Byline: Arthur Friedman

NEW YORK — Energized by a spring revival led by casual career styles, dress firms are focusing on a similar formula for fall. So far, it’s working.
Vendors and merchants note that women want easy, contemporary wardrobes for the workplace that are not quite as informal as the jeans and shirts or sweaters that they have been wearing to work and still wear on weekends.
The answer, in many cases, is a dress — an easy solution to corporate casual confusion when styled in comfortable fabrics and sporty silhouettes. For the same reasons, dress ensembles — an easy put-together look — continue to do well.
From moderate to bridge, bookings are up substantially over last year, as dress houses look for another upbeat year.
Even though last fall was somewhat disappointing, dress sales were up 10.5 percent to $9.9 billion in 1996, according to Apparel Tracs, a publication of Fairchild’s Strategic Information Services. Unit volume rose 14.1 percent for the year, meaning more dresses sold at lower prices and tighter margins.
Lavelle Olexa, senior vice president for fashion merchandising at Lord & Taylor, said the casual element in career dresses will continue to be important for this fall. For the first quarter, L&T reported 14 percent gains in its dress business.
“The consumer’s lifestyle is evolving, and she continues to look for comfort in her dresses in terms of fabrics and silhouettes,” Olexa said. “On the other hand, one of the most important elements in dresses has been special occasion, which as a category continues to grow in importance.”
At Macy’s East, Joe Denofrio, senior vice president and fashion director, remarked that for fall, the store is “really focusing” on career dressing.
“We’re basically seeing that people are starting to dress up a little more,” he said.
Citing the strong dress looks at last week’s runway shows, Denofrio said, “The designers are still interested in a soft, fluttery look, whether through using tulle or lace details.”
Kenar Enterprises is adding to its dress offerings with the fall launch of Gillian, a bridge day dress line whose name it acquired two years ago after The Gillian Group liquidated. Last spring, Kenar reintroduced A.J. Bari, an eveningwear label it bought from the same proceedings.
“After we launched A.J. Bari, buyers and customers would ask us, ‘What happened to Gillian?’ since for years the two lines [Gillian and A.J. Bari] generally had the same customers,” said Alan Geller, director of the Kenar Dress division.
“Gillian is still a name the consumer remembers,” said Kenneth Zimmerman, president. “All we have to do now is provide a great product.”
Zimmerman said he wants to reintroduce Gillian to select stores for fall, “and then see where the business takes us.” He projects first-year sales of $6 million to $7 million.
“We’re careful not to overlap any of our dress lines in terms of price point and market,” Geller said. “So, Gillian will be primarily daytime, and some dinner dressing, whereas A.J. Bari is strictly evening. Gillian stops at the afternoon bar mitzvah.”
Wholesaling for $98 to $175, the line is designed by Jack Fuller, who also designs Kenar’s moderate-price Schrader Dress line. Gillian features merchandised groups of printed dresses, matte jersey solid and colorblock looks and knits for career, with silk georgettes appealing to the social set.
Morton Milberg, merchandise manager for Gillian, said ensemble looks are key to each group, with selections like coat and dress combinations, dress and overblouse twinsets, and a knit dress with removable shell. Milberg said women like multiple-piece dresses because they offer the diversity of separates at a single price.
At Leslie Fay Dresses, bookings are “more than double” last year at this time, said John Ward, dress division president.
John J. Pomerantz, president and chief executive officer, said the label has reestablished itself as a top moderate resource after some down years tied to the firm’s bankruptcy. He said business was particularly strong with Dillard Department Stores and J.C. Penney Co. Pomerantz also noted that the company is having its 50th anniversary this year.
“We’re going to have a big party, but after we get out of Chapter 11,” Pomerantz said. “The line is younger in look and who’s buying it than its ever been, and I think we’re giving the customer a lot of value.”
Ward said two-piece looks make up half the fall line, augmenting the traditional printed shirtdress segment. Key looks include twin-print jacket-and-dress sets, a crushed cowlneck silk and wool shirtdress, and a double-breasted silk coatdress with satin trim.
Bud Konheim, chief executive officer of Nicole Miller, said evening and special occasion business is strong, while daytime dress sales are softer.
“Both categories are feeling the effects of corporate casual dressing,” Konheim said. “Special occasion and evening are benefiting for a couple of reasons: As women dress down during the day, dressing up becomes something they look forward to, and as they spend less on career wear, they have more disposable income to spend on dressy clothes.”
In day dresses, Konheim said, Nicole Miller is challenged to come up with styles that meet the casual dress codes of many companies, with the exception of Wall Street and Madison Avenue, where traditional looks still prevail.
“The silhouettes are easier and more comfortable, and we’re using more stretch fabrics,” Konheim said. “We’re also working with our mills to develop new fabric treatments that are comfortable and casual, but are appropriate for dresses.”
For Trio New York, the spring/summer business has been “good to great,” said Stephen Garfield, designer and principal. He said bookings for the first half are nearly double last year’s.
For fall, Trio has three main groups. Traditional career includes coat and dress ensembles featuring long jackets made in what Garfield calls “cool wool,” which is a lightweight wool and rayon. Then there’s a career casual offering, which Garfield said has a “more sportswear sensibility to it.” Key looks are stretch twill sleeveless dresses under short jackets, and sporty tennis dresses, halter and T-shirt dresses.
Rounding out the line is a casual group of Tactel and Lycra spandex knit coverups, two-piece long-sleeved tops and pants sets, and a selection of cotton chamois shirtdresses.
Designer Joanna Mastroiani said day dresses will account for some 50 percent of her fall line, after offering only a smattering of daytime looks in the past.
“I figured I should dress the same women that buy the evening dresses during the day,” Mastroiani said. “Many of them are career women, so career is a big part of the line.”
Mastroiani uses wool crepe and knit cotton jersey in looks such as scoop-neck, shaped sheaths, side-panel-seam shirtdresses and pleated A-lines, all aimed at “making women feel feminine and comfortable.”
MillerShor is answering the casual dress trend for fall with sueded silk and clipped velvet and silk coatdresses and shirtdresses, mock turtleneck bodies, and mock two-piece bolero styles, said designer Jeannene Booher.
In the firm’s better-price Shomi by MillerShor line, which is even more casual, key styles include a stretch velvet and silk long-sleeved T-shirt dress and a funnel-neck, zip-front number.
“Spring has been phenomenal for us,” said Douglas Miller, president. “All our styles are aimed at ease, comfort and wearability that’s so important to women today.”
The Warren Group is on track for a 20 percent increase for fall, based on a “spring dress business that’s better than it has been for a number of years,” said Richard Warren, co-president.
The firm’s DW3 contemporary line has been booking sportswear-inspired looks such as sueded rayon or quilted polyester and cotton casual dresses and jumpers. The firm’s Rimini and Reggio social occasion lines are scoring with stretch cotton ottoman and stretch velvet long dresses.
At Tess Dress, initial fall bookings are strong in the firm’s core silk fuji group and a new suede-like stretch polyester, said Karen Winthrop, national sales manager.
“The buyers have responded positively to our deep jewel tone and muted brights,” Winthrop said. “Two-piece dressing and updated classics continue to be important. The consumer wants to buy something stylish and timeless.”
Winthrop said stores are attracted to the “faux suede” dresses because they offer a versatile, easy-to-care look in a contemporary fabric.

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