Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK — Special occasion dresses and eveningwear have been high on the checklists of buyers shopping the trade shows at the Essex House and the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel here.
Retailers said they weren’t shy about buying high-ticket items, but were nevertheless keeping budgets even with a year ago.
Among the 13 designers showing their early fall collections at the Essex House are some evening and daywear resources that are first-timers: Mandana, Lili Butler, Z. Design Inc. and Algo Haute Couture.
The Waldorf features a group of four designers. Both shows complete their 11-day stands today.
Eveningwear has helped to bolster sales at specialty stores and boutiques, retailers noted, since most of their customers won’t blink at a four-digit price tag for a high quality item. However, the retailers added they were still uncertain of the economy and were gearing their purchases to looks they were certain would appeal to the individual tastes of their customers.
Reflecting this conservative mood, the show also saw a lot of orders for immediate goods as well as early fall. All of this added up to at least slight gains for several vendors.
Yolanda Cellucci, owner of Yolanda’s of Boston, in Waltham, noted special occasion dresses with a strong repeat business have been a key factor in a 7-percent sales increase at her store over the last year. Her budget for the show was even with last year. She planned to cover any increased sales with reorders.
Evening gowns and cocktail suits that retail from $1,200 to $2,500 make up the bulk of her business, she said.
Shopping in San Carlin’s suite at the Waldorf, Cellucci said she would order a substantial amount of merchandise from the Louisiana-based eveningwear resource. San Carlin does well in her store since its distribution is limited, she said.
At San Carlin’s suite, a bronze iridescent velvet dress at $435, a Lurex metallic brocade full-length gown with gold webbing and embellished with Austrian crystals at $725 were a few of the new looks for fall.
“For speciality stores to survive, you need to have some sort of signature line. People are willing to spend that kind of money but they don’t want to see it again — especially in the same state,” she said. “When something special happens in someone’s life, they will put out their money as long as it’s good quality.” Fred Rogers, owner of the L.H. Rogers boutique in Boston, said he was looking for immediate day-into-evening items. While February sales were 35 percent ahead of last year, Rogers said he planned to keep his show budget even.
Sansapelle and Mark Heister are important resources at his store, he said. Rogers said he has narrowed the number of sportswear collections offered in his store since eveningwear is such a strong performer.
Gowns that retail from $1,000 to $1,800 do well at retail, he said.
Marsha Posner, a principle of JP Associates, a buying office here, said her retail clients were looking for “ladylike” dresses and eveningwear. Two Swiss resources that made their debuts at the Essex House, Alpinit, a knitwear line and Algo Haute Couture, a separates and eveningwear resource, were big hits among her retailers, Posner said. Marisa Minicucci, a Canadian ready-to-wear resource was also well-received, she said.
Retailers also liked the looks of Fathi Due Cashmere, Mark Heister, Sansapelle, David Hayes and Lane Davis, she said.
Looking to give its line a new twist, Mark Heister featured dresses, including some eveningwear, and suits in lightweight wool, cashmere blends, mohair and other new fabrics.
“We’re known for our four-ply silk dresses, but women can only have so many silk dresses in wardrobes,” said Linda Heister, vice president. “We didn’t know how people would react, but we’ve written more immediate orders than last year.”
“Business has definitely picked up, but stores are spending cautiously,” she said. “There was a lot of repeat business. Stores went with the lines they do well with.”
Not everyone was looking for dresses and special occasion pieces.
Jan Wangaard, owner of Il Posto, Rockford, Ill., said she ordered dresses and suits from Fathi Due Cashmere and Marisa Minicucci. Both lines are strong performers in her store, which opened in October, she said.
A cashmere sweater with a detachable collar and cuffs and matching short skirt by Fathi Due Cashmere and lightweight wool cigarette pants with a riding jacket by Marisa Minicucci should be key performers at retail, she said.