NEW YORK — Consumer spending on apparel and some accessories in 2004 advanced for the first time in three years, rising a combined 4.2 percent to $173 billion, according to market researcher NPD Group. Purchases of women’s clothing increased at a faster 6 percent pace to reach $95 billion.

“It was clearly a case of pent-up demand,” said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD Group. “Consumers finally needed to update their wardrobe because it was either out of style or it didn’t fit anymore.”

In 2003, by comparison, consumers shelled out $166 billion for apparel, including $90 billion on women’s wear.

Apparel purchasing by women in the spring, focusing on color and feminine florals, and during the holiday season, spurred by gift card spending, outweighed a dead zone in the middle of the year, Cohen said. About 29 percent of the apparel spending in November and December was devoted to impulse purchases. 

A 9 percent spurt in spending on tops, amounting to sales of $31 billion, accounted for almost one-third of the women’s apparel and accessories purchases tracked by NPD in 2004, and represented the largest percentage increase in any women’s clothing category. The tops category was propelled by consumption of knits.

The second biggest percentage increase in women’s spending came in purchases of swimwear and intimate apparel, each growing 8 percent, followed by outerwear, up 6 percent. Sales of a handful of women’s accessories — scarves, mufflers, caps and hats — expanded by 10 percent.

In 2004, expenditures for men’s apparel climbed 4.3 percent to $49 billion from $47 billion, while spending on children’s clothing remained flat at $29 billion, NPD found.

After reaching sales of almost $176 billion in 2000, the apparel sector experienced a three-year spending downturn, reflecting low consumer confidence, increasing unemployment rates and consumers’ lack of passion for fashion, NPD reported.

Cohen is looking this year for slower growth of 2 percent, to apparel sales of about $176 billion. “The consumer is more enchanted with products other than apparel,” Cohen said.

However, if the apparel business creates excitement with its offer this year, as it did with fresh colors in 2004, it can maintain its upswing, albeit at a slower pace, Cohen projected. “Consumers of all ages are starting to dress a little better — to pay more attention to quality and the details of style,” he said.

This story first appeared in the February 25, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.