KEEPING UP WITH CONTEMPORARY
Byline: Eric Wilson
NEW YORK — The contemporary explosion in ready-to-wear departments is expected to rage on for spring, but it’s also expected to cause a serious shakeout of dress and suit vendors in the next six months.
Having given up prime turf to contemporary powerhouses like Laundry by Shelli Segal, BCBG and ABS by Allen B. Schwartz, traditional day houses are fighting back, often scoping out the hot trends for spring, like ruffly dresses and bell-sleeved blouses.
But the competition in daytime is fierce, several makers said, and some are questioning the wisdom of targeting trends in dresses geared to a middle-of-the-road customer when department stores are narrowing their assortments and cutting back resources for mainstream rtw vendors.
Social lines, meanwhile, are expected to continue to grow thanks to a strong economy, while in suits, the strongest segments are also at designer price points or value-priced ensemble looks, though the outlook is fairly dismal at bridge prices.
Designer and Bridge
In the designer rtw realm, all eyes are on Bill Blass, where Michael Groveman, chief executive officer, is interviewing designers for the post of creative director to manage the direction of the line following Blass’s retirement. Groveman said he expects to have a designer in place by Jan. 1.
“We’re having one of our best seasons ever,” Groveman said. “We’re ahead over 40 percent. It’s a very strong and extensive collection and it’s selling ahead in virtually every market we’re in.”
Blass’s recent spring trunk shows at Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman have generated significant retail sales. From Nov. 1 to 5 at Saks, Blass sold $1.1 million; top looks were a tobacco silk fitted jacket paired with beaded lace pants, a black and white gingham checked silk faille blazer with matching pants or skirt and a khaki cashmere burlap hooded cardigan, tunic and skirt. At BG, sales topped $700,000 from Nov. 30 to Dec. 3, Groveman said.
Spring sales also continue to reflect “robust demand” for Oscar de la Renta’s collection, said Jeffry M. Aronsson, ceo.
“The growth in our business is derived from sales to our existing customer base, in addition to a new contemporary customer who appreciates the updated elegance and diversity inherent in his collections,” Aronsson said.
De la Renta has some projects cooking for 2000, including a Web site under development that currently asks visitors to complete a questionnaire about what they’d like to see there. Without advertising or references from search engines, the company has received more than 1,800 completed surveys by cybersurfers who thought to type in oscardelarenta.com.
“This means that over 1,800 men and women from around the world not only found the site, unaided, but also told us who they are, where they live, how much they spend on clothing and accessories, and whether or not they would buy online,” Aronsson said.
Two-thirds of the respondents said they would.
Dede Shipman, president of Mary McFadden, said fabrics have been the focal point of the spring collection, based on trunk show sales.
“People have become very knowledgeable about fabrics in general, be it cashmere or snakeskin,” she said, noting McFadden has adapted by including fabrics with interesting and supple hands.
Silhouettes have remained less constructed and simpler than sharply tailored suits of past seasons.
“People are still looking for clothes they can wear year-round and to different locations,” Shipman said. “For certain, luxury is going to continue. We’re seeing a lot of return to dresses.”
This trend has been tremendous for regional specialty store business, Shipman said, adding, “They really know how to stock for their customer base, so we’re seeing really nice growth at stores like Jacobson’s and Marissa Collections.”
At Nicole Miller, the focus on evening looks is continuing, with a projected 30 to 40 percent increase in sales for spring.
“I understand there’s softness in the market, but it’s in the daytime end,” said Bud Konheim, ceo.
He sees that as an opportunity, and the company has targeted day dresses as a potential growth channel.
“The challenge is to make a daytime look that is appropriate for work,” Konheim said. “It’s a perception problem — even the looks we make for day now end up looking social. “Our next big thing is work clothes, the uniform or piece of clothing that women have to wear five days a week and not look like they’re wearing the same thing over and over again, which we are designing right now,” Konheim said. “What’s distracting is that the social occasion business is so strong that it keeps us focused where the action is, but we feel that one day that is going to end, and that we need to be prepared.”
At Tahari, dresses are projected to be a great category for spring, led by evening separates, but suits are planned low, said Mark Mendelson, president.
“People aren’t having to get dressed up for work, so when there’s someplace to go, they are willing to spend money,” Mendelson said. “They are also buying separates that they can work into their day wardrobes, like a sweater or dressy blouse that they can pair with a ballskirt or a sexy pair of pants for evening.”
Abstract floral prints, beads and embellishment continue to be key looks in dresses, each of which plays into the general mood of femininity in design.
“The whole day dress category should be the healthiest it’s been in a long time,” Mendelson said. “But suits are a little more difficult and we’ve planned that category very conservatively. The business is either price-point-driven or very special-occasion driven. There’s really nothing in between, although I do have a good feeling about suits for fall.”
Tahari has limited its spring suit line to well-priced wardrobers, made up of a jacket, pants and skirt, seeking to attract value-minded customers familiar with Tahari’s fit and quality.
Tamotsu, a bridge suit line, launched a casual collection called Hana that will land at retail in January to keep the momentum rolling for that firm.
Ellen Mullman, sales manager for Tamotsu, said the line has had enormous response from stores, particularly for bright colors, stretch nylon pieces, hooded sweatshirts and apron details. From the Tamotsu line, a black and white tweed linen group, a long bias-cut skirt and a matching jacket have been top looks.
Andrea Scoli, vice president of dress sales for Laundry by Shelli Segal, said scarf dresses with pointed hems, prints, denim and color embroideries or embellishments like mirror trims have been the top style trends for spring day looks. Social dresses continue to be driven by separates, but instead of knit tops, woven ones have become more popular.
Iridescent taffeta, o-ring details or bustles on the back of the dress and other back details like apron ties and elastic ruching have been key looks. Animal prints including leopard, python or zebra have also ruled the evening division.
“Now that we’re part of Liz Claiborne, everything is still growing,” Scoli said. “In social, we have layered back our bridal category, which is made up of clean dutchess satin dresses that retail around $200, and in daytime we are looking at little black dresses and fashion looks as two businesses, so growth is going to be there.”
Claiborne, which acquired Laundry this fall, has also discussed the potential of developing e-commerce and additional Laundry stores, Scoli said. Laundry opened its first store in SoHo in 1998.
“I really don’t think contemporary has peaked,” Scoli said. “There are more players on the block, but many of the new people are coming into the day area, which is surprising, considering that is the toughest area. The social business has remained relatively strong, and I feel like that’s where there is the broadest customer base.”
Paula Sutter, president of Diane Von Furstenberg, said several silhouettes have emerged as key sellers for spring, including a sexy fitted polo placket dress in Von Furstenberg’s signature prints and T-shirt dresses with easy shirring on the side in solid or printed jersey. The strongest prints for spring have been python and cannibis, while bright colors like hot pink, yellow and lilac have led sales.
“The key print for us has been the cannibis print,” Sutter said. “We have had enormous success with it, both in dresses and with a matching shoe.”
Von Furstenberg is also gearing up for a guerrilla marketing campaign in New York, Los Angeles and Miami, which will be tied to events at key retail accounts, Sutter said.
ABS by Allen B. Schwartz, a division of The Warnaco Group, is going strong for spring with transseasonal fur trims, ostrich feathers, patchwork and scarf necklines, said Allen Schwartz, design director.
“Business is not great in general in the stores right now, yet we have been checking polar fleece, embroidered dresses, two-piece looks and very strong casual looks,” Schwartz said.
Schwartz said misses’ resources that adapt contemporary trends have been stumbling in daytime because “they’re forgetting who their customer is. For the niche I’m in, I don’t think a contemporary backlash has even begun.”
M by David Meister, a contemporary evening division of Kellwood, has also continued to forge ahead in a crowded market. Meister left Laundry last year to start the signature line.
“The longer we go with David Meister, the more we are separating ourselves from the Laundry business,” said Alan Geller, vice president of sales. “Our budget plans for stores are 25 percent ahead from our initial bookings.”
Geller cautioned that sales from David Meister are geared to social departments, rather than contemporary dresses, which often sit in adjacent areas of department stores and frequently are dominated by social looks.
However, he said, Meister has no plans to target the contemporary day market, a tougher segment in which to develop a healthy volume business. Retail prices in those departments have skyrocketed in the past two years from a price that averaged less than $200 to one that typically exceeds $300 for a complete look.
“In contemporary daytime, you have to be so price-conscious that you can’t get out a lot of the product that you design,” Geller said. “Obviously, there are not enough people doing contemporary day looks at better prices, but I don’t want to be in a price-driven daytime business. It becomes so promotional that you end up bastardizing the label.”
For Maxstudio.com, which was renamed this year by its designer and principal, Leon Max, to reflect interest in the Internet, dresses have become an important part of the contemporary mix. The size of its dress line has been increased threefold.
“With fashion being more feminine, there is a natural progression toward dresses,” said Deborah DeFusco, vice president.
Top looks include peasant tops with miniskirts, cotton voile laser-cut dresses and multilayered organza dresses
Better and Moderate
“Hopefully, capri pants and sweater sets will be dead,” said Gregg Marks, president of Kasper ASL. “That’s what hurt our suit business last spring.”
But that seems doubtful, Marks admitted, so for spring, Kasper incorporated what Bunny Bennett, vice president and head designer, called a “modern capri pant.” Rather than at midcalf, the pant-leg reaches the ankle with a little slit on the side, a look more appropriate for office attire.
Other key fashion looks in the Kasper line include a wealth of three-quarter-length sleeves and ones that turn up to bracelet sleeves, plus lots of touches of color, like a black suit with hot pink accents and other models in teal, yellow or blue. Denim and sharkskin have also been key trends continued in the spring collection, looks that Bennett tested through the company’s smaller contemporary suit line, B. Bennett.
“We feel three-piece outfits with a knit component and also lots of jacket dresses and ensembles with pants or skirt will be good for spring,” Bennett said. “I definitely feel the contemporary market has influenced our business and is keeping it younger, with ruffles and piping contrast, color and stretch fabrics, three-quarter-length sleeves and thinner shoulder pads.”
Kasper will also launch an Anne Klein II sportswear line in February as its first major development related to the powerhouse brand move since acquiring its trademarks in July. Anne Klein Suits are also on the way next year, with a related advertising campaign that will join Kasper’s existing “K is for Kasper” series of ads launched a year ago.
The company’s online venture, kasper.com, also launched this year, has averaged 400,000 hits per month. Marks did not disclose the volume of sales through the site, which are limited to basic career products, but he said the average sale is more than $200.
John Ward, president of Leslie Fay Co., said the moderate dress market shows continuing strength with an emphasis on related separates and ensembles rather than one-piece dresses.
“That’s a challenge we’ve brought onto ourselves and to our stores to get back into one-piece dresses,” Ward said. “What is happening now is that 85 percent of our business is jacket dresses and two-piece looks. There really is a void for one-piece looks that we are targeting to fill.”
Leslie Fay, which acquired the Warren Group and its key David Warren and Rimini labels a year ago, is also anxious to buy another dress house in 2000.
“We are very active in an acquisition mode right now,” Ward said. “I’m confident 2000 will bring some new acquisitions to Leslie Fay, primarily in the dress category.”
The company is also developing more soft shops in key stores and emphasizing its marketing dollar on point-of-sale displays. Leslie Fay has about 200 existing soft shops, with plans to build upon that by 50 percent in 2000, Ward said.
With David Warren, Leslie Fay plans to continue its strategy of price reduction, marking dresses from $44 to $69 at wholesale.
“Their biggest challenge, not unlike Leslie Fay, is to work on opening larger doors and having a bigger presence in those doors,” Ward said.
Dots, border prints, paisley and ethnic looks have been key for spring, Ward said. The Leslie Fay Evenings line has been toned down to some degree to be more consistent with the core day line, with more of a covered-up emphasis than the line had with its initial launch this fall/holiday season.
Donna Ricco, a better-priced misses dress company, has been struggling with the contemporary encroachment for the past year. After being pushed aside in favor of trend-following lines geared to young consumers, Tom Puls, president of the firm, said Donna Ricco was fighting back for spring.
“Contemporary is getting very big play in fashion magazines,” Puls said. “It’s getting a lot of attention and doing quite well, but we’ve had a great fall. In the last year or so, contemporary may have done a better job at giving customers newness, but a year ago or so, we started looking at spring 2000 and saying all bets are off.”
Rather than looking at past bestsellers and updating them on a seasonal basis, the company has joined the fray in trend spotting. Ricco incorporated key spring trends like prints, color, ruffles and sleeveless sheaths paired with a sweater or bell-sleeved shirt to target customers seeking to look current in a misses’ fit. Bookings are up 20 percent as a result.
Donna Ricco is also continuing to develop a moderate offering, which Puls hopes to have ready next year. It would join Ricco’s existing better business and a plus-size line that was launched in January that is carried at department stores and at Sydandsam.com, an online retailer.