NEW YORK — Some call them a necessarily evil.  But what used to be fashion’s biggest secret is no secret anymore: Off-pricers are having a field day with top designer, bridge and branded sportswear, often displaying the biggest names in fashion prominently and keeping their labels intact.

The off-pricers are continuing to gain ground, particularly in the career area. Discounts often range from 45 to 70 percent off suggested retail prices.

According to The NPD Group, Port Washington, N.Y., off-price stores, for the first six months of 1994, did $2.3 billion in women’s apparel sales, up 16.6 percent from the year-ago period. In 1993, off-pricers generated $4.3 billion in women’s apparel sales, a 3.4 percent increase from 1992.

Lots of bargains can be had at these stores, but shopping is often frenzied and largely a hit-or-miss proposition, as stocks and sizes are limited and there are few amenities for the career customer.

In recent visits to five off-pricers in the New York metropolitan area — Century 21, Loehmann’s, Daffy’s, Filene’s Basement and Annie Sez — several conclusions were drawn. Century 21 appeared to have the best selection of European merchandise, while Loehmann’s was strongest in American bridge and designer lines. Filene’s had a sprinkling of designer merchandise, but focused mostly on recognizable better-price sportswear. Daffy’s and Annie Sez, as well, had strong presentations in better-priced sportswear.

Where Filene’s Basement really excels is outerwear, also a strong category at Loehmann’s.

As for service, Century 21 had helpful employees, but it was difficult to find help at Daffy’s. Loehmann’s is mostly a “do-it-yourself” venture, as is Filene’s, but employees behind the cash registers and in the dressing rooms at both stores were helpful. Annie Sez’s dressing rooms are open, while Loehmann’s has now added private dressing rooms, both in the main area and Back Room.

While it’s difficult to judge whether the merchandise carried at the off-pricers was current or a season or two old, Loehmann’s appeared to have the most up-to-date merchandise, while Century 21 and Filene’s had a mixture of current and not-so-current looks. Annie Sez, in particular, featured designer merchandise that wasn’t this season’s crop.

As for ambience, Loehmann’s had an attractive decor with new signs and fixtures, while Century 21 was more of a madhouse. Filene’s was clean and attractive, and floor employees were constantly straightening the racks. Annie Sez also had a clean appearance, while Daffy’s sportswear presentation was cluttered. Filene’s and Loehmann’s sometimes had signage that was misleading.

Here, a roundup.

CENTURY 21

A trip to Century 21 at 22 Cortlandt St. in downtown Manhattan is not for the faint-hearted. While career dressing at all price points is available, the search for the right look can be taxing.

The majority of the career offerings were in better prices, such as J.G. Hook, J.H. Collectibles and Jones New York, and designer prices, particularly Europeans, such as Giorgio Armani, Escada and Gucci.

In short supply were bridge lines, especially those that cater so well to the working woman, but some contemporary lines such as Kenar Studio, Zelda, ISDA and Kikit had strong career looks.

At Century 21, the racks are extremely crowded, and despite the efforts of the sales staff, almost always in disarray. And dressing rooms are limited to the European designer section.

Customers are not prohibited, however, from trying on a jacket or coat over their clothes. The more adventurous can also attempt to try on other pieces as well. The lack of dressing rooms is a disadvantage, but items can be returned within 14 days.

One problem with the selection is the lack of editing by the store’s designer buyers. It seems that if a name designer made something, then they buy it, no matter what it is. Case in point: Wild acid brights and plastic dresses from top designer names.

Last Saturday, the store was teeming with bargain hunters. And despite all the hassles, the prices and selection make it a worthwhile trip for the hard core discount shopper.

Career sportswear and ready-to-wear are grouped by designer. Most suit separates had options in bottoms, either a skirt or pants.

The average price was 45 to 70 percent of the “suggested retail price.” In general, the higher the suggested retail price, the greater the markdown.

One of the best-priced lines for the quality was Carolyne Roehm. These pieces are apparently from Roehm’s closed catalog business. A great buy there was a wool twill single-button jacket for $150 (suggested retail, $450) in classic navy, red or ivory and a matching skirt or pants for $60 or $80 ($275).

J.H. Collectibles also had classic career separates, including a worsted wool three-button jacket or doublebreasted style for $90 with matching skirt and coordinating polyester paisley shirts for $40.

From CK there was a gunmetal or army green wool doublebreasted jacket for $190 with either pants or skirts for $70 to $100 and for layering, a wool ribbed button-front vest at $80.

The highlight of Century 21 is the European collections department.

In this department, there are four semi-private dressing rooms, and the wait is usually short. Many of the designs are locked up, but the sales staff was prompt in assisting.

From Romeo Gigli there was a burgundy wool twill jacket for $300 ($975) and a charcoal gray cropped wool jacket with velvet trim for $300 ($875).

Offerings from Prada included small checked wool pleated trousers in rust, green or brown for $100 ($685) and a dark red straight wool knit skirt for $130 ($685). From Karl Lagerfeld there was a black wool Empire style jacket for $200 ($745).

Giorgio Armani looks included a navy wool basic blazer for $380 ($750), matching skirt for $150 or pants for $170. Perfect for under a jacket were ivory silk shirts from Gucci for $200.

A Rifat Ozbek charcoal gray wool doublebreasted jacket with a crest on the pocket was $250 ($725).

Other European collections were Salvatore Ferragamo, Fendi, Callaghan, Moschino Couture and Cheap and Chic, Dolce & Gabbana, Escada, Missoni, Gianni Versace, Plein Sud, Junior Gaultier, Katherine Hamnett, Barbara Bui and Martin Margiela.

LOEHMANN’S

Upon entering Loehmann’s in White Plains, N.Y., one was greeted with large posters hanging from the ceiling that say, “I can’t believe I almost paid twice the price.”

Loehmann’s was packed with name-brand merchandise and was anything but secretive about it. A poster at the front of the store listed 15 featured designer and bridge lines, including Calvin Klein, Byblos, Anne Klein, DKNY, Donna Karan, Emanuel Ungaro, Jones New York, Cynthia Steffe, Andrea Jovine, Gillian and Moschino.

A customer could easily assemble a career wardrobe with items from either Loehmann’s main area or The Back Room. The store has hit on many of the fall trends, such as men’s wear plaids, suspenders, mohair sweaters and schoolgirl looks, including kilts. A new plus for Loehmann’s: Private dressing rooms in both the main area and The Back Room.

In the main area were rounders carrying blazers, skirts and sweaters from such companies as Jones New York, BCBG, Michael Simon, YL by Yair, Kenar Studio, Cynthia Steffe, Andrea Jovine, Ciaosport, Theo Miles, Due Per Due and Harve Benard, with items they claim are 35 to 60 percent below suggested retail prices.

There was a navy blue blazer from Anne Klein Classics selling for $149.99 (suggested retail, $320). An unlabeled oatmeal wool blazer was selling for $169.99 ($300), while a Harve Benard wool blazer was marked $129.99 ($200), with a matching skirt at $49.99 ($98).

Kenar Studio was well represented with items as well as two-piece dressing. A cotton skirt with suspenders was selling for $39.99 ($88). A burgundy rayon long skirt was marked $49.99 ($112), while a coordinating blouse was marked $69.99 ($138).

In The Back Room, where the designer merchandise is housed, there were items from Emanuel, CK Calvin Klein, Calvin Klein, Byblos, A Line Anne Klein, Fendi and Augustus.

A men’s wear black and white check Emanuel skirt was selling for $89.99 ($175), with a matching double-breasted blazer marked $199.99 ($410).

Calvin Klein’s mohair sweaters were selling for $119.99 ($270), while Anne Klein mohair sweaters from Sadimara were priced at $49.99, ($124).

A Fendi white oversized silk blouse with embroidered sleeves was selling for $139.99 ($280). An Augustus brown plaid blazer with brown suede patches was selling for $177.99 ($318).

FILENE’S BASEMENT

When Filene’s Basement first moved into what had been a Kids ‘R’ Us store last year on the Northeast corner of Broadway and 79th Street, Upper West Side shoppers hoped it meant the end of long subway rides uptown to the Loehmann’s in Riverdale, or downtown to Century 21 near the World Trade Center.

While the store, with its polished granite facade, spotless windows and cheerful red signs certainly brightened up what had been a dreary corner, the merchandise tends to be very mainstream.

The three-story store was bustling last Sunday afternoon. Filene’s stocks men’s wear on its uppermost floor, with women’s sportswear and some suits, accessories and fragrances on the ground floor, and dresses, suits, coats, intimate apparel and shoes on the lower floor.

The store is well-staffed, with salespeople constantly straightening racks and moving merchandise back out onto the floor from the downstairs dressing rooms.

New fall bridge offerings were located to the left of the main door. Two four-way racks labeled DKNY and CK held the prominent positions at the front of the area. Other names on top of four-ways included Tahari, Theo Miles, Anne Pinkerton, Cynthia Steffe, Jones New York and Evan-Picone. However, often the merchandise on the racks had other labels than were advertised. ABS offerings such as black stretch jeans at $39.99 (suggested retail, $196) and velvet separates — skirts at $39.99 ($178) and short jackets at $75.99 ($370) — were on a rack marked “MM Krizia.”

The CK and DKNY racks were the most popular and had been picked over. Everything on the DKNY rack was black, including long wool knit jackets at $299 ($895), a silk crepe collarless jacket at $299 ($640) and a leather one-button jacket at $399 ($1,250). The only non-black item was an ivory silk charmeuse bodysuit at $129 ($380.)

The CK offerings were more items than coordinated looks and included olive green wool vests at $109.99 ($246), gray linen shirts at $69.99 ($178), and several pants styles, ranging from slim gray wool knit pants at $69.99 ($160) to tailored black wool trousers at $79.99 ($176).

The Theo Miles rack was well stocked with a coordinated group that included a lightweight gray tweed jacket, $79.99 ($178), a long, loose printed rayon skirt, $49.99 ($118), and a knee-length tailored tweed skirt at $39.99 ($88).

Sprinkled in with the American bridge offerings were some European names. One rack held about twelve Ted Lapidus and Dorothée Bis jackets at $249 ($700) and $149 (no other price marked), respectively.

Occasionally these still bore the names of stores from which they’d been sent: One Nic Janik jacket still had its tag from Mitchell’s of Westport but had been marked $199 ($588).

Toward the back of the area were several long racks of mixed merchandise, including some Andrea Jovine knit separates and various jackets and pants. Looks from Jovine included long, loose taupe wool cardigans at $99.99 ($190) and some striped rib mock turtlenecks at $59.99 ($138).

On the right-hand side of the store, under a large sign reading “Sportswear,” were four-ways of Harve Benard cashmere and wool blend jackets in solid colors and some checks, all marked $99 ($200).

ANNIE SEZ

The Annie Sez in Hartsdale, N.Y., had plenty of fall options, despite huge signs advertising “Summer Clearance Sale, 25 to 50 percent off.”

While many of the customers last Friday were focused on sale merchandise, others were busy getting their fall wardrobes together, trying on looks from Donna Karan, Episode, Harve Benard, CK Calvin Klein, Jones New York, Carole Little, Gianni Sport and ABS.

Featured at the front of the store — with a sign that said “Upstairs at Annie Sez” was a rounder of Donna Karan merchandise, however, the items didn’t seem current. In fact, a few of the labels were marked “Donna Karan Company Store.” A big white silk Donna Karan blouse was marked $149.95 ($420 suggested retail), while a Donna Karan cotton tank sweater was selling for $99.99 ($300).

Customers were eagerly trying on silk and rayon separates from Episode. Among those on sale were a white silk jacket selling for $168 ($238), with a matching skirt marked $88 ($128). Episode brown and white striped rayon and acetate pants were priced at $79.99 ($168), while a matching long vest was $79.99 ($168).

There were A Line Anne Klein rayon pants selling for $59.99 ($125) and CK Calvin Klein wool pants at $89.99 ($256). An ABS black and white houndstooth skater’s skirt in nylon, cotton and Lycra was marked $59.99 ($120), with a matching zip-front jacket selling for $79.99 ($160). ABS’s Tactel nylon and Lycra spandex black pants with suspenders was $89.99 ($180).

Another career outfit consisted of a Jones New York loden wool blazer at $109.99 ($184), floral rayon loden skirt at $59.99 ($98), and a matching long-sleeve top at $59.99 ($88). A CK Calvin Klein navy wool and polyester blazer was marked $149.99 ($340). Another career option was a Gianni Sport wool plaid blazer selling for $129.99 ($198), and matching skirt at $69.99 ($105).

DAFFY’S

At first glance, Daffy’s, at the corner of 18th Street and Fifth Avenue here, looks like a specialty store. The entrance is trimmed in brass and its splashy window displays feature mannequins with the most updated fashion.

But walk inside and immediately you know you’ve reached off-price mania. The bi-level store is often very crowded, with frenzied shoppers devouring the latest designer finds. One may have to spend some time fingering through a lot of rejects, like pastel color suits and grungy frayed skirts, but there are some bargains to be found.

Career clothes for women, including suits and dresses, are all located on the second floor. While the area features a lot of better-price labels, like Jones New York, Rena Rowan and Petite Sophisticates, there were also plenty of designer labels, like Renee du Maar and Cynthia Rowley.

For those looking for that simple white or cream blouse, the options were many. One rack stocked white blouses, while another featured all cream color shirts. Most of the items were marked 50 percent off suggested retail prices. Labels included Equipment, Ace & Co., Petite Sophisticates and Victoria Falls. One good find was a Victoria Falls cream silk blouse with a round collar and blue ribbon. It was marked down to $49 from $136.

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