Byline: Arthur Friedman

NEW YORK — Dress firms are reeling from a one-two punch: the fall sportswear launches of Lauren by Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger, and the continued loosening of dress codes in the workplace.
But they hope for a comeback this spring, when dresses usually shine. They base their optimism on early retail enthusiasm for such runway trends as sheer looks, colorful prints and asymmetrical cuts.
What they are up against are Lauren’s and Hilfiger’s better-priced lifestyle collections that have not only grabbed prime retail space and dollars in major department stores, but offer plenty of dresses and alternatives for career wear and casual social occasions.
Unlike most dress houses, these Mega Nichers have advertising clout, product extensions, wider collections and an intensely loyal following. Added to the mix are a host of other sportswear brands that have extended into the career dress market in recent years and the acceptance of pants as career wear for women. The result has some dress executives describing fall as “terrible” and “the worst in years.”
Fall’s disappointing results — particularly in daytime — caused dress firms to rethink initial approaches to the spring collections that bowed this month. They’ve come up with fresh fabrics and colors, multipiece outfits and a plethora of prints and embellishments they hope will ignite consumer interest.
On the positive side, vendors and merchants report eveningwear and social occasion dresses remain solid. They also hope the strong dress trends that emerged from the designer runways last month foretell a dress bloom for spring.
Still, there is great concern over how dresses fit into the wardrobes of today’s women.
“The daytime dress business right now is challenging,” said Harriet Mosson, president of Liz Claiborne Dresses. “The consumer is shopping less overall, and when she is shopping, it’s for casual sportswear in lifestyle categories. You have to work a lot harder today to constantly offer her something new.”
For spring, Claiborne is adding lots of color, notably in a group of printed georgette, short bias-cut dresses and shirtdresses.
“Prints have become a high percentage of the business because they add value and interest,” Mosson said.
Claiborne Dresses is also doing a selection of colorful knits, and is selling more soft pantsuits and jumpsuits to dress departments, Mosson said. Innovation is vital to the dress business, she said, and her division is doing early spring testing on such fabrics as Tencel, microfiber knits, matte jersey and new kinds of flocking and embroideries.
“We’re trying to focus more on special niches within the dress area,” Mosson said. “That includes mother-of-the-bride, prom, spectator dresses, sporty lifestyle looks and value-oriented career styles. You have to create a line based on needs, not just because it looks good.”
Lavelle Olexa, senior vice president of fashion merchandising at Lord & Taylor, said a number of developing trends should make for a solid spring. She cited floral prints, ruffles and sheers as important for special occasion, and asymmetrical wraps, Asian-influenced prints and side-slit dresses for daytime.
“Dresses are always important for Lord & Taylor, and spring is always the most important season,” Olexa said. “Our customers, especially in the South, respond well to color, and there are lots of beautiful prints being offered for spring.”
Olexa said the dress market has been smart in diversifying with soft pants sets and jumpers, and L&T has done well with these looks in dress departments.
“There certainly was a casual explosion that impacted the dress market the past couple of seasons,” Olexa said. “But I see a trend moving away from that into a more feminine style that should bode well for dresses.”
Linda Maynard, vice president and general merchandise manager at Jacobson Stores, said, “I’m excited about the color in the dress market for spring. We’ve been through so many years of black and navy. Our customers in the Midwest have been asking for more color, and the market has finally responded.”
Maynard said key trends are sheers, prints, asymmetricals and flowing, casual dresses.
“I really think there’s hope for daytime dresses,” Maynard said. “We had cut back our daytime plan and put it into social, but daytime beat plan for fall. Knits have been good and jacket dresses continue to perform.
“Certainly, in the department stores that devoted so much space to lines like Lauren and Hilfiger, the dress departments have felt the impact. We don’t have as much of a branded concept to our merchandising, so it hasn’t taken away as much from other categories. But Lauren in particular has done really well. It’s beautiful merchandise at a great value.”
Carolyn Moss, fashion director at Macy’s East, said the social dress business has been the most important for fall.
“We’ve become such a pants society that it’s superseded the need for a dress, particularly during the fall and winter months,” Moss said. “But spring and summer is still a great time to wear a dress because of the comfort and ease it offers. And there are some very good dress trends available for spring.”
Moss said top looks are wrap, slip, asymmetrical and tube dresses, “pretty prints,” cowl necks, Empires, baby dolls, stretch, sheer and fishtail looks, all of which should bring renewed interest to dresses.
“The dress market continues to be tough, but we’re in the process of building our business back up, and we have substantial gains at retail and wholesale,” said John Ward, president of Leslie Fay Dresses. “All the current consumer research shows how important brands are, and we’re still the premiere dress brand.”
Ward said Leslie Fay is concentrating on rebuilding its position in the moderate dress market it once dominated, where it still holds an important place. This strategy is to institute training and incentive programs with retail sales associates, work on new point-of-sale promotional material and merchandise the line more by classification and delivery. The goal is to improve sell-throughs, Ward said, and to encourage retailers to give the label more dedicated space.
For spring, the collection averages $34 to $39 wholesale, and 90 percent of the styles are in washable fabrics, which Ward feels is an important factor for the moderate customer.
Among Leslie Fay’s bestsellers for spring are one and two-piece colorblock dresses, in combinations such as sea green and navy or purple and navy. The dresses are made in a fabric the company developed called “thick ‘n thin,” which is a suede-like woven polyester.
Ordering has been good on tissue faille jacket dresses, shirtdresses, men’s wear-inspired two-piece check print dresses and a hard-over-soft group of coordinated woven tops and knit bottoms.
At Kenar Dress, spring bookings are running 20 percent ahead of last year’s, but stores are not committing more than 90 days ahead, said Kenneth Zimmerman, president of Kenar Enterprises.
Zimmerman said the first fall for A.J. Bari, which was purchased in 1995 from the bankrupt Gillian Group, has proven the label still has high consumer recognition. Alan Geller, dress division director, said Kenar modernized the line for fall with short stretch velvet dresses and is continuing for spring with close-to-the-body styles in stretch pannA velvet, one-shoulder dresses with gold chain belts and stretch crepe styles with minimal beading.
In the Kenar Dress division, matte jersey dresses and stretch velvet and Lycra spandex have been hot for fall/holiday. For spring, shaped colorblock dresses, Lycra spandex and rayon crepe, triacetate cut-out and architectural numbers, stretch ottoman and printed piquAs also have seen good early action.
“Everything we do in these divisions has a sportswear spirit,” Zimmerman said. “It’s modern dressing that is clean — no bells and whistles — architecturally shaped and closer to the body. I think the sportswear brands have done well in dresses because they have a more trend-oriented philosophy and because they have the clout to promote the brand.”
The firm’s Schrader Dress division still relies on a traditional customer, but even that line has tried to become more fashionable, Geller said. For spring, Schrader features soft prints, seersuckers with piping and braiding, colorblock poplin, and knit and print combinations.
The popularity of dresses in sportswear lines has prompted sportswear designer Cynthia Steffe to sell to dress departments for the first time this spring. Her collection always included a couple of dresses, sold as options among her separates. But now she’s selling about 20 dresses to dress buyers.
“Sportswear dresses work because they are designed to go with other things,” she said. “They layer and they work well with jackets.”
Steffe’s dresses include a sweater set with a dress and cardigan, and jersey dresses with jackets. Some dresses are designed to work under velvet or leather coats; mixing textures is a key element, she said.
At Due Per Due, the tough better-priced dress business caused the firm to drop the category for spring. Instead, dresses will be offered in the firm’s new bridge-priced Christian Francis Roth line. Dresses will be part of CFR’s first sportswear collection for spring, and will become a separate division for fall, said Sandy Baldanza, a principal in Equals Four Corp., the parent of CFR and Due Per Due.
Baldanza said Due Per Due’s dress volume was about $7 million this year, and he hopes to match that in CFR’s dress business. Due Per Due sportswear generates about $60 million annually.
“The demise of the better dress business is similar to what happened to the blouse business seven or eight years ago,” Baldanza said. “It’s totally driven by price, and the stores offer no presentation. I decided that’s not what we’re about. So, we’re putting our dress efforts into CFR, where we’ve planned in-store shops at Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdale’s and Saks.”
The CFR dress line will be focused on day-into-evening looks “with a definite urban appeal,’ Baldanza said.
“Unlike better dresses, bridge dresses have a high degree of integrity at department stores,” Baldanza said. “The bridge lines are given dedicated space and proper presentation, and are allowed to show their full range of merchandise.”
Eveningwear and social occasion are outperforming daytime at Tahari, but day dresses should rebound somewhat for spring, said Steven Anastos, who joined the bridge-priced firm last month as president of the dress and suit division. Anastos was a senior vice president of The He-Ro Group.
“Elie’s designs always start with fabric as most important,” said Anastos, referring to designer Elie Tahari. “For spring daytime, we’re using fabrics such as iridescent shantung and minicheck microfibers in a sherbert palette, done in tunics over pants, multipocket sheaths and safari looks.”
For evening, Tahari features satin-back crepe, four-ply microfiber crepe and matte jersey in long columns with back interest and in short cocktail dresses. Important colors are cocoa, ice blue and black and white combinations.
“The romantic, feminine looks, like lace, sheers and fishtails, may look great on the runways, but the retailers aren’t buying into it,” said Stephen Garfield, designer and owner of Trio New York. “Go-to-work is still important for our customer, although we have added some feminine touches like georgettes, puckered fabrics and embroideries.”
Trio is focusing more on knits than in previous spring collections, Garfield noted. The knit dress selections include a black and white Tencel and Lycra group, a navy and white Supplex nylon offering and colorful cotton and acrylic sweater knits.
However, wovens are still important for career, Garfield said, and sales are good in polyester crepe shirtdresses, and cotton and acetate gingham jacket dresses and sleeveless shifts. A new look for Trio is shirt and dress ensembles.
Garfield said one problem in the dress market is that “there’s no particular hot trend, so the buyers are trying to figure out what their customers will want. Our bookings right now are 30 percent ahead of last year, but the stores are continuing to buy closer to the season. I’ve always believed that the dress business should be test-and-reorder. As a domestic resource, we encourage it.”