Byline: Arthur Friedman

NEW YORK — With dresses still on a roll at retail, and pantsuits gaining ground, manufacturers are serving up fresh fall colors in a range of easy shapes to tweak buyer interest.
Better and bridge ready-to-wear firms say the May-through-June early fall delivery is as much a barometer of the spring and summer seasons as it is a chance to keep a flow of new styles in the stores and to test fall trends.
Price remains an important element in dresses and suits, and all the firms are looking to toe the line.
But more importantly, they say, dresses are selling well because they’ve gained consumer acceptance as an easy and affordable way of dressing for work and special events or as a casual alternative to sportswear separates.
Since the bulk of early fall merchandise is sold in June and July — two of the toughest months for retailing — some small gains are expected, but most companies say they’ll be happy to tread water.
At the Evan-Picone Dress division of Jones Apparel Group, launched for the current spring season, early fall bookings are already at 85 percent of plan, said Helen Merrill, president of the division.
Jones Apparel purchased the Evan-Picone name from Crystal Brands in November 1993.
“The strategy for this demanding time period is to keep the collection tight and focused, relying on additional bookings from best-selling spring and summer styles,” Merrill said.
The company’s combination of imports and domestic sourcing allows for sharp prices and fast turnaround in production capabilities, she said. The collection wholesales for $49 to $89.
Soft shapes such as trapezes and layered cardigan looks are important for early fall, as are pantsuits. Key fabrics are rayon crepe and tricotine.
“Based on the strong early season selling for spring and the response to the collection for early fall, it looks like the dress business will stay strong throughout the remainder of the year,” she said. “In addition, today’s young working women are looking to simplify their lives. The ease of a dress is the answer for her wardrobe.”
Bud Konheim, president of Nicole Miller, said, “Early fall is a strategy more than a design-driven season.”
“In the May-through-July delivery periods, you have to ship merchandise that’s both wear-now, and that can be worn well into fall,” Konheim said. “We often call it ‘dark summer,’ because the customer wants fall colors after six months of seeing brights, but it’s got to be lightweight and less serious, design-wise, than fall.”
Key looks use silk georgette, printed and solid rayon crepe in Empire and A-line shapes, and Lycra spandex-based body-hugging dresses.
At the Susie Tompkins Dress division of Esprit de Corp., early fall will be a combination of reinterpretations of spring bodies and tests of fall trends, said Stefani Greenfield, vice president of sales.
The collection, which was launched for spring at Lord & Taylor here this month, wholesales for $50 to $65. Greenfield said early fall will have a black and khaki color scheme in knits and wovens.
Key looks include belted sheaths, bias cuts, wraps, rayon sweater dresses and camp shirt dresses. A range of prints, including a variety of polkadots, should be important, Greenfield said, with short lengths more predominant than long.
Designer Donna Ricco said her label’s getting some good early selling for spring and is on track for a 20 percent increase for the first half. The company hit $40 million in sales last year.
Ricco said easy, soft long dresses are important for early fall. Dark ground prints and retro prints are important in rayon crepe or chiffon, as are short wrap dresses with skinny belts.
Chetta B is setting its sights on “restaurant-to-occasion dresses” for early fall, said Howard Bloom, president.
“Early fall is a difficult time period at best, so we’re trying to get a handle on a consumer need, and we feel it’s a good time to focus on dressy looks,” Bloom said. Chetta B’s early fall collection features summer bodies with darkened hues. Fabrics such as silk georgette, silk or rayon crepe, silk chiffon and other year-round cloths are important because versatility is required, since styles are bought and worn in the heart of summer but continue to be worn into fall.
“We’re starting to get some indications that spring is off to a good start,” Bloom said. “If we can get some good reorders and a couple of hot numbers, it will be a good season, because bookings are ahead of last year.”
The Constance Saunders division of Depeche Mode has already started to preview early fall to key accounts, and the designer said initial interest is coming from jacket dresses and pantsuits.
Tank dresses, A-line and sheaths are also important for early fall, using fabrics such as silk chiffon and textured rayons.
Saunders said signs are good for the dress and suit market, because several stores asked for spring goods to be shipped earlier than last year, resulting in good early checkouts.
“With the trend toward elegance and conservative chic, dresses have arrived,” said Ricki Freeman, owner and designer of Teri Jon. “Prints are definitely coming back, and jacket dresses are coming on strong.”
Important early fall fabrics include lightweight wool, tricotine and spun polyester.
Tom Murry, president of Tahari, said early fall bookings are already at 80 percent of plan. Murry said the collection focuses on three groups: long column dresses for evening or special occasion; “little hot cocktail dresses,” and jacket dresses for career and evening.
“We try to do everything wear-now, but for this delivery it’s particularly important,” Murry said.
Versatile fabrics are also important, Murry said. Tahari is using four-ply polyester microfiber, matte jersey and satin-back crepe in colors such as mauve, peacock blue, black, bordeaux and purple.