RTW MANUFACTURERS SEE STIFFER ATTITUDE TOWARD CASUAL DRESS
Byline: Eric Wilson
NEW YORK — Probably the best indication a trend has peaked is when the industry is tired of talking about it, and no subject is greeted by greater groans today than what has been termed “the casualization of America.”
As the effects — positive and negative — of “corporate casual” or “comfort dressing” continue to ripple across apparel, blurring the distinction between ready-to-wear and sportswear, signs of a backlash are beginning to appear.
Even the customer seems “kind of bored” with dressing down, Marshall Hilsberg, chairman and chief executive officer of Lord & Taylor, said last week, citing significant gains in L&T’s dress business.
Yet women’s increasingly vocal desire for comfort and “dress down” attitudes have had an impact on apparel, particularly on the rtw market. Casual dressing has been cited as the reason for drops in the tailored suit business and classic career wear, and some in the rtw industry were afraid the denim-blue sky was falling as sportswear took center stage.
“This has affected the business tremendously,” said Roseanne Cumella, general merchandise manager of The Doneger Group buying office, expressing some shock that such a given could even be questioned.
But as more corporations adjust their dress codes to reflect interest in casual dressing, more questions arise about how women in these companies should dress and how they spend their apparel dollars.
Rtw manufacturers have come up with several responses to the phenomenon, incorporating softer fabrics, multifunctional designs and new color palettes into their offerings. As they alter silhouettes, though, by adding pants to a suit or a jacket to a dress, and as sportswear houses get in on the dress-and-suit act with casual interpretations, the once-clear division between the two categories has muddied.
While boundaries for today’s rtw may remain elusive, defining just what corporate casual entails is equally challenging.
“Business casual is really creating a new way of dressing. It’s not totally casual, it’s something in between that everyone is struggling to define,” said Marie Drum Beninati, a partner in the retail practice of CSC Consulting. “People always say, ‘I know it when I see it,’ but I don’t think the manufacturers have really looked at how to make a garment that meets the business casual demand.”
How to dress down has been the subject of countless magazine fashion spreads, and yet, every Friday, millions of women are left wondering what to wear.
“What I am surprised by is how much information people seem to need as to how to approach casualwear. I’ve seen some of these dress codes, and people actually need to be told, ‘You can’t come in wearing shorts,”‘ said Valerie Steele, chief curator at The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
Doneger’s Cumella added, “There is a more relaxed way of dressing, but it truly confused the industry in general a few years ago. There was all this focus on denim, but it’s really not that.”
The enigma of comfortable yet appropriate may prove to be the trend’s undoing. It has spawned the current resistance against corporate casual because the look isn’t as “easy” as was promised.
Rtw, particularly dresses and pantsuits, suddenly are being equated with ease and value in their new form, as they don’t require a lot of thought to pull on and appear professional.
At the same time, corporations continue to relax dress policies.
According to a 1996 survey by Evans Research Associates of San Francisco, commissioned by Levi Strauss & Co., 42 percent of office workers can dress casually once a week, up from 17 percent in 1992.
Up to one-third of U.S. firms have made the transition to the five-day casual workweek; IBM and Ford Motor Co. are the most frequently cited supporters of a dressed-down business place. Some industry members, denim manufacturers among them, have predicted half of the U.S. work force will dress down by the year 2000.
Sara Lee Personal Products, the Winston-Salem, N.C., apparel and accessories division of Sara Lee Corp., informed its employees March 24 that they now have the option of dressing down five days a week, said Nancy Young, director of corporate affairs for Personal Products.
This move by Sara Lee, which manufactures Hanes Hosiery, L’eggs Products and licensed Donna Karan legwear, is particularly striking, considering executives there have admitted that the mass market, 100 percent nylon hosiery business is “tanking” in the corporate casual trend. But they also say that is offset by stronger, more resilient products that work with more casual outfits.
The acceptance of relaxed career wear is more evident in some industries and geographic regions than others, but it’s still unclear just what part of the work force is dressing down.
“The policy has been much more popular with the men than the women,” Young said. “It’s harder for women to come up with something casual. With business casual, most women tend to have two wardrobes — one that you wear to work and one that’s real casual, your grunge wear.”
The software and entertainment industries in the West have embraced the trend wholeheartedly, but Wall Street has balked.
“There are still people in Boston wearing white shirts,” CSC’s Beninati noted.
Corporations populated by younger employees have more freely ditched the traditional suit and dress workplace.
“The change definitely relates to demographics,” Beninati said. “Gen Xers were the first generation who went to school casually dressed. For most baby boomers, even in public schools, you never saw kids wearing shorts. They always wore nice slacks.”
And FIT’s Steele noted, “You also have to look at the specific work situation. There’s a problem for women in that by dressing casually, they are more likely to be assumed for their appearance that they are a secretary or a low-level employee. That’s an issue for women working in the business world.”
With few exceptions, many industry executives and observers agreed there will always be a place for the navy power suit with the stereotypical severe shoulders and starched white blouse.
In fact, the look made a comeback on the European runways last month, with aggressive Eighties styles from Gucci, Givenchy, Claude Montana and Yves Saint Laurent. Karl Lagerfeld took the look to the mat with his “boxing-glove” shoulders. But whether the power suit can sustain an industry remains in question.
Dress and suit firms have reacted by increasing their lines to include “casualized” suits and dresses and even separates and pants. At the same time, sportswear firms are offering more career sportswear that includes dresses and suits. Retailers are moving more dresses and coats into sportswear and further blurring the distinction between rtw and sportswear.
“I think of that [rtw and sportswear] as the same thing,” said Linda Larsen German, vice president of corporate merchandising at Liz Claiborne.
In Claiborne’s dress division, dresses include several pieces on one ticket, following the traditional rtw example. But in sportswear, dresses with more than one piece or a matching jacket are sold as separates.
In Kurt Salmon Associate’s annual Consumer Pulse Survey for 1996, a net differential of 20 percent of women planned to spend more on casual pants and skirts, while a margin of 35 percent of women planned to spend less on suits and a margin of 28 percent of women planned to spend less on dresses. For the purpose of the survey, a net differential was defined as the percent planning to spend more minus the percent planning to spend less.
“On average, what they’re spending is remaining the same, with a very close split between relaxed and tailored clothing,” said Adelle Kirk, manager of KSA’s consumer marketing practice.
However, $300 could buy sportswear pieces that would create five outfits, while it would buy only one suit in the average woman’s wardrobe, she noted. Women recognize the value of wardrobing sportswear pieces as consumers are searching for ways to stretch their disposable dollars, Kirk said.
That was evidenced by Claiborne’s recently released 10K.
Claiborne’s better women’s sportswear volume grew 10.8 percent in 1996, a solid performance year for the company, while sales of dresses and suits declined 14.4 percent, according to the annual filing. Those figures underline Claiborne’s success at catering to the corporate-casual woman, consultants noted.
Claiborne’s German said women today are dressing according to their calendars.
“It all depends on what she’s going to be doing that day,” said German, noting Claiborne merchandises its lines from better to bridge and sportswear to career wear, so pieces can interact.
At Kenar Enterprises, casual apparel makes up about 30 percent of the business, “and that’s growing every year, although that now seems to be growing at a slower rate,” said president Kenneth Zimmerman.
About 70 percent of the business remains in divisions that focus on career suits and dresses.
As evidenced in its Madison Avenue retail shop, Kenar has maintained a uniformity in the color and compatibility of its five divisions, although the tone ranges from trendy and casual to career-oriented in sportswear, dresses and suits.
This offers customers a mix-and-match opportunity and opens the possibilities of wardrobing between divisions, Zimmerman said. That also encourages the customer to spend more of her limited apparel dollars at Kenar.
“Women get much more sophisticated every year in knowing how to buy, in mixing pieces from one company and putting them together with something from another,” Zimmerman said. “They know what to do.”
Corporate casual has spawned an industry of sportswear brands like Lauren by Ralph Lauren and Tommy by Tommy Hilfiger that are routinely cited as scoring with career separates. Retailers, from Kohl’s to Carson Pirie Scott to Henri Bendel have reacted by devoting more floor space to corporate-casual concepts.
Meanwhile, rtw itself has adapted to comfort dressing, and skirts have taken a backseat to pants in the suit market. Increasingly, firms are reporting more success by offering a suit with both options.
Designer David Bijou, long a confederate of the skirt-suit camp, surrendered to the pantsuit last year when he offered his first wholesale collection to buyers with the option to buy pants or skirts.
Pants, not surprisingly, sold more, and early sales of this fall’s collection indicate that will continue. Pants are gaining popularity for their comfort and ease and because they fit the “multiple end-use” image, giving suits the desk-to-dinner makeover.
“Our constructed suit business is still very strong,” noted Yael Nazmiyal, sales manager at David Bijou. “The corporate-casual trend has been more influential in the dress categories, but so many times, buyers are looking for pantsuits. We felt very strongly about the skirt suit, but with the demand for pants, we decided to give them that option.”
At least one-third of the retail market has been taken over by pants, Cumella said. In some stores, depending on the location, pants account for half the business.
Over Easter weekend, the biggest surprise at retailers for which Doneger buys was the business in rompers, shorts or pants disguised as skirts.
“That’s part of the whole leg picture,” Cumella said. “They look almost as though they were dresses.”
Dress designer Donna Ricco said one of the most popular looks from her fall 1996 collection was a bright flower print on sheer ivory georgette, a long, simple sleeveless dress.
“A printed dress goes quite a long way for the wardrobe,” Ricco said, adding that she had seen the same dress pop up belted with a blazer or topped by a sweater, illustrating the many uses dresses get credit for.
“I wear my own dresses, and I go to work everyday. I have kids, so I have to get ready very quickly,” Ricco said. “This has challenged me as a designer to come up with the right dresses for these women.”
MillerShor started its two-piece dress business three years ago with the comfort customer in mind. The company uses a heavily sueded silk crepe and stretch fabric that is less dressy than traditional silk, said Douglas Miller, president.
MillerShor researches how corporate women want to dress using an Internet-based survey that asks women what they want.
“These women want to dress down. If I was a tie maker, I’d have a problem. If I was a suit maker, I’d be very concerned. But from my perspective, dress-down Friday is something I’ve been counting on for two years,” Miller said.
Adapting to the corporate-casual trend, rather than working against it, seems to be successful, as there suddenly appears to be interest in the career suit and dress.
Doneger’s Cumella said their proportion of total casual apparel has been decreasing for the past two years.
“Now, for the first time, there are renewed signs of life for career dressing,” she said.
And the comment by L&T’s Hilsberg that customers are growing bored with dressing down was delivered at the department store’s annual dress design scholarship awards ceremony, when he reported that the dress business, including career dresses, had risen 14 percent on a season-to-date basis.
“It just goes to show that with everybody talking about casualization…the customer is kind of bored for the moment with some of that and clearly migrating back to wanting to feel good about themselves and wanting to dress up a little more,” he said.
The positive news for rtw is beginning to sound like a backlash against sportswear, even though much of the success can be attributed to adapting dresses and suits with the sportswear connection.
“Anybody can make casual clothing. You just pick up the phone or push a button. It’s like making hamburgers,” Kenar’s Zimmerman said.
Rtw, in his view, is an artisan’s craft that requires more sophistication and creativity.
“I think we’re making a big deal over corporate casual, but what you see in the office is going to be balanced,” he said.
Still, industry observers pointed out, looking at corporate casual as a fashion cycle that would end with a return of tailored dressing would be a mistake.
As KSA’s Kirk said, “This is neither a fad nor a flash in the pan, but a long-term change. ‘Evita’ was a fad. Casual is not a passing trend.”