RINGING IN ’96 WITH FOCUS ON VALUE

Byline: Dianne M. Pogoda and Arthur Friedman

NEW YORK — The ready-to-wear cocktail for 1996 mixes value and versatility with a splash of fashion.
It has become an all-too-familiar recipe these days, one manufacturing executives like to reserve for dicey economic times.
Ever an optimistic bunch, rtw makers continue to cater to shoppers’ appetite for dual-purpose garments — such as those that can go from the office to dinner, or from casual Friday to the weekend — and feel these will propel sales by as much as 20 percent. That’s a considerable hike, but executives feel it is achievable, especially since some businesses did not perform to expectations in 1995.
Even though value, classics and investment dressing still strike a chord, the commodities business is weak. Makers who can deliver fashion and keep value in mind will do well, say executives.
Observers list a number of key factors for next year:
* Casual days at the office have had a tremendous effect on the dress business, forcing a greater emphasis on eveningwear.
* Seasonless and high tech fabrics are important.
* Stormy retail consolidations will continue, probably for another 24 months. It’s a problem, because the more volume the consolidated retail entity does, the more it squeezes vendors’ margins.
* Price credibility is shot. Consumers know to wait for sales.
* Stock is narrow and deep, a direct result of matrix buying. It leads to look-alike stores. It also means more promotions.
Looking back at 1995, suits and ensembles were undisputed stars, but consumers have begun to crave new twists. For spring, new combinations of pieces — vests, pants, jackets, dresses, skirts — and lots of detail and silhouette variations freshen looks. Pantsuits were unusually hot this year, and are expected to continue that way, a response to casual workplaces. Dresses, as a category, did well at retail, although they weren’t always made by dress houses. A lot of dresses sold from sportswear collections, indicating the consumer is happy to wear a dress, but she’s looking for the contemporary style that a sportswear design mentality often produces.
Daytime dresses, particularly for career, were soft this year, another victim of the casual phenomenon. Consequently, many dress houses are responding with more evening and day-to-dinner dresses, and younger, cleaner fashion.
Julie Ward, head of the Ellen Tracy Dress division, said the only difficult area in the dress market has been true, severe career dresses, mainly because of “dress-down” days. To counter this, the company is stressing evening and day-to-dinner dresses, ensembles and suits.
“We’ve had tremendous success and growth in eveningwear,” she said.
Ward projected double-digit gains for next year, and added that her business at retail has been perking in the past few months. She said the versatility and intrinsic value of a suit or jacket-dress is a plus. Because Ellen Tracy’s knitwear is appropriate for casual workdays or weekends, the business is growing.
The sheath will continue to shine, Ward said. Seasonless fabrics are becoming more important, especially nonwrinkling rayon blends, polyesters and triacetates.
At Oscar de la Renta Ltd., the big push will be to tap “budding opportunities” abroad while fine-tuning and expanding its domestic business, said Jeffry Aronsson, chief executive officer.
“Our main focus in ready-to-wear is to maintain the high quality that our customer demands, while focusing more attention on service and advertising,” he said. “It’s more important than ever to deliver on time and assist stores in merchandising.”
To that end, the company does 120 trunk shows across the country.
De la Renta will extend its offerings in 1996 with the new Oscar licensed bridge line. It will launch a separate group of evening and cocktail dresses wholesaling for $400 to $600 as part of the signature line. Both will hit stores next fall.
De la Renta will expand its retail presence internationally. It has two stores in Hong Kong; two in Jakarta, Indonesia, and one each in London and Panama City. Potential locations for shops include Singapore, Taipei and India, Aronsson said.
“My feeling is there will continue to be a healthy appetite for luxury goods,” said Dede Shipman, president of Mary McFadden Inc. “The stock market is still strong and consumer confidence is up. There continues to be a bigger spread between the wealthy and middle classes, and upper-class women are spending money.”
This is particularly true in special occasion, Shipman said, where colorful ballgowns have made a comeback.
Thanks to favorable exchange rates, McFadden’s European exports — notably to Germany, Switzerland and the UK — have been growing.
Special-order business has become vital in marketing McFadden’s collection, while sell-throughs from stock are running 20 percent ahead of last year.
McFadden plans to expand with a Studio collection of bridge suits for spring, and a licensed shoe line for fall. The company already has its MMCF secondary line, licensed loungewear and furs, and jewelry and accessories collections sold on QVC. Shipman said the firm is exploring licensed evening bags and accessories for specialty stores.
Overall, Shipman said stores are being careful about inventory levels and planning strategies, and spring orders are late. Still, the rebound in the luxury market is encouraging her to project moderate increases.
“Business conditions are very difficult right now,” said Harriet Mosson, president of Liz Claiborne Dresses. “Consumer buying patterns are erratic, at best. Corporate downsizings and job eliminations in the news have people insecure about their futures. Baby boomers now have families, and their homes, education, child care and travel all take priority over apparel.”
Mosson blames retailers for training the consumer to buy on sale, which cuts into profit margins. She predicts depressed interest in apparel will continue next year.
“That’s why offering a great value dress with multiple uses is important,” Mosson said. “There are some great trends right now, and more regular-price selling, which shows that women will buy fashion that’s value-priced before it’s marked down.”
Top spring looks at Claiborne include A-line sheaths, prints, long shirtdresses and jacket dresses, which Mosson expects to be a hit for spring, particularly with waist-length jackets.
Mosson said the division has brought average prices down to levels of about five years ago. For spring, dresses wholesale as low as $34, ranging to $95 for an ensemble or pantsuit.
She also expects growth from new bridesmaid dresses that are part of the Liz Night collection. They premiered at the September bridal show here and reeled in 75 new accounts, Mosson said.
Another key strategy is Dress Lab, which uses outside domestic and foreign contractors. Its emphasis on quick turn has cut the production cycle by 30 percent, accommodating more reorders and enabling the firm to jump on hot trends, Mosson said.
Howard Bloom, president of Chetta B, expects 1996 to be tough.
“Business in general is not so great at the moment, but we’re making our projections,” he said, forecasting a gain of 10 to 15 percent for next year.
“Dress business on the whole was just OK this year. However, it was very good at specialty stores,” he said. “Department store business was tough. The same dress that did well at a specialty store did nothing at department stores. And specialty stores sell more units at full price.”
He attributed the differences in performance to the service and presentation a specialty store can give. Too often, department stores are “just looking for the next sale,” and are overstocked, which forces markdowns.
Bloom said evening looks are the strength of the dress business, because special occasions still warrant new dresses.
Suits with interesting details — like animal-print trims that sold well for fall and have booked well for spring — or in unusual fabrics, like stretch ottoman, are still strong, but the basic navy gabardine suit “is history,” he said. “People already have too many of them.”
Bud Konheim, president of Nicole Miller, said reports of tough business conditions come from large public retailers, “who, for some reason or another, don’t know how to make money.”
But the retail giants don’t represent the full fashion business. Niche specialty stores are doing much better, he said. For example, the Nicole Miller company-owned store in Los Angeles is reporting a 30 percent year-to-date increase.
“When you’ve got the right thing, it sells,” said Konheim, projecting a 20 percent gain in 1996.
For spring, stores are buying colorful, spare, shaped dresses for cocktail and career.
A big first for Nicole Miller in 1996 will be a major ad campaign, slated to start in March.
“We’ve taken 13 years to build a squeaky-clean image, but what’s missing is the advertising,” Konheim said. “The only way to realize our true potential is through advertising. With our 23 domestic stores and 16 licenses, we should be able to put together a decent budget.”
Konheim expects the company’s chain of signature boutiques to expand to 40 to 50 stores in the next two years. The new ones will be franchised. Only three of the U.S. stores are company-owned. Possible sites include Houston, Dallas and Colorado’s Vail and Aspen.
For Cynthia Rowley, stretch fabrics born of new technologies are key for next year. Silhouettes are basically classic, but new fabrics make clothes exciting, she said.
“Fabrics can still look clean and polished, but stretch makes them really comfortable,” Rowley said, citing a wool tweed that stretches. More pants and soft looks are also on the horizon.
Rowley is stacking up the licenses and has deals now for hosiery, sewing patterns, shoes, optical and eyewear, and knitwear. She said the licenses help her present a complete image, which is critical in stocking her own stores. There are three company-owned units now — in Chicago, Tokyo and here — and plans for three more next year. One will be in Los Angeles, but the two other U.S. cities have not been chosen. She also is involved in joint ventures for stores in the Pacific Rim.
Kenneth Zimmerman, chairman of Kenar Enterprises, is bullish about the dress business, and is aiming at a younger market for his established Kenar and Schrader dress lines. The company is reviving the A.J. Bari brand of eveningwear for fall and expects to follow soon after with the Gillian label. Kenar purchased the names from the Gillian Group, which liquidated in bankruptcy this year.
“I believe young women today haven’t really worn dresses,” Zimmerman explained. “They grew up in sportswear. But they’re working now, they have some money, and they need dresses for special occasions. The way to get them into dresses is to hype the category as fun and hip.”
Zimmerman said his existing dress businesses should generate gains of 20 to 25 percent next year, noting 1995 was “a lousy year” for dresses in general. The new A.J. Bari business is expected to do well, he said, since it was a popular brand and the stores seem enthusiastic about seeing it return.
Zimmerman concurred that the career dress business is soft.
“The attitude toward eveningwear is different, however,” he said. “First, women always want to look very special when they go out, and they don’t want to be seen in the same thing. Second, from a design standpoint, you can do a lot more with an evening dress, with details like satin, trimmings, velvet, touches of embroidery.”
The lines are being redesigned to broaden their appeal to younger customers, with more contemporary cuts, lengths, prints and drapy fabrics like rayons and triacetates. Seasonless fabrics also are in demand.
Year-round fabrics are especially important in the suit market. The consumer doesn’t mind paying for a suit if she feels she’s going to get a lot of wear from it, according to makers.
Gregg Marks, president of Sassco Fashions, said, “The economy is irrelevant. If the consumer sees something she really wants, she’ll buy it.” Sassco should be up 20 percent companywide, with good growth in its Kasper and Albert Nipon divisions. Sassco is a unit of The Leslie Fay Cos., which has filed a plan of reorganization and expects to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy within the next few months. The most likely scenario is that Sassco will be sold or spun off as a freestanding company.
“We still see consolidations ahead, but that’s not all bad. For example, we’re usually stronger with the acquiring company, and it makes the suit business better in the store that’s being bought,” Marks said. “The casual trend is starting to bend back a little. We’re seeing some more structured looks because the casual look got out of hand at some companies. Pants are stronger, too.”
Marks concurred that seasonless fabrics are a vital way to make a fashion statement and satisfy the emotional desire for style, and at the same time keep value in mind, because the suit can be worn practically year-round.
Richard Elias, president of suit maker Renlyn New York, said shaped looks will come in for spring, followed by a looser cut in the fall. Renlyn will be up around 15 percent in the first part of the year.
He added that pants are growing in proportion to skirts, and said the spring line is about 40 percent pantsuits, compared with 25 percent a year ago.
“We’re not through with consolidations,” he said. “The next level of retailing will be affected, probably the discounters or the off-pricers. With a consolidation, the stores’ credit is usually that much stronger, so at least you can ship them.”
Paul Kaess, ceo of Certified Worldwide Retail Consultants, also sees continued consolidation next year.
“Now we’ll see more of the next tier — the regional chains, the 50-to-100-unit operations,” he said. “This will continue until there are an appropriate number of retail units for the population in a given area. There are too many stores out there, and this [shrinking] is inevitable. Otherwise, the liquidation business will certainly pick up.”
Niche merchandising will become even more important, he added.
“Within our own business, where we are focused, we do well,” he observed. “Where we try to be too many things to too many people, the business is stagnant. The same is true of manufacturers and retailers. Those who are focused will do well. This is no big mystery. You need to stand for something.”

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