Byline: David Moin / With contributions from Valerie Seckler / Sharon Edelson, New York / Jennifer Owens, Washington

NEW YORK — They have to look hard and deep into the daily flashes, but retailers have found a few winners in an otherwise lackluster spring season.
They include feminine, softer looks and a host of items from such old reliables as Ralph Lauren, Chanel, Calvin Klein and DKNY.
Gucci and Prada continue strong, too. No surprise there, and retailers report a spate of business in romantic dresses, matte jersey, skinny pants, knits, tunics and swimsuits. Bold, big accessories, sandals and designer sunglasses are also hot at certain stores.
Still, enthusiasm for this season’s overall results is hardly running high. As one New York retailer said, “Spring business is somewhat slow. While better sportswear is terrific, bridge has been tough. The lines just aren’t as good this season.”
“Business has been erratic,” said Stephen Elkin, chairman and chief executive officer of Bergdorf Goodman. “However, there are pockets of very substantial business that are encouraging,” he said, citing Voyage sportswear, Calvin Klein Collection and DKNY, among other labels.
Better apparel, career dresses and sportswear, as well as swimsuits, including Eres, “a young, modern and different” swim line, are doing well, Elkin said.
“Customers respond to something that’s distinctive.”
“It’s a very feminine season,” said Barbara Weiser, president of women’s at Charivari, which is feeling the woes of the season, and late last month closed its store on 72nd Street and Columbus Avenue, leaving one Charivari unit still operating, on West 57th Street. (See related item, page 7.)
According to Weiser, “Pieces that are very soft are selling. Very little that’s structured is selling. People are looking for dresses and skirts that are romantic and soft, but it has to look new, not old fashioned, Not with ruffles and bows. It has to be toned down. Something alluring.”
“Dries Van Noten is a star,” she added, citing his long, bias-cut, spaghetti-strap dresses at $495 and silk safari jackets, $600.
Other specialty stores also singled out Dries Van Noten, and Weiser mentioned Ann Demeulemeester, including her draped dresses for $610.
At Maxfield’s in Los Angeles, buyer Kay Furukawa said, “We put together a really feminine, pretty, sexy story in the store. Our customers are ready for that. They’re finished with antifashion fashion.”
Prada’s bamboo prints, platform shoes and sandals, Givenchy leopard print pieces, pencil jackets and cigarette pants, and Yohji Yamamoto’s silk pieces have received a strong response, Furukawa said, adding, “We also picked up a new designer Colette Dinnigan, who’s doing well.”
Bonnie Pressman, executive vice president and fashion director of Barneys New York, said sheer has been big this spring. She also cited Prada’s bamboo prints, Jil Sander’s structured sheers, and sarongs and dark blue sheer patterns from Dries Van Noten.
On the department store scene, “it’s all about casual,” said Chuck Anderson, Macy’s West buyer for bridge, contemporary and casual, summing up the season. “It’s all about items — pickup items; those you pick up to update your wardrobe.”
At Macy’s West, the DKNY business is paced by navy burnout silk velvet long skirts, at $155; rayon wool knit tank dresses, $125; cardigans, $195; matte jersey elbow-sleeve tops with scoop or V-necks, $145, and $150 sweaters in desert colors, such as oatmeal or linen.
Macy’s West said A-Line’s rayon print dresses at $188, midnight violet rayon print skirts at $128 and marine cotton V-neck tunic sweaters at $128 are moving. Polo Ralph Lauren is also strong, with cotton ribbed dresses at $79, classic cotton flag sweaters at $150 and ribbed T-shirts in stripes and solids from $32 to $38.
“The best style from D [Donna Karan’s new bridge line] is a long, tight-fitting, deep V-neck matte jersey dress for $365,” said Anderson. Another winner: D’s poly/rayon long pointelle dress in officer blue, $155.
At Bloomingdale’s, “anything Ralph Lauren is selling, particularly the safari look,” said Frank Doroff, executive vice president. “We’re doing spectacular with the Lauren line, Polo jeans, Ralph’s bridge line, Polo Sport and his designer line.” Bloomingdale’s contemporary area continues to be strong, Doroff added, especially hip-slung pants, and collections by Theory, Parallel, BCBG, Eileen Fisher, Chaiken & Capone and Bisou Bisou.
Tommy by Tommy Hilfiger is doing very well, especially knit tops, carpenter pants and bikinis, Doroff noted.
Swimwear, he added, is “terrific, but the two-piece business is a sensation. Calvin Klein is number one in swim.”
“We also selling halters all over the store,” Doroff said. “That’s our hot item for spring. Any kind of different shoulder treatment is selling. Print dresses are also selling well.”
Bergdorf’s bestsellers include Voyage’s devore slipdress, $310; Joseph’s cotton sateen tab-front pant, $225; Chanel’s lilac mandarin-collar jacket, $2,705; John Galliano’s black silk lace slipdress, $2,200; Gucci’s brown stretch slit skirt, $395; Missoni’s space-dyed T-shirt, $325; Lauren’s khaki stretch cotton suit, with jacket, $865, and pants, $395, and Calvin Klein’s tri-color strapless dress, $1,160.
While one retailer expressed disappointment in hosiery and accessories, Macy’s East listed several handbags styles that are checking, notably DKNY’s tech logo small shopper handbag, $88; a Polo Sport sling handbag, $64; Coach’s Abby simple zip bag, $88, and Nine West’s small leather zip from its City Lights group, $68.
Saks Fifth Avenue said Chanel cashmere twinsets, striped pantsuits by Yves Saint Laurent, Emanuel Ungaro’s floral print separates and novelty tops by Helmut Lang are standouts.
In sportswear, the pace at Saks is set by knitwear, Lycra spandex products and swimwear. Large-scale necklaces, sexy sandals and shoes with bottom interest, including wedges, platforms and slides, are strong. “It’s really been an item business,” said Angela Ahrendts, vice president at Henri Bendel, a comment made by several other retailers last week. “We’re not selling suits the way we once did. For some reason, women are mixing separates.”
White shirts have boomed at Bendel’s. “It’s ironic, because they had been hard for us to sell in the past,” Ahrendts said. “Maybe they’ve been too basic, but this spring we’re selling lots of stretch white shirts in all bodies.” Other key items are stretch and boot-leg bottoms, particularly Joseph bottoms, and matte jersey has been “a home-run fabric,” she added.
“Whoever has Gucci is hot,” said Jimmy’s owner Dominick Lepore. “It is absolutely huge — about a third of our business today.” At Jimmy’s, which has three designer shops — in Brooklyn’s Midwood section, on Manhattan’s East 72nd Street and in West Hampton, N.Y. — Gucci’s cigarette pants, stretch wools and mohair items are in demand. Dark colors, such as the browns and black pervading Gucci and much of the store’s assortment, are most popular, said Lepore, compared with brights, which seem to be building momentum this spring at department stores.
“In eveningwear, John Galliano’s little sexy dresses with ruffles and floral flourishes have done very well,” Lepore reported. “For everyday wear, Piazza Sempione stretch pieces have performed well in prints like stripes and glen plaids.”
Knitwear and silks have been “extremely strong” at Carson Pirie Scott, said Bill Lasche, vice president of fashion and product development. Lasche listed Lauren by Ralph Lauren, Lizwear, Lizsport, Liz & Co., Jones New York Sportswear, Sag Harbor and Susan Bristol among the sturdier labels.
“Knits are being pulled out of various collections, like Jones and Liz. They’re turning very fast,” Lasche noted. Also gathering steam are tunics, in knits and wovens, which he sees trending into fall.
“Silk has been extremely strong in career and casual head-to-toe dressing, whether T-shirts and shorts or knits,” he continued. “There’s a perceived value in the material. It’s selling in all price classifications.”
Across all price ranges, said the executive, is a demand for color. “Bright colors are selling like crazy,” Lasche reported. “Bright greens have been our best, without a doubt. What’s interesting is that the same fashion trends are taking hold regardless of price point. Vendors and merchants are reacting to fashion trends regardless of the retail channel, rather than waiting a season or more to knock off runway looks.”
With the challenging apparel business, “retailers and suppliers have been forced to react quickly to consumers’ fickle tastes, which are changing faster than ever,” said Lasche.
At Saks Jandel in Chevy Chase, Md., buyer Dina Garber said spring suits by Nino Cerruti and Jennifer George are popular. “We have done very well with tissue-weight wool,” she observed. In fact, customers seem most interested in unusual fabrics, such as those with a bit of sheen, Garber said. Other strong areas: gold jewelry, especially large pieces, and flat-front pants designed by everyone from Isaac Mizrahi to Michael Kors. They’re worn with T-shirts and bodysuits — not blouses.
Nancy Pearlstein, owner of the Relish store in Chevy Chase, said her hottest new items are a long-sleeved white cotton shirt with French cuffs and men’s wear tailoring, and one that’s short-sleeved with a vest bottom, both by Mariano Rubinacci.
Pearlstein said dresses in cotton jersey and floral prints designed by A Month of Sundays, Biella Collecione and Dries Van Noten are also doing well. “And we’re doing a lot of vintage jewelry [designed by Caari Meng] that’s flying out the door to go with the dresses,” she said.
Dresses are also popular at Neiman Marcus at Mazza Gallery in Washington, said a spokeswoman. “We’re selling very feminine dresses with lots of chiffon and romantic prints. At the same time, there’s an ethnic look creeping back,” she said, noting Lauren’s use of African prints.
Other popular dresses at Neiman’s are one-shoulder and asymmetric designs from Karan and Lauren. Both are being matched with Prada sandals. “People are really taking to the sandal, the ankle strap and the wedge,” she said.

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