Byline: Arthur Friedman / With contributions from Holly Haber, Dallas / Georgia Lee, Atlanta / Teena Hammond, Los Angeles

NEW YORK — Spring and summer dress business is dealing with a split personality — strong and vital in some stores, flat and lacking in others.
While retailers like J.C. Penney and Bergdorf Goodman said their dress departments were performing well, Jacobson’s and Macy’s West said sales were disappointing. Even in normally across-the-board areas like prom, some stores did well while others were wallflowers.
The inconsistent results — ranging from flat to 20 percent seasonal gains — make it difficult to read the bottom line, but it appears the category had more pluses than minuses.
There was some agreement on the key trends:
Bare looks, from slipdresses to sheaths, scored from moderate to designer.
Contemporary resources as a whole were dynamic, and Laundry was a category leader.
Two-piece dressing, which some merchants are calling “faux sportswear,” is taking up the slack in career and social occasion.
The jacket-and-dress or cardigan-and-dress ensemble continues its strong showing.
Sue Barry, vice president and divisional merchandise manager for dresses at Carson Pirie Scott, said dress business has seen mid-single-digit increases and has been picking up steam going into summer selling.
Bright spots in daytime have been prints and bare looks, particularly georgette, faille, crepe and peachskin microfiber in sleeveless sheaths and tanks. Stretch knits also have been strong. Top labels for day include Jessica Howard, Jeffrey & Dara and Dani Max.
In social occasion, Barry said mother-of-the-bride has been consistently strong, while prom was disappointing. Key resources in the social department are Patra, After Dark and Scott McClintock.
“The most explosive area in dresses this season has been large sizes,” Barry said. “We really went after it, and we’re seeing double-digit increases and incredible margins. For spring, we created a separate [large-size] social department.”
There’s good and bad news in the dress departments at Macy’s East, said Kathryn Bufano, executive vice president and general merchandise manager.
The good selling is led by contemporary dresses — sleeveless and short-sleeved florals and slipdresses — and Laundry is a top resource. Dress-and-cardigan outfits also have sold well in contemporary and moderate departments, Bufano noted. Moderate dresses in more traditional silhouettes have not performed as well.
“What we call faux sportswear looks — jacket-and-dress combinations, two-piece dresses, pantsuits — have performed very well,” said Bufano, citing Dani Max, Jessica Howard and Ronnie Nicole as important labels. “I see that whole category continuing to be strong in the third quarter.”
In social occasion, bridesmaid and mother-of-the-bride have been strong, while cocktail dress have been slow across the board, she said.
“I think a lot of the contemporary floral and slipdresses have eaten away at that business,” Bufano said.
At Lord & Taylor, spring and summer dress business has been spurred by several key trends, said Lavelle Olexa, senior vice president for fashion merchandising. The better dress zone is being led by Rimini and Laundry in styles such as slipdresses, embroidered mesh and sheer layering.
“Prom business has been great, and it’s all about the slipdress,” Olexa said. “Two-piece dressing continues to be important, especially from Dani Max and Kasper Dress. Soft dressing has done well from Carole Little, Donna Ricco and Laundry, which is a top performer in all dress zones — daytime, social and evening.”
Joseph Boitano, senior vice president and general merchandise manager at Bergdorf Goodman, said, “We’ve had a very strong dress season for day and evening. There’s been strong emphasis on dresses in designer collections. A key trend has been the tailored sleeveless sheath with or without a jacket from Narciso Rodriguez, Marc Jacobs and Donna Karan.”
Boitano said double-faced fabric dresses from Oscar de la Renta and Bill Blass also have been important, as has a bias dress from John Galliano.
Roseanne Cumella, general merchandise manager for The Doneger Group buying office, said dress business at her store accounts had been “just OK.”
“Most stores came out of spring with modest increases, but volume was often achieved by cutting margins,” Cumella said. “Ensemble dressing continues to be a key, whether it’s dress-and-jacket outfits, mock two-piece looks or three-piece sets.”
Cumella said synthetic knits are selling more for spring because technology has helped create fabrics that are softer and lighter-weight. Another strong trend has been bare looks — short-sleeved or sleeveless dresses that work well with a range of coverups. Crochet and lace styles have been taking off, and rompers “have come to life,” she added.
As for spring prints — still a core category — Cumella said, “If you had the right print, you did well, but if you didn’t, they died on the floor.”
J.C. Penney has achieved a sales gain in the “mid-teens” for its dress business so far this year.
“The dress business is excellent,” said Dennis Berkheimer, merchandise manager for dresses, suits and outerwear. “Career early on was good, and right now sundresses or rompers or anything casual is doing well.”
Berkheimer attributed Penney’s success to a change in its buying strategy that was instituted in January. Corporate buyers determine 70 percent of the dress inventory in all 1,200 stores; buyers at individual stores select the remainder.
Career has been slightly stronger than casual, and Dani & Nicole structured coatdresses and two-piece looks from Dani Max turned in outstanding performances. Traditional print faille dresses by Leslie Fay, Karin Stevens, S.L. Fashions and Penney’s own Worthington label also have sold well.
Penney’s has put extra emphasis on special occasion and is reaping sales gains in the high teens for the category, Berkheimer added. Top vendors are Zum Zum, Roberta and Patra.
Contemporary styles are driving the dress business at Neiman Marcus, according to Gerald Barnes, vice president and divisional merchandise manager for Galleria dresses. Some of the leading vendors are Anna Piaa, Nanette Lepore and Bonnie Strauss.
“I think people are looking for something a little bit different,” Barnes said. “Anything very basic that is not use-specific is dead in the water.”
The most popular styles are layered and embroidered slipdresses, layered ombre styles and dresses with jackets or cardigans.
“The evening dress business has been phenomenal,” Barnes added. “A lot of what you see at the designer shows is already doing well on the floor at lower price points.”
Top evening styles include allover beading on simple prints, placed beading and spaced vine prints, he explained.
At Jacobson Stores, dress business is flat, said Beverly Rice, senior vice president for fashion and merchandising strategy.
“There are some missing links between what the customer wants and what the market is offering. It’s so dominated by special occasion, but there is a customer who is eager to have a daytime casual dress and a more serious work dress. We know we are moving into a dress situation because when we get a good body, the customer is right there, but they are so few and far between.”
Contemporary is a bright spot, particularly in Jacobson’s Miss J department for younger customers. Laundry and Barbara Lesser are two resources that sell well. Top trends are sheer layering, embroidery and appliques, as well as cotton knits for casual styles.
Dress business surged in April and May at Castner-Knott, a division of Mercantile Stores, according to Dan Jankowski, senior dress buyer.
“After the first spells of warm weather, business took off,” he said.
Dress sales should be 5 to 10 percent over last year’s, he said. Sleeveless looks have been the top trend in long and short styles and in pants sets. Tropical prints, sheaths and columns also have been strong.
Leslie Fay, Byer of California, Melissa Harper, Joy Mark and Miss Dorby have been good resources in moderate and better areas. This season, Castner-Knott created sundress shops, pulling all prices together, backed by signs and visuals, with strong results.
At Rich’s, dress sales have been “flat to difficult,” said Sheila Kamensky, vice president of fashion merchandising.
“We had a late spring, and a difficult Mother’s Day, and not a lot of newness in misses’ areas,” she said.
Silk shantung was a bright spot in sheaths, tanks and other bare silhouettes. Pants sets with sleeveless tops were strong sellers, and key labels were Dani Max, Shomi, Spencer Jeremy and Maggie London.
In social occasion, metallic and iridescent fabrics were strong. There was a surge in prom business, led by Donna Morgan, Nikki and Betsy & Adam.
In junior, consumers responded to newness in the form of puffed, embossed fabrics and seersucker and madras plaid looks. Bareness continues to be a key in tanks, slips and halter tops. City Triangles, My Michelle, Jalate and All That Jazz were strong sellers.
The dress business has been “tough” at Macy’s West, according to Michael Steinberg, chairman and chief executive officer.
“I think it’s weather-related,” Steinberg said. The weather has been unseasonably cool and rainy this spring throughout California, where Macy’s West is based. “It’s been an average of 15 degrees below normal,” he said.
“It obviously was a difficult month,” Steinberg said, referring to May. “Certain parts of the business, career parts, were OK.”
At Gottschalks, based in Fresno, Calif., dress sales have been flat compared with last year’s, said Joe Levy, chairman and ceo.
“We’ve been pushing our moderate or better dresses and they’ve been doing fairly well,” Levy said.
Leslie Fay is the top label, and the chain has put in new shops-in-shops for the line and “they’ve been performing very well.” He cited Liz Claiborne and Jones New York as other key brands.

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