DRESSES, SUITS STAR FOR SPRING

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NEW YORK — From Mervyn’s and J.C. Penney to Rich’s and Saks Fifth Avenue, dresses and suits are showing strong results in early spring selling.
Dress and suit sales have been on the rise since the second half of last year, gaining ground as a career alternative to sportswear separates.
In December, suit sales were 23 percent ahead, while dress business was up 14 percent against the previous year, according to Retail Merchandising Service Automation, Riverside, Calif., which tracks industry sales and trends.
In January suit sales jumped 28 percent and dress sales rose 5 percent, compared with the previous year, RMSA reported.
Retailers across the country said the categories continue to be strong thanks to a variety of key trends, including
Fitted jackets over skirts, pants or dresses.
Linen columns, especially for day-to-dinner.
Color, especially pink and other soft pastels.
Close-to-the-body dresses with waist emphasis.
Denim dresses in casual bodies.
Dresses and suits are running “above plan” for the year-to-date at Rich’s in Atlanta and should continue on that course, said Sheila Kamensky, vice president, fashion merchandising.
More structured looks, such as fitted jackets, men’s wear looks and details such as embroidery have boosted both suit departments.
“Dresses have been an excellent business,” said Kamensky. “There’s a good balance between structured and soft looks, with manufacturers offering plenty of options.”
Embroidered linen column dresses from Donna Morgan, Maggie London, Donna Rico and Liz Now have sold well in the better categories, with soft suitings and embroidered looks from Danni Max and Danny Nicole selling well in moderate areas.
Kasper dominates the suit business at Rich’s, with extras such as white collar and cuffs as popular details.
At Isaacson’s, an Atlanta bridge-to-designer specialty store, dresses have sold well for early spring.
“Dresses have more newness and interest this season,” said Gemma Taylor, vice president. “People want a suited look, and a dress with a jacket offers the best of both worlds.”
She added that dresses from every collection had sold well. Pink has been the season’s hottest color, and there is renewed interest in accented waists and softer, more feminine silhouettes. Most popular lengths have been short or very long.
Bestsellers include a cream tropical wool dress with matching swing coat trimmed with black piping by Escada, priced at $1,655.
“We only ordered two and they blew out in less than a week,” said Taylor. Similar styles by Genny, Armani and Alberta Ferretti have also performed well.
Pink, feminine suits and dresses are dominating the selling floor at Woodward & Lothrop department stores in the Washington area.
“The customer is absolutely responding to pink — it’s the biggest color on our floor,” said Kathy Kopp, divisional merchandise manager, noting that a light pink, mock tunic dress from Dani Max had a 20 percent sell-through in one week.
The pink styles tend to be soft and shapely and feature waist treatments such as frog or large single-button closures, she said.
Another hot item is a beige and tan plaid rayon and cotton bouclA suit with a V-neck collar and gold buttons. The jacket saw a 40 percent sell-through in one week at a price tag of $159.99, marked down from $218.
Kopp expects some of the biggest strength this season in denim dresses and jumpers and other casual-Friday dresses. Hot-selling denim items include full denim skirts combined with a challis top.
Myrna Davis, a buyer for Claire Dratch, a high-end specialty shop in Bethesda, Md., said demand for feminine, fitted dresses and suits should make this a strong spring season.
“There’s a surge from the woman that goes to work and then wants to go to dinner afterward,” Davis said. “She can wear a pretty little dress with a jacket or a nice suit with a camisole or little blouse.”
In sizes 10 and below, Claire Dratch is selling a lot of fitted looks with skinny belts from vendors such as Chetta B., George Simington and Ilie Wacs. Less contoured silk dresses are selling well in larger sizes.
Davis said hot colors include marigold, turquoise, green, fuchsia and yellow, which is evidence that “Washington women like color.”
The Peebles department store chain, based in South Hill, Va., is seeing a lot of interest in soft dressing, novelty looks and denim, said Maria Castillo, the dress buyer.
Peebles intends to double orders from the L.G. Star dress line, which Castillo described as “feminine soft dressing in jacquards and prints, and lace detailing on the collars.” The label retails for about $70.
“We expect the dress business to be very good for spring,” she said.
Popular colors include soft pastels, red, white and navy. Denim has also swept Peebles’s dress department.
“We’ve had a great reaction from some deliveries that have just come in — it seems denim will be fabulous for spring,” said Castillo.
Among the most popular styles are an Empire jumper by Studio E that features a windowpane plaid design on top and comes with a white T-shirt. A denim vest dress with embroidery by Stuart Allen had a 20 percent sell-through the first week it hit the floor, Castillo said. Peebles’ denim dresses sell for $50 to $60.
Another popular dress fabric is a “weathered” rayon in banana, olive drab and a navy.
“It seems that novelty is very important in dresses and that’s why women are buying dresses this spring,” Castillo said.
ABS, Elizabeth Weyman, Cynthia Rowley and other contemporary dress resources are drumming up business at Saks Fifth Avenue, here, according to David Merk, vice president and divisional merchandise manager. Long and short denim dresses by Laundry and Bonnie Strauss have also been strong at retail, he said.
With “Jackie O looks and column dresses” boosting sales, Saks is planning for a double-digit percentage increase for spring, Merk said.
“Last year, everything was more or less a slipdress. Now there’s a better balance in the dress market,” Merk said. “There are more varied and modern looks — long and short. There’s no price resistance.”
Bi-color and tri-color dresses in linen or viscose crepe by Scaasi Dress and Constance Saunders are other popular looks, he said. Donna Ricco’s and Maggie London’s pantsuits in linen or rayon viscose have also been bestsellers, Merk added.
At Mervyn’s, Hayward, Calif., dresses got off to a fast start but then slowed after rains began in California and cold weather hit much of the rest of the country.
“The overall business has been pretty good, but it will get better once it warms up and dries out and people are thinking more about putting away their winter clothes,” said a store spokeswoman.
Early bestsellers include denim dresses and jumpers with knit tops. Halter necks and logo knits with embroidered patterns of sunflowers and hearts also have been strong.
Short dresses have outpaced long styles at Mervyn’s, but the romantic full long dress has been an exception. Romantic dresses with lace collars or lace-up backs have been particularly popular.
Chinese influences also have sold well for early spring. Consumers have been choosing black braid closures and appliques, mandarin necklines and slim column dresses.
At Neiman Marcus in Dallas, shaped and fitted suits are early spring bestsellers, said Liz Tippens, divisional merchandise manager. Neiman’s suit and dress business is ahead of last year, said Tippens, but she declined to specify exact gains.
“Everything is closer to the body — seaming details, belted suits and novelty fabrics are important,” said Tippens. “The response to fit and shape is phenomenal.”
Suits retailing for $500 and under are seeing the most action. Best-selling vendors include Christian Dior, Bicci, Herbert Grossman and Teri Jon by Rickie Freeman. Top colors include pink, brights and some neutrals.
One-piece short and bare dresses are spring hits at Neiman’s, especially those from Laundry, Leon Max and Andrea Jovine.
Suit and dress sales are at least 10 percent ahead of last year at J.C. Penney, Plano., Tex., said Mark McMahon, merchandise manager.
“The customer is responding to a little fresher look,” said McMahon.
Top vendors include Dani Max and Danny and Nicole, typically retailing from $80 to $120.
At Lilly Dodson, Dallas, suits cut closer to the body, especially those with nipped waists, are leading the bestseller list, said Bill Dodson, president.
Suit business at Lilly Dodson is up 20 percent over last year.
Top looks include Rena Lange’s black wool crepe triple-breasted Napoleon suit, with 12 sold at $1,500 each; Roger Sakoun’s animal-print wool crepe suit with V-neck and sheer sleeves, with five sold at $2,304, and Yves Saint Laurent Encore’s green, red, blue or black wool ottoman suit with heart-shaped brass buttons, which sold 18 at $1,045.