PETITES BUDDING FAST IN CALIFORNIA
Byline: Louise Farr and Dianne Dorrans Saeks, San Francisco
LOS ANGELES — From Neiman Marcus to Loehmann’s, and from San Francisco to Beverly Hills, petites are a fast-growing market segment in California.
Buyers, store managers, manufacturers, marketing managers and store personnel offer many reasons for this enthusiasm. Some suggest that the ethnic diversity of California — particularly the growing Asian population — is one significant strength of the market. Others say that new petites departments are simply filling a need that has been overlooked for too long.
Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills has not had a petites department for years, but about three months ago it created one by carving out a 1,500-square-foot area within Designer 2 Sportswear.
“It has been considerably more successful than we expected,” said vice president and store manager John Martens, who added that it’s too soon to come up with figures. “Our petites, after just a few months, is right up in the forefront of the company’s business in petites — and that includes stores that have been carrying petites for a long time.”
Martens sees the growth of Los Angeles’ Asian population as a key to the success. “Not exclusively, but they play a significant part,” he said. Neiman’s does it best petites business in bridge separates, making up outfits that range from $500 to $700.
Key lines include Ellen Tracy, Anne Klein II, Emanuel and DKNY.
At Loehmann’s 28,000-square-foot space on La Cienaga Boulevard in West Los Angeles, the petites department also constitutes 1,500 square feet. Chainwide, petites are said to account for 8 percent of the firm’s business.
“We have been on this trend for a long time, making a major commitment to it, and it does seem to be working for us. There seems to be a need for it and we are riding along with it,” said Loehmann’s vice president of merchandising Anthony D’Annibale.
Neiman Marcus San Francisco, like Neiman Marcus Beverly Hills, had been out of the petites business for years and decided to get back in January because of customer demand.
“The petites customer at Neiman Marcus Union Square is a career woman, and she is not buying a lot of play or evening wear,” noted the store’s general manager, Ann Paolini. “We do well with DKNY jeans, but our focus is on Ellen Tracy, Emanuel, Anne Klein II and perhaps Dana Buchman.”
“It’s a challenging business because it’s both a young and an older customer,” noted Paolini. “She may be thin or larger. We have to pay great attention to the silhouettes, sizes and the size ranges. Manufacturers report to us that San Francisco is their biggest petites market, so perhaps there is some validity that it is partly driven by the growing Asian population — which is also an important factor of our overall business.”
“Vendors need to be committed to petites and cut the bodies that are right for that customer,” Paolini said. “Simply rescaling their best-sellers to make them smaller does not work.”
“The growth of our petites business also reflects the growth of career dressing in the last three years,” said Clinton Paul, manager of Saks Fifth Avenue in San Francisco. “The lines we offer — Emanuel, DKNY, Dana Buchman, Anne Klein II and Ellen Tracy — may technically be sportswear but the designs are very functional and all offer our customers very versatile office wear, or desk-to-dinner wear.”
Saks Fifth Avenue on Union Square also offers Bicci suits, and Tahari suits and dresses in petites. There is also a strong private label business. Jeanne Marc Petites is a key resource in the evening category, said Paul.
Macy’s West has been a pioneer in special sizes, particularly petites, said Ginny Peterson, divisional merchandise manager for special sizes. For 1994, the company posted a double-digit sales increase for petites.
Macy’s Union Square now devotes more than 20,000 square feet to petites departments. Petites make up over 13 percent of the area devoted to the store’s women’s rtw floor space.
Macy’s West stocks in depth Liz Claiborne, Jones New York (collection and sport), Carole Little, Anne Klein II, Dan Buchman, Ellen Tracy, David Dart, and Laundry, along with the private label Jennifer Moore collections.
“We have an ethnically diverse petites customer base, and we fine-tune the assortment by store or region, to meet their style, size and color needs,” said Peterson.
“In our Los Angeles and Northern California stores, we need to concentrate on smaller petites sizes 2 to 8 because of the Asian population. The rest of the country may be buying petites in the larger sizes.”
With the core business now very developed, Macy’s West is working hard on major vendor impact door by door, said Peterson.
Among vendors, Jeanne Marc, the 20-year-old San Francisco company which specializes in special occasion dressing, introduced its first petite collection for holiday 1994 for six Saks Fifth Avenue departments nationwide.
“There was clearly a need for designs cut to a shorter proportion on mature bodies. Our collection for petites mirrors exactly the fabrics, detailing, prints and styles from our regular line. They are simply cut shorter,” noted Jill Tosta, vice president and customer service manager. “Jeanne Marc’s average petites customer is perhaps a size 12 and under 5 feet 4 inches.”
“Our customer is 35 to 60, and most other petite clothing has traditionally been too young for her,” she added.
“These petite customers are used to spending $100 to $200 on major alterations, or had their own dressmakers scale their purchases down,” noted Katy Bunker, New York sales manger for Jeanne Marc. At wholesale, the Jeanne Marc line is priced at $90 for a basic microfiber skirt to $210 for a signature jacket.
Another San Francisco manufacturer, Jessica McClintock started her petites collection under the Scott McClintock label in 1986. The line includes special occasion dresses for proms, weddings, parties for women from 18 to 60, said designer Jessica McClintock. Wholesale prices range from $50 to $80.
“In the past year, growth of this petites collection has exceeded 36 percent,” said McClintock, who noted that a large proportion of her petites customers are Asian women.
Leonard Rabinowitz, a chairman of Los Angeles-based Carole Little, said the company shipped $375 million gross wholesale last year, and 25 percent was in petites, which the company has been manufacturing for about five years.
Rabinowitz said his gut feeling is that the petites market is underserved. “I’d like to see more better clothes from my competitors,” said Rabinowitz.
Los Angels designer David Dart, who has been producing petites for 1 1/2 years, shows his regular misses’ line, then cuts petites — and women’s sizes — for those majors who want them.
Petites currently constitute only 5 to 10 percent of his business. “I think the petite customer is probably the most finicky,” said Dart. “The petite woman who is really petite doesn’t understand the way we do our clothing. It’s relaxed, a little oversized. No darts. No shoulder pads. Petite customers want those features.