Byline: Dianne M. Pogoda

NEW YORK — The suit business hasn’t been winning much praise lately, and the outlook for spring is for only minor improvement, at best.
It’s a rough market for a number of reasons, primarily the change in lifestyle for many women. Over the past two years, casual dressing at the workplace has knocked out a lot of suit business. Fortunately for suit makers, the broad acceptance of pants for women at work has helped sell some pantsuits over the past year, and the hunger for pants continues for spring.
Also crimping the market is the big ballyhoo around such sportswear lines as Lauren by Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger and CK.
As one executive put it, the competition is “great — it pulls people into the stores — but it has been cutting into our business.”
According to the Port Washington, N.Y., women’s consumer research firm NPD Group, women’s suit business was $4.4 billion at retail in 1995, and for the first nine months of this year, it has been down 4 percent. From 1993 to 1994 and 1994 to 1995, the category grew by double digits — directly attributable to pants — said NPD. Most significantly, from 1994 to 1995, market share shifted, and that shift is reflected in market performance this year.
In 1995, department stores held 26 percent of women’s suit business, down from 31 percent in 1994, while specialty stores’ share increased in that period to 35 percent from 32 percent.
One factor that has helped suits, particularly at specialty stores, is the emergence of smaller novelty suit houses. Since specialty stores often can’t compete with department stores on price or buying far in advance with the biggest names in the business, they are differentiating themselves with individualized looks from smaller resources, where the buying is usually easier.
The fortunes of the suit business often follow those of Kasper, the largest suit line in the country and a unit of Leslie Fay’s Sassco division. Observers said the line was too reliant on past hits, had not been performing well, and that knockoffs of those poor-performing styles — which nobody knew would be poor sellers when they were ordered months in advance from overseas producers — also hurt the market.
For spring, Kasper has redirected its design to become more fashionable, according to president Gregg Marks.
“We’re not doing anything that looks like old Kasper,” he said. “We eliminated about half our styles to focus on the best, most fashionable looks. There’s no more framing; we’re using drapier fabrics, softer shoulders, column skirts, piquAs, hard jackets over soft pants or skirts, evening looks. We’re shipping silk sweaters with pants and a jacket as a three-piece set, and they’re doing well. Scarves are also strong — it’s anything that’s new.”
Marks said the business is 40 percent pants, which is the most important growth area. Its B. Bennett line of updated suits, priced slightly higher than Kasper, continues to do well, he added.
For next year, Kasper is lowering prices to land at retail at $179 to $210, and the company is launching “a major ad campaign” to promote the label, Marks said.
“It’s a challenging environment,” said Harriet Mosson, president of Liz Claiborne Dresses and Suits. “There has been too much of the same product in an era when people are buying fewer clothes, and they want something new.”
Mosson said any kind of pants have been strong — pantsuits and jackets over jumpsuits — and should hold up through spring.
The company is using new fabrics, such as sueded surfaces, and is making some pantsuits in Tencel, which makes the suits “a little pricy, at $188.”
“But that’s still a good value, because it’s new,” she said. “If it’s the same old thing, even at $139, it’s still $139 too much.”
Claiborne is also emphasizing the soft suit, because it is “the most modern and versatile and can go to work, to dinner or for a dressy occasion.” Columns, fluid looks and longer hemlines are also expected to do well.
While some feel the movie “Evita” is going to be “an inspirational blitz for the fashion industry,” as David Wolfe, creative director at Doneger Group, called it, the movie does not appear to be having a “Lion King” impact on the suit market, despite the dozens of suits Madonna wears in the title role.
“Evita” is clearly affecting other areas of apparel, like ruffled or tight-bodice dresses, prints, accessories, makeup and some sportswear.
But as for suits, Eva Peron wore mostly skirts and pantsuits are hot right now; and, she did not wear short skirts, which are a key option for spring. Finally, the suit market in general is not a particularly trendy area, and the “Evita” styles are nothing if not trendy.
How the movie might have a serious impact is as a catalyst for dressing up again. There will be a smattering of “Evita”-inspired suits in the stores.
“We are projecting a lot of suits, because that’s a look [Eva Peron] wore,” said Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president of fashion direction for Bloomingdale’s, which has a big “Evita” department opening Nov. 30 and running through mid-January. The store’s resources for suits in this department include Tahari, Victor Costa and ABS.
“Whether it will help or not, I don’t know,” the Bloomingdale’s executive said. “But it can’t hurt.”
“Evita” aside, Ruttenstein said there was a slight return to suits on the spring runways after “there were none six months ago.” Key trends: pantsuits with narrow pants, and narrow jackets with slim skirts.
“It’s clear that women like to buy clothes they can wear to work,” he said, “and they’re still most comfortable in suits. These are the kind of suits that you can accessorize — they are minimalist, but they say ‘accessorize me.”‘
“Pants have emerged tremendously,” said Florine Wachter, a principal in PSI and designer for its PSI, Bicci and Florine Wachter suit collections. “A suit with pants is more casual, but still gives a professional, polished look.”
She added that long jackets, or dusters, with pants or a skirt, are booking well and that these are selling as three-piece wardrobers.
“‘Evita’ might have more impact on fall 1997 suits, with longer skirts worn with boots,” she said. “That look doesn’t work well for spring. Besides, we have to offer customers choices — people don’t want to look the same.”
Joy Foskett, suit buyer for the Doneger Group buying office, said safari and military looks are significant for spring, and trims include animal and evening details such as beads, rhinestones or satin. Pantsuits also remain strong — up to 40 percent of the moderate market, and about 25 to 30 percent of the better lines.
“Color is the single most important element of the season, since jacket shapes and skirt lengths are all over the place,” she said. “Suit business is tough, and most stores are probably planning an even spring, especially since Easter is earlier this year.” That makes for a shorter official selling season.
Easter falls on March 30, 1997. Last Easter was April 7.
Designer TC Laughlin said the jacket and dress as a suit is important, with jackets being softer, some with blouson effects.
Color, from chalky pastels to vibrant sunset red, is important in achieving a “sexy sophistication that’s a little softer than last season,” she added.
Laughlin added she is not paying particular attention to “Evita.”
“Our suits, and especially our jackets, have the same construction and detailing as was apparent in that era, but they are updated for the present. To give too much credence to the retro appeal of that time would be a step backward in what we’re trying to do,” she averred. “I never want to dress a woman and have her marked by a ‘trend.’ I want the clothes to be more timeless. At this [designer] price point, a suit should serve a woman for many years without being marked by a particular time.”
Sandy Leibowitz, a sales executive with Ivy Collection, said the company is doing well with pantsuits — more than half of the fledgling collection, now in its second season, is pants. But she added that the company is flexible and will make skirts or pants, depending on what a retailer needs.
Bright colors, like aqua, banana and coral, are key for spring, she said.
The company, which has a plant in Fort Lee, N.J., and previously used a road sales force in the Mid-Atlantic region, moved into a Seventh Avenue showroom in August. It sells to specialty stores — it hasn’t cracked the department store business yet. Wholesale prices are $159 to $230. Leibowitz said the volume was about $1 million in sales for fall and it should meet or exceed that figure for spring.
“Investment dressing is still important,” she said. “Women are looking for suits that can take them to work and a lot of other places.”
Sunny Neman, president of the better-priced Sunny Names suit line, concurred that pants continue to be a key element this season. He said he has increased the portion of pantsuits from about 20 percent of the collection to about half. The collection features younger, career styles, and day-into-evening suits. He’s using more polyester acetate fabrics because they are more durable and don’t wrinkle as much as wool crepe, which has been the company’s main fabric.
The company is seven years old, and for about the past three years, it has been selling to major department stores.

Key Suit Trends for Spring

Pants continue to be very strong.
Color, from brights to muted pastels, is more important than it has been in a few seasons.
Waistline definition, either true nipped silhouettes or an illusion accomplished through seam details.
Hemlines run from above the knee to lower calf, but longer skirts are gaining strength.