DRESSES ENJOY A HAPPY HOLIDAY
NEW YORK — Dresses were the toast of the season in 1995.
A survey of specialty stores here and around the country revealed that party dresses and ensembles sparkled for holiday. Slim, simple columns were hits, and merchants reported that shoppers seemed willing to spend to get interesting fabrics and lots of color. This translated to gains of as much as 30 percent at some stores.
Gail Goldberg, a merchandise manager at Henri Bendel whose areas include dresses and fancy and designer apparel, said dresses have been strong throughout the season, particularly in Bendel’s own collection and in its New Createurs department. Holiday dress business chalked up gains over 1994.
“It started with the sleeveless sheath in wool crepe, which was a day-to-dinner dress, and has continued in velvet and satin,” she said. “Silk velvet in our collection in that sheath or in an A-line silhouette has been good, too, but we’re doing really well with a dress version of our mock-neck top in stretch microvelvet. It’s selling well in a breadth of colors, from black and navy to pales and brights.”
With long sleeves, the dress retails for $148; with short sleeves, for $128. Goldberg said the array of colors and the simple body in small, medium and large, to fit lots of women, has made this dress a hot item.
Other key looks include sculptured or architectural gowns and anything with an oriental or “China doll” influence, in prints, shiny solid satin and brocade, which are selling at almost every price point, she said. Among the hot designers are Todd Oldham, Han Feng, James Purcell, Heidi Weisel and Paule Ka, a Parisian designer.
In Dallas, retailers said holiday social occasion bestsellers are all about fit, illusion, lace and high glamour.
At Lilly Dodson, social occasion sales are up 30 percent this season, said Bill Dodson, president, citing the wealth of new and young customers who are discovering the store.
Best-selling styles are from Badgley Mischka, at $1,500 to $2,000, including black or neutral silks and rayons cut lean and clean; Escada Couture, from $1,800 to just under $4,000, including long, slim column dresses in jewel brights and pastels with sheer bodices or dAcolletA; Carolina Herrera’s young, sophisticated looks from $1,800 to $5,000, and Rena Lange’s wool crepe and knit styles with subtle embellishment, from $2,000 to $3,000.
Linear and understated holiday looks were hits at Stanley Korshak, a Dallas designer store, according to Kay Glatter, buyer and director of women’s apparel. She cited a 20 percent gain for the category.
“People were buying much closer to need — lots of impulse buyers,” said Glatter.
Hot numbers at Korshak were Vera Wang’s minimalist black silk styles at $1,495 to $3,600, Jackie Rogers’s jewel-tone silk chiffon silhouettes from $2,200 to $2,600 and Michael Casey’s lightly beaded ballgowns cut from damask or lamA, from $3,000 to $6,000.
At The Gazebo in Dallas, strongest sellers were short, bare and sexy cocktail dresses, said Susie Calmes, vice president, citing a 5 percent sales gain for social occasion.
“We’ve had lots of men buying evening dresses as gifts, more than usual,” noted Calmes.
Bestsellers were Rifat Ozbek’s red or black flared cocktail dress at $600, a red satin group from Pamela Dennis from $600 to $1,200, Westcott Fenasci’s short black cocktail dresses at $1,000 and Richard Tyler’s grand ballgowns and short satin numbers.
“Dresses have been the best part of our holiday business,” said Simone Vanos, a merchandiser for Georgiou, a 60-unit specialty chain based in San Francisco. “A year ago, we concentrated on a lot of suitings and we sort of missed the dress market. But this has been the best season ever for dresses.”
Vanos said the hottest styles have been sheaths, calf-length mermaid dresses, tank dresses with gold metal trim, and bolero jacket and dress ensembles. The store is selling primarily black this season, but red has been a good second choice, Vanos said.
“The simple black dress has been fantastic this season,” Vanos said. “The ‘Jackie O’ jacket and dress is also very important because it’s a great day-to-dinner look.”
Holiday dress business got off to a slow start at Jacobson’s 10 Florida stores, but has picked up in the past two weeks.
“People are buying late, probably buying a dress to wear that night,” said Linnea Gatton, misses’ dress buyer.
Bare looks and short full skirts have sold well, as have long column dresses. Simple, clean looks in black crepe have performed better than beading, said Gatton, who listed Kenar, Maggy London and Rex Lester as strong resources.
Holiday dresses have outpaced cocktail suits at Isaacson’s, a 14,100-square-foot bridge/designer Atlanta specialty store. Best-selling looks are unembellished, close-to-the-body and knee-length, with illusion bodices or sleeves. Dresses have sold better in smaller sizes, while cocktail suits have performed better in large sizes, according to Gemma Taylor, vice president.
“People come in asking for color, but they’re buying black,” she said. Best-selling designer resources include Louis Feraud, Escada Couture, St. John, Badgley Mischka, Moschino Couture and State of Claude Montana.
A more moderate-priced bestseller has been Vie, a dress division of Victoria Royal.
Nora Zoob, owner of Nora’s Daisy in Omaha, Neb., said three-piece ensembles and halter dresses were leading sellers this season.
“Anything with a trompe l’oeil effect, like a vest-jacket-skirt look, has also been selling well,” she said. “Halter dresses by NahdrAe and suits from Criscione were good, and a daytime line that just keeps selling is Wearable Integrity.”
Zoob, whose boutique sells better and bridge apparel and accessories, said consumers are looking for “pretty dresses for under $300.” She said she used to buy the AJ Bari line and has done well with Hannah Hardy, the new company run by Jon Levy, who used to own Bari and its parent, Gillian.
Zoob said the tuxedo has taken over some dress business, and tuxedo pantsuits with wide legs have sold well — her customers say they’re wearing them for at-home entertaining.
Business in August, September and October was strong, she added, but November was off. Still, she said, she expected to be profitable for the year.
John Galliano, Ocimar Versolato, Valentino and Vera Wang are the hottest names in dresses at the Saks Jandel specialty stores in Chevy Chase, Md., and in Washington’s Watergate Hotel complex.
This season, dress shoppers are choosing looks that are “very clean, feminine and often bias-cut, especially Galliano,” said Peter Marx, vice president of Saks Jandel.
The traditional holiday red and black are popular, although prune-purple is also “a big deal” this year, Marx said.
A Galliano signature dress — a long, sleeveless number in ivory and black that retails for $4,950 — has been a particularly strong item this season. Another hot ticket is a short, black Vera Wang dress with netting across the top at $1,400.
Although special occasion dresses are doing “phenomenally well” at Saks Jandel, beaded looks are not big, said Marx, who described Washington as “not a big ‘beady’ town.” Two lines that are “selling nicely” are Yoly Munoz, with dresses at $2,000 to $3,000, and Carmen Marc Valvo, with dresses for $500 to $700.
Bustiers and delicate handbead work have been key sellers for Eleny Couture, which has a store in Manhattan and one in Woodbury, N.Y., on Long Island, according to owner Eleny Wagner.
She opened the 4,000-square-foot shop in the Crown Building on Fifth Avenue here in November and said business from tourists, particularly South Americans, is bustling.
“Handbeaded bustiers with ballgowns or short skirts for cocktail parties are doing very well, and I’m using lots of chiffon in many colors,” said Wagner. “Mauves, reds, pinks, mint green, big florals and mosaic looks are all doing well. People are looking for things other than the simple black dress.”
Eleny sells apparel only with its own label. Wagner’s designs start at $2,000, and a lot of the work is customized, although most styles are available as ready-to-wear.
She said very light beading on printed silk brocade has been in demand, but heavy beading is out. Lots of layers of chiffon and Empire dresses are well suited to many bodies, she added. High-neck halter dresses in slim silhouettes, also in chiffon, are selling well.
Wagner said the big windows and open look of the new store have attracted walk-in traffic.
“Here, couture designs are accessible, and people can see them, so they come in,” she said. “They’re not hidden somewhere on the eighth floor or shown only by appointment.”