt impulse purchases for accessories and shoes.

Dresses are often considered a great buy, and now with the extremely difficult retail environment and one of the most promotional seasons on record, they've become an even more attractive purchase. Dresses, like other apparel categories, have been subject to aggressive markdowns and promotional activity this spring at stores across the board.

Linda Fargo, senior vice president, women's fashion director and store presentation at Bergdorf Goodman, said, "The dress is still strong for us, and by the look of the resort markets, it will remain one of the best categories. It's interesting when a trend morphs into a way of life. There are far fewer decisions to make, when it's time to decide what to wear every day. All you need to think about are your accessories. Not only does 'the dress' simplify our lives, it ultimately says 'feminine,' and is able to express many of our fashion personalities, from soft and romantic, to fierce and sexy, to professional, to dramatic and elegant. And as an added bonus, it elongates the figure versus the natural bisecting which occurs with separates."

Bergdorf Goodman shoppers are buying easy summer long dresses for day or night in contemporary, more fitted sheaths from pre-fall collections, and graphic prints such as floral, ethnic-inspired and artistic ones, as well as colorful styles. Safari-inspired shirtdressing, and easy, comfortable fun dresses such as those from Lisa Perry are also popular.

Nicole Fischelis, vice president and fashion director of women's at Macy's East, offered a host of reasons for the longevity of the dress."It's about this whole mood for femininity coming back — all the colors and the flowers. I also think women are very in touch with their bodies. You can exude your femininity in a dress. There is nothing more sensual. It's about loving yourself, too, and taking care of your appearance. You don't wear a dress like you wear anything else. You need the appropriate jewelry, a great pair of shoes and just the right bag for that perfect dress," she said.

To remind passersby how much they need dresses, Macy's has devoted window displays in its flagship to a wide range of white dresses on metallic mannequins.

Macy's shoppers are building dress wardrobes with sheaths, shifts and shirt strapless or one-shoulder styles. There is a lot of interest in "anything feminine, pretty prints and sheer styles, as well as special fabric manipulations, gathered, draped, pleated or tucked," said Fischelis, adding these types of dressmaking details are now being used for blouses, too.

BCBG, ABS, Maggy London, Anna Sui, Lauren by Ralph Lauren, CK by Calvin Klein, Betsy Johnson, MaxMara Weekend, Hugo by Hugo Boss, DKNY, Kors Michael Kors, Ellen Tracy and Macy's own Inc. label are among this season's strong performers. "What's interesting is the dress works for a whole range of customers from very contemporary to missy," Fischelis said.

Michael Fink, vice president, women's fashion director of Saks Fifth Avenue, said, "The good news is dresses are still going strong."

In the past three or four years, the trend has evolved beyond baby-doll, trapeze and wrap styles to include floral prints in high to low price points and slim silhouettes, he said.

One interesting marker in Saks' spring season is how unseasonably cool temperatures prompted many buy-now, wear-now purchases for transitional and pre-fall pieces in its northern stores, Fink said. Shoppers started buying an Oscar de la Renta lightweight tweed sheath as soon as it arrived in stores. "Right before the weather changed, some were wearing pre-fall before spring," said Fink, declining to speculate how if at all the I-had-it-first mentality may have come into play.

Color, especially a range of blues, fuchsia and yellow, has given women added incentive to buy dresses, he said. Shirtdresses have also helped spark sales. Aside from being flattering on various body types, shirtdresses, like many other styles, can easily be dressed up or down. "It's the new cargo pant. It takes you anywhere," Fink said. "I know I have said this a million times but what could be simpler than stepping into a dress for the day? It's easier than coordinating separates."Unlike last summer when staffers at Saks' corporate office were quick to jump on the long shorts and heels combo, this year they are sticking with dresses in all sorts of wonderful shapes, Fink said.

Henri Bendel really went after the long dress in contemporary, which can be worn dressed down with gladiator sandals or flip-flops, or dressed up. Long dresses from Missoni and Blumarine were the first pieces to go out the door when those respective spring collections arrived, said Ann Watson, vice president, fashion director.

Dresses in crepe de chine, sandwashed silk and silk chiffon have been strong, especially ones from Tibi, Diane von Furstenberg and Foley.

All in all, the simplicity of the design appeals to women, especially those who are always on the move. "All you have to think about is one dress versus multiple items. They also make for a lighter bag when you travel. They're easy to pack — all you have to do is roll them up," said Watson.

On average, Henri Bendel shoppers are spending about $400 for a dress, and styles with such feminine necklines as a V-neck, halter, off-the-shoulder or strapless are in demand, Watson said. Prints including boho chic, floral and tribal patterns are popular, as are bright-colored solids. If that wasn't enough options, customers are also buying styles with draping, rose embellishments and other details.

Going forward into fall, Henri Bendel expects to maintain its dress business even though separates should be making a comeback. Watson is banking on the latter in part because jackets continue to be important even though that is not the norm for this time of year.

LaVelle Olexa, senior vice president of public relations for Lord & Taylor, noted that dresses have been strong both for day and for special occasion. "Knits have become a staple in every woman's wardrobe. They are not only comfortable, but multilayered dressing is a great backdrop for accessories — be it a great wide belt or a stack of bangles or a great handbag. They are also seasonless and offer desk-to-dinner dressing."

Olexa also said how bright colors have given the season a much needed pop. Another aside is this season's success of the short cocktail dress, which has become the style to wear for special occasions. "It's flirty and dressy and looks very modern and youthful," she said.Dresses are showing no signs of cooling off at Holt Renfrew, where fashion director Barbara Atkin said she keeps having these debates, ''Is it going to slide?' It isn't."

The fact that Balenciaga and many other designer companies opened their fall runway shows with a dress, and the number of dresses in "beautiful, bold florals and artists' prints" being shown now for resort, have made her confident. "They are a staple for women. They have become a great easy modern way to dress. You can travel in them. There are more seasonless aspects to a dress," she said.

Holt Renfrew shoppers are big on shifts and sheaths that either hit at midthigh or just above the knee. Colorful, long boho dresses got a late start but have become a key item, especially $295 ones from Tart. But even with all the interest in color and prints, there is still a lot of demand for the Little Black Dress in jersey or chiffon. "It's still trending. The customer will always buy black even when the stores are very colorful," Atkin said.

Etro jersey dresses, Fendi long dresses and Hervé Léger by Max Azria bondage dresses have been bestsellers. Diane von Furstenberg and Prada have also been strong performers, Atkin said. In general, women have been spending between $495 and $1,500 on dresses. To give the category a little lift, Holt Renfrew featured a Marc Jacobs dress on the cover of its spring catalogue, and 23 other dresses within its pages — all of which are selling, according to Atkin. Dresses also sold well during trunk shows for Akris and Michael Kors. A party for von Furstenberg at Holt Renfrew's Vancouver store also helped sales.

A new exhibition about Yves Saint Laurent, which features many dresses, at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, should only further the cause, Atkin said. The show will bow at the Young Museum in San Francisco Nov. 1.

"The dress is not going to go away because of its simplicity. It's become a working woman's staple. It's very forgiving too," she said.

After J. Crew got such a great response to a dress look book that was sent to select customers last spring, the company decided to send out another one this season. Lyons said the initiative has been "incredibly successful" with embossed beach dresses, "anything printed" and everyday knit dresses being among shoppers' favorites.Lyons allowed, "As much as I love the idea of dresses, you do have to put them back in your closet for at least a week or two [before you wear them again]."

That said, this fall J. Crew will be introducing suiting separates that are softer than traditional ones. Worn together, the new separates actually look like a dress. The concept will be introduced in a bigger way for holiday and spring 2009.

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