The Top 10 Dresses/Suits/Eveningwear: Dress for Success

Familiar names hold steady.

Appeared In
Special Issue
WWD 100 issue 07/23/2008
1. Liz Claiborne
2. Ann Taylor
3. Vera Wang
4. Sag Harbor
5. Talbots
6. Jones New York Dress
7. Jessica McClintock/Gunne Sax
8. Nicole Miller
9. Oleg Cassini
10. Worthington
Dresses continue to be a bright spot in an otherwise difficult market, and this year’s top two fi nishers, Liz Claiborne and Ann Taylor, can attest to that.

For the second consecutive year, Liz Claiborne Inc. topped the list and AnnTaylor Stores Corp. took second place.

Claiborne seems to have ascended the survey based primarily on the might of its name recognition, since dresses are not the driving component of the brand. After all, Sun Capital Securities Group LLC closed its Liz Claiborne suits and dress business in February.

More attention may be called to the brand this summer, when the company’s namesake, who died last year, is expected to receive a star posthumously on Seventh Avenue’s Fashion Walk of Fame in Manhattan.

Liz Claiborne Inc., which did $4.9 billion in sales last year, has been restructuring under the eye of chief executive William L. McComb. The company aims to revive its namesake brand, which saw sales fall to about $875 million — less than half its volume in its heyday — and started the year by naming Isaac Mizrahi creative director for all categories of the better-priced women’s Liz Claiborne brand, beginning with next spring’s collection. The company is said to be working on a new logo and ad campaign for spring, but the brand is keeping things under wraps. Samples and images of the Mizrahi product are restricted to those on a need-to-know basis, according to sources familiar with the situation.

Ann Taylor also has faced its share of struggles, but dresses continue to be an important part of the offerings and often are featured in window displays. In May, Ann Taylor saw a nearly 18 percent decline in fi rst-quarter profits due to substantial restructuring expenses. Despite that, adjusted results finished ahead of Wall Street expectations.

At that time, president and chief executive officer Kay Krill cited markdowns and inventory control during a conference call with analysts. But Krill said that, given the pullback in spending among consumers, the quarter was still a good one for the New York-based women’s specialty chain.

“Despite the highly promotional nature of the sector this quarter, we successfully managed our business to deliver a gross margin that was only 40 basis points below a year ago and inventories that were signifi cantly below a year ago,” Krill said. “From my perspective, this quarter was all about controlling what we could control and driving down our cost of doing business.”

Going forward, the company plans to open 66 stores in fiscal 2008, up from the 50 to 55 new units originally planned. The increase is due to the retailer’s intention to aggressively expand its Factory and Loft outlet openings. The company also plans to cut the ribbon on 10 Loft stores that were initially slated to open next year.

Vera Wang jumped from sixth place to third. Kohl’s has helped to boost the designer’s name recognition with more mainstream Americans as the exclusive retailer carrying the Simply Vera Vera Wang collection. At the other end of the spectrum, the designer’s ready-to-wear collection is gaining fans among editors and retailers alike. Wang’s lavender label also has come on strong, due partially to the fact that she uses the same DNA as her collection line, but with a younger, tighter fi t and in a more affordable price range.

Vera Wang International is expected to have more of a global reach through a new three-year sales and distribution deal with J. Roseroco New York Co. The designer brand is bolstering its retail presence in Seoul, South Korea. As part of an ongoing expansion, the designer label plans to open nine retail outposts. Projected retail sales for this three-year stretch are $24 million, according to Susan Sokol, president of apparel for Vera Wang.

Sag Harbor fell from third place to fourth. In May, a major shake-up in the Sag Harbor dress business was announced. Less than three months after Sun Capital took over Kellwood Co., the private equity fi rm is cutting the St. Louis-based manufacturer’s mainstream dress business.

Despite the strong dress cycle, Sun Capital deemed Kellwood’s moderate dresses — part of the former Halmode and current Lifestyle division, which includes Sag Harbor dresses — as unprofi table and is shuttering the business while keeping mainstream sportswear and better dresses.

Talbots also dropped one slot in this year’s survey to fifth place. Last month, The Talbots Inc. announced three senior-level promotions, completing a restructuring of the executive team leading a three-year strategic plan to turn around the business. To try to reduce costs, Talbots cut 9 percent of its corporate workforce and eliminated the position of chief operating officer.

The move disclosed by the Hingham, Mass.-based retailer trimmed 129 positions and produced about $14 million in annual savings. Chief operating officer Philip Kowalczyk departed last month and his responsibilities will be
picked up by other executives. Some credit watchers are keeping close tabs on the company, hoping the deal with its majority shareholder, Aeon Co. Ltd. — for a $50 million credit facility — goes through to give the women’s specialty chain a much needed fi nancial boost.

Jones New York also tumbled one slot to sixth compared with last year’s survey. In May, Jones Apparel Group Inc. named Aru Kulkarni, who was chief customer officer for Liz Claiborne’s partnered brands division, as president of sales for its women’s wholesale sportswear unit. Sportswear remains the focus for Jones New York.

Jessica McClintock/Gunne Sax held on to seventh place. McClintock’s initial investment of $5,000 has paid off beyond dresses to include prom, bridal, children’s, accessories, fragrance, eyewear and home furnishings, among other things.

Nicole Miller rose from 10th place to eighth place this year. While Miller has been a longtime favorite for her dresses and fun prints, she is expanding her reach with legwear and other categories. The designer is entering the bridge arena with a sportswear collection called Nicole Miller Chartreuse Label. Miller inked a licensing deal with The Rafaella Group in New York to create the collection, which is scheduled to bow at retail in fall 2009.

Oleg Cassini slipped one place to ninth, as did Worthington, this year’s 10th-place finisher. Cassini is a key resource at David’s Bridal, where its wedding gowns are sold. Worthington is one of J.C. Penney’s private brands.