THE SHIFT LIVES

Byline:

NEW YORK — The little shift dress has life beyond last fall’s infatuation with Conservative Chic and is proving once again it has staying power. The simple shape was part of the season’s Sixties revival, when the spare elegance of Jackie O, Babe Paley and Audrey Hepburn dominated fashion.
Backed by a solid response at retail, designers are continuing the look for spring — a season when the sleeveless look is even more appropriate. And the renditions are many: short and ever-so-slightly shaped; easing away from the body into an A-line, and in crisp fabrics that work both day and night.
“It’s the ultimate in nonfussy dressing,” says Yeohlee, who’s done the shift in silk and wool pique, stretch cotton and even a swimcap fabric, which, she says, lends a sexier attitude to the basic shape.
Virtually every designer has done a version for spring. The hottest colors are black and white, pastels and brights in fabrics such as doublefaced wool, silk shantung and cotton.
Retail executives say they love the look because of its wide appeal.
Bloomingdale’s featured the dresses in its Lexington Avenue windows in September’s “Shifting Into Fall” campaign and reported they sold better than the popular sheath. Saks Fifth Avenue featured them in magazine and newspaper ads and its resort catalog and plans similar promotions at all price points for spring. In March, Lord & Taylor plans windows and a promotion around the shift.
“The shift is great for a broad range of ages, body types and price points,” says Lavelle Olexa, senior vice president for fashion merchandising at Lord & Taylor. “The right choice just depends on length and color.”
And the shift’s simplicity makes it very attractive to women who are wearing dresses for the first time, added Ellin Saltzman, vice president and fashion director at Henri Bendel.
“They can put on one piece and go,” Saltzman said. “It’s a lot easier if you’re in a hurry.”
It doesn’t hurt that the little dress’s body-skimming shape flatters women with less-than-perfect figures.
“Shifts cover a multitude of sins,” said Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president of fashion direction at Bloomingdale’s.
And the shift is as versatile as the less-forgiving sheath, retail executives note. Women can wear their shifts under a jacket or a shirt — or substitute cap-sleeved versions if they don’t want to uncover their arms, said Nicole Fischelis, vice president and fashion director at Saks.
“Not everybody wants to wear bare,” Fischelis said.
The shift is making serious inroads outside of New York as well. Rich’s, Atlanta, plans to carry the look in linen, silk and embroidered fabrics for the career customer; satin and other high gloss fabrics for social occasions, and florals for a more casual look replacing last year’s long, flowered print dresses. “The silhouette is universal, since it works in a variety of departments,” said Sheila Kamensky, Rich’s vice president for fashion merchandising.
The shift has won converts at Jacobson’s. Misses’ dress buyer Linnea Gatton, who admits she was skeptical at first because some lengths looked dowdy, said strong holiday sell-throughs have convinced her of the shift’s viability. In a two-week period, the store sold 17 of its 24 polyester and crepe shifts and boleros from David Warren, priced at $180. For spring, Gatton has bought sleeveless shifts from a variety of resources, including St. Simon and Hannah Hardy, adding that the look works for both younger and older customers.
The shift is going just as strong on the West Coast. At Neiman Marcus, silk shantung and linen-blend versions have been moving fast for day and evening since resort, said Joan Kaner, senior vice president and fashion director at Neiman’s.
“Shifts have had consistent strong sales for us on the West Coast,” Kaner said. “Many of these dresses come with a matching jacket or coat, making them perfect year-round for Southern California. Calvin Klein and Alberta Ferretti do them well, and they are a favorite with our customers and wardrobe stylists alike.” Among the top sellers are a seafoam green version in silk and linen by Calvin Klein, which retails for $750, and Donna Karan’s red rayon version for $895.
The shift is also popular at the Beverly Hills store of Barneys New York, which sells versions by Chanel, Prada, Michael Kors, Dolce & Gabbana, Dries Van Noten and Parallel. Prices range from $2,870 for Chanel’s shift in navy wool crepe to $158 for Parallel’s version in pastel silk shantung.
“It’s a hot dress,” said Bonnie Pressman, executive vice president of women’s. “It’s blowing out of here. What’s great about it is it’s the little black dress, except now it’s coming in colors.”
Just how long this trend will survive is anybody’s guess, but designer Robert Danes, for one, says its simple, understated appeal keeps attracting him. “In each collection I’ve refined and pared the look down to what is truly essential — a look that emphasizes a woman’s allure without screaming for attention,” Danes said.

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