Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg, New York / Teena Hammond, Los Angeles / Jennifer Owens, Washington / Rusty Williamson, Dallas.

NEW YORK — Fall sportswear has gotten off to a fast start, with sales of luxurious knitwear outpacing other categories.
In a spot check of retailers around the country, luxurious knitwear, including cashmeres, merino wools, chenilles and wool and silk blends, have been hot sellers. Strong styles include twinsets, cardigans and v-neck knit tops.
While pants continue to be a strong category, there’s also been a resurgence in the skirt business — from miniskirts to knee-length slit skirts, said retailers.
Private label knitwear is the driving force for fall business at Macy’s East where “thousands of units of sweaters have been sold in the past six weeks, compared to hundreds a few weeks ago,” said Kathy Bufano, executive vice president. Retail prices for sweaters range from $39.99 to $99.99.
“Across the board, there’ve been unbelievable sellouts for sweaters — in cashmere, chenille, merino wool and silk,” she said. “It looks like it’s going to be a bang-up year for sweaters.”
Upgrading its private label knitwear has contributed to the gains, Bufano pointed out. In terms of color, there’s a lot of interest in pumpkin, violet, dark forest and jewel tones.
With retail prices starting at $19.99 and peaking at $120, skirts — from miniskirts to knee-length slit skirts — are another bright spot in fall business. Esprit, Sag Harbor, Lola, Jones New York and Laundry are hot labels at Macy’s.
Fashion denim items from Tommy Hilfiger, Polo Jeans, Levi’s and Calvin Klein that retail from $21.99 to $58 are also pulling shoppers into Macy’s.
Hilfiger’s carpenter pants and Calvin Klein’s wide-legged pants are two fall trends, said Bufano, adding, “anything besides five-pocket jeans are selling.”
Lauren by Ralph Lauren, Polo Jeans, DKNY, Ellen Tracy and Tommy Hilfiger are among the major brands fueling fall sales at Bloomingdale’s, said Frank Doroff, executive vice president of merchandising. Fall sales are ahead of last year due to interest in branded merchandise.
“There’s been a return to luxurious and natural fabrics, which customers relate to more than some of the innovative fabrics we saw for spring,” he said. “Luxurious connotes more of an investment — women know it’s something they can own and wear more than one season.” The strong sales of Bloomingdale’s private label cashmere twinsets, which retail from $99 to $400, reflect that, Doroff said.
Sales of Hilfiger, Lauren, Polo Jeans and private label cashmere sweaters are also “very strong” at Lord & Taylor, according to Lavelle Olexa, senior vice president of fashion merchandising.
V-neck knit tops, cardigans, crewneck sweaters, turtlenecks and pants “in every price zone — casual and career” are important this fall, she said.
Fall sales are brisk as well at some fashion-forward stores in lower Manhattan.
Diane Von Furstenberg wrap dresses at $190, Theory stretch-wool, knee-length skirts with a front slit at $155 and Kateyone Adele V-neck lambswool and cashmere blend sweaters at $185 are key items at Scoop, a 1,600 square-foot store at 532 Broadway here.
In the last five weeks, the store has sold 110 units of the wrap dresses, said Stefani Greenfield, owner, adding that 37 Theory skirts have been sold in the past few weeks. “Fall business is outrageous. My customer is very buy-now wear-now oriented,” she said. “I didn’t give them heavy sweaters and pants until the middle of August. I waited until they’d returned from vacation or their summer shares. Now they’re ready to flip their closets.”
With retail prices ranging from $195 to $395, bathrobe wool sweaters from Donna Karan’s D line are popular. In three weeks, 17 units have been sold, as well as 64 units of DKNY V-neck wool and cashmere blend sweaters at $185.
“The uniform today is the knee-length skirt with the little V-neck cashmere sweater or twinset,” she said.
In less than a week, the retailer has sold 20 units of Cashmere Studio’s twinsets at $560 and 15 units of Katayone Adeli embroidered cashmere camisoles at $120.
Business has been so strong that Scoop plans to open its second store in November — a 2,000-square-foot unit at 1275 Third Avenue at 73rd Street.
Steven Alan, owner of the store that bears his name at 118 Mercer Street, said fall sales are currently 10 percent ahead of last year.
“Everyone seems to be buying heavier stuff — wool sweaters, scarves and hats — earlier than in past years,” he said.
Shoppers have been buying Daryl K hooded sweatshirts at $74, Rebecca Danenberg wool cowlneck sweaters at $105, Bernadette Corp. wool jersey shell tops at $55, Built by Wendy corduroys at $104 and Rubin Chapelle V-neck sweaters at $178.
In four weeks, Steven Alan has sold 60 units of the Daryl K sweatshirt. Twenty-five units of both the Danenberg sweater and the Bernadette top have been sold in two weeks, Alan said.
Dressing Room at 49 Prince Street is also seeing gains for fall.
Having seen third-quarter sales increase 50 percent over last year, Grayson Riley, owner, said she expects to maintain that rate of growth through the end of the year. Offering lesser-known labels, however, is the primary reason sales continue to gain momentum, Riley said.
With retail prices ranging from $112 to $138, bias-cut silk slips with velvet or chiffon trim by A. Crispen are the hottest items. In six weeks, the retailer has sold 100 units, with burgundy, navy and red being key colors, said Riley, owner.
Dressing Room shoppers are also on the lookout for straight skirts with slits, which retail from $58 to $88. Forty pieces have already moved and reorders have been placed. Brands are Love NYC, Call Girl and the store’s own private label.
Men’s style slouchy wool trousers — retailing from $98 to $128 have also been sparking fall sales. In four weeks, 30 units carrying the labels of Dressing Room, Troy and Albert have been sold. Beer, a new pants resource, is expected to help boost fall sales.
With retail prices ranging from $60 to $138, slit skirts are also the rage at TG-170, where Rebecca Danenberg, Love NYC and Estevan Ramos are popular labels. The Ludlow Street store has sold 60 units in six weeks, said Terri Gillis, owner. Burgundy, black, brown and navy are popular colors.
TG-170’s shoppers are also looking for wide-legged pants — a backlash to last fall’s hip-huggers, said Gillis. Thirty units of Danenberg’s version have been sold in six weeks.
“Everybody likes pants. They’re much looser than last year — classic but sexy,” she said. “They’re flattering with high-heels or boots.”
At Carson Pirie Scott, Milwaukee, the moderate sportswear business is up by double digits for the fall season through Sunday, said Mike Johnson, vice president and divisional merchandise manager. The category is being driven by sweaters, knits, blouses, denim and twill bottoms and items such as vests, as well as men’s wear looks.
Specific sweater bestsellers include Distinctives’ fine-gauge silks; Designer Originals’ short-sleeve mocks; Sag Harbor’s long-sleeve acrylic mocks, and Carson’s private label short-sleeve chenilles. Hot knit looks include casual ribbed T-shirts and henleys from a range of vendors. Dressier blouses are checking quickly, said Johnson, citing Anna and Frank’s silks; Impressions’ long-sleeve rayons and Kathy Che’s embellished styles. Denim and twill pants from Dockers, Lee, Levi Strauss and Gloria Vanderbilt are also bestsellers, as are a spectrum of items, including men’s wear patterned trousers from Briggs and Casablanca, Nike T-shirts and windwear jackets and Sag Harbor’s zip-front vests.
J.C. Penney’s casual and career sportswear sales are up, said Chuck Foughty, vice president and director of merchandising, though he wouldn’t cite numbers. Hot trends include texture, plush and fleece. Skirts are also checking quickly in a variety of silhouettes, said Foughty, as are ski-inspired sweaters, Dockers khaki pants and fashion denims. Penney’s private-label sportswear brands, including career-driven Worthington and casual St. Johns Bay, are anchoring bestseller lists.
On the West Coast, Gottschalks is having luck with chenille, fine gauge knit and Nordic-style moderate sweaters, with the biggest vendor By Design, said Gary Gladding, general merchandise manager for the Fresno, Calif.-based department store chain.
“You’ve had probably three down years in sweaters, with other categories of business taking up some of the sweater business, particularly fleece in different forms,” Gladding said. Now, sweaters are back with “a lot going on out there in terms of fabrication.” Younger looks in striped versions are also popular, he said.
The Elisa B. boutique in Pasadena, Calif. had a strong sell through on cashmere-silk blend sweaters this summer, said owner Elisa Bruley. The long-sleeve sweaters from Autumn sold out within two weeks of hitting the store’s shelves in July despite the 100-plus degree temperatures. The boutique sold a dozen of the sweaters for $115 each, Bruley said.
The overall hottest sportswear line at Elisa B. is Diesel. In addition to sweaters, the line’s ribbed tops, cardigans and sueded cotton items are doing well, she said. She also said she expects Diesel’s angora sweaters with a touch of Lycra spandex and multicolored “rag rug” sweaters to perform well.
Another top label is Daryl K, with T-shirts with three-quarter length sleeves selling out. The cotton top retails for $96, and from the end of June through Labor Day, 24 shirts were sold, Bruley said.
At Ultimo’s San Francisco boutique, Daryl K and Piazza Sempione are doing great among sportswear labels, said owner Joan Weinstein.
Piazza Sempione makes “great skinny corduroy pants and knockaround boot leg pants, which are still very important,” Weinstein said.
“If we didn’t have pants, we’d be in trouble. Women love them,” she said.
Lightweight wools and oversized sweaters are making the rounds in Washington, where better and designer retailers say the look so far this season is a comfortable one.
At Up Against The Wall, DKNY activewear is doing great for fall. “Anything in Lycra, anything like leggings with side stripes. That athletic Adidas look has been fabulous,” said Wendy Red, fashion director for Up Against The Wall and Commander Salamander.
At Jaeger in Chevy Chase, Md., store manager Laura G. Parton said knitwear sales continue to remain strong, especially with a year-round classic sweater made from Egyptian cotton and a novelty sweater featuring a cable knit. “And velvet is very big with us this year — velvet jeans, velvet trims,” she said.
Down the road at Relish, owner Nancy Pearlstein said Replay jeans are selling extremely well at $110, adding that for the near future, she is betting on oversized seven-ply cashmere sweaters from Eskander, to be paired with stretch wool pants.
“I think a lot of women like that easy dressing for fall,” Pearlstein said, adding that skirts have reappeared this season, especially in A-line styles and short, knife-pleated designs.
Petra Winkler, sportswear buyer for Harriet Kassman’s boutique, agreed, saying skirts of all lengths have been strong this month. And yet, she said, pantsuits have also attracted attention. Winkler said the shop has already sold two sets of Giorgio Armani pantsuit separates in salt and pepper tweed: The one-button jacket sells for $895; the slim, flat-front pants for $395. European sweaters are also popular this season at Harriet Kassman, primarily in novelty, oversized styles paired with skinny pants.
Winkler said she expects sweaters to be the word going forward: The sweater look “will be much softer, with lots of twinsets,” she said. “It’s very pretty and new looking.”
Sweaters are also big news at Saks Jandel, which owns shops in Chevy Chase, Md., and D.C. There, sweaters from Dirk Dickenburg are selling for $750 as are those from Shirin Guild, Yamamoto and Saks Jandel’s own private label, which all range in price from $400 to $750. “For us, it’s going to be a better sweater year,” Marx said. “People are looking for more special kinds of items.”

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