NEW YORK — After a disappointing 1993, dress fortunes seem on the rise once more.
A strong spring at retail, more updated styling in fabrics that can be worn from season to season, and looks that lend themselves to desk-to-dinner adaptability have combined to prime retailers and manufacturers for a strong fall.
The optimism spreads from mass lines to bridge collections.
Dress business has gone through some choppy times. The category seemed headed for a revival in the early Nineties in the wake of the sportswear-driven Eighties, but even as dresses attracted more vendors from the sportswear ranks, there still have been some disappointing seasons. In 1993, dress sales in dollars dropped 6 percent against 1992, according to figures compiled for the American Apparel Manufacturers
Association by The NPD Group, a research organization based in Port Washington, N.Y.
Now, however, stores and vendors are again expressing confidence. Spring, they say, registered solid gains, with more options being offered for career women, particularly in casual stylings that can still go from work to an evening out, and they feel that strategy will pay off again for fall.
Despite the ups and downs of the overall dress business, at least one key retailer says it is more than satisfied with the category over the last several years.
In the past five years, J.C. Penney’s dress division has become one of the chain’s most profitable categories, according to James Hailey, president of the women’s division. Double-digit increases are expected for fall, and Hailey said a high-single-digit increase is projected for the year.
With retail prices ranging from $39 to $110, Hailey said he feels Penney’s prices are sharper than comparable merchandise at specialty stores, and more affordable overall than career separates.
Penney’s dress departments, ranging from 1,000 to 5,000 square feet, are twice as large as they were three years ago, Hailey said. With 1,250 stores, the chain has the buying power to select hundreds of vendors, he said, adding that merchandise is constantly tested in different regions of the country and shifted from region to region to build the most effective sales.
For most stores, however, this has so far been the best dress year in the Nineties.
In the past two months, career casual dresses have been showing particular strength at Carson Pirie Scott, according to John Freudenthal, executive vice president of merchandising. The Milwaukee-based chain is projecting a high-single-digit increase in dress sales at its 59 stores, which include Bergner’s and Boston Store, he said.
Molly Malloy, CDC and Rabbit Rabbit are top performers among contemporary dresses, and Stuart Allen, Karen Stevens and Ronnie Nicole are the leading brands among moderate dress houses, Freudenthal said.
“This is definitely a good trending business for us,” he said. “We expect the dress market to continue to get stronger.”
Reflecting the upbeat pace in dresses, the Herald Square flagship at Macy’s East unveiled an Impulse dress department in March, modeled after its Impulse sportswear department. The new department covers one third of the 30,000-square-foot dress area on the fourth floor and necessitated a 4,000-square-foot increase for the area.
With 45 resources, the new department features Cynthia Rowley and Parallel as well as in-store shops for ABS, Nicole Miller, Laundry, Carole Little and Donna Ricco. The new department should increase dress volume by 40 percent at Herald Square in its first year, according to Benny Lin, fashion director.
A-line and Empire dresses should be strong in both wools and mohair, Lin said, but color is the real newness in dresses.
“Jewel tones in particular will be the major fashion trend going forward,” he said. “It won’t be like last fall, when everything was black, black, black.”
With 300 stores, Talbots, the Hingham, Mass.-based specialty retailer, is projecting a high-single-digit increase in dresses for the year, according to Clarke Hinkley, executive vice president and chief executive officer. Dress sales account for 50 percent of the company’s business, and that number should hold steady in 1994, he said. For fall alone, he said, he’s expecting a double-digit gain.
Career dresses retail for $150 to $180, while casual dresses sell for $80 to $120. Silk, rayon and other “seasonless fabrics” will be key for fall, said Hinkley.
Mass marketers also consider dresses to be a growing category.
With 126 stores and 10 more scheduled to open before the end of the year, Bradlees, based in Braintree, Mass., is developing a strategy to capitalize on its potential, according to Celia Clancy, vice president and general merchandise manager.
Most Bradlees stores devote at least 300 square feet to 12 styles of dresses, which retail from $17 for a cotton romper to $60 for a rayon and polyester jacket dress.
Fall dress sales are expected to increase by a high-single-digit percentage, Clancy said. The chain uses its weekly circular for consumers to show off its updated looks in dresses.
Not known as a ready-to-wear retailer, Caldor, based in Norwalk, Conn., expanded its dress business last spring when the category became more sportswear-oriented. The company has increased its offerings from a handful of styles to six racks of merchandise. The result has been a six-fold jump in dress sales over last year, according to Mark Minsky, senior vice president and general merchandise manager. At retail prices of $17 to $27, key dress styles include rayon baby dolls, fit-and-flares, short-sleeved knits and long flowing numbers. Dress sales are expected to increase for fall, even though selections will be reduced compared with spring, he said. Meanwhile, manufacturers, from moderate to bridge, have been updating looks, many into a more casual vein, and some have expanded their offerings as well.
Nicole Miller Ltd. doubled its daytime dress offerings from 20 to 40 in the last year, according to Bud Konheim, president and chief executive officer, who noted the category has grown steadily since 1992.
“What’s important is the daytime dress business is making a comeback at the expense of sportswear. Sportswear’s 20-year cycle is finally over because the clothes are no longer interesting,” Konheim said. “Daytime dresses have staying power as long as we can keep it interesting.”
Last year, sales of daytime dresses increased by 50 percent, and a comparable increase is expected this year, Konheim said. The category contributes at least 30 percent of the company’s total business, which should surpass $50 million this year, and in the next year that should increase to 50 or 55 percent, he said.
Casual daytime dresses are ringing up plus sales at ABS U.S.A., according to Allen B. Schwartz, chairman and chief executive officer.
With three dress collections — casual daytime, day-to-evening and evening — dress sales comprise 30 percent of the company’s total business, he said. That figure should increase to 55 percent within the next five years, Schwartz said, noting that ABS began making dresses less than two years ago.
This year, the wear-to-work and day-to-evening categories should hike dress business by about 20 percent, raising overall volume in the category by roughly $3 million, he said.
The company has increased its account base 15 percent this year, he said. With 10 of its own stores nationwide, ABS is considering opening another store, Schwartz said, most likely in a warm-weather region such as Arizona or Florida.
R&M Richards has increased its dress offerings by 15 percent with more day-to-evening styles, according to Mario Delano, president, and is putting more emphasis on seasonless fabrications. Founded in 1991, R&M Richards, which does primarily moderate-price dresses along with some separates, expects sales this year to reach $40 million, up from $28 million in 1993, he said. Bookings in the first six months have already generated $25 million, he said. He noted the firm introduced petites and large sizes last year, and those categories now contribute 50 percent of the company’s total sales.
Spring daytime dress sales were 15 percent higher than last year at the Warren Group, a dress resource here, according to Morris Marmalstein, president. DW3, a moderate-priced daytime dress division introduced for spring 1993, generated $15 million in its first year, he said. Having lowered price points in the division by about $20 per unit, the company expects business to increase 20 percent this year, he said. David Warren, a newly updated daytime dress line that wholesales from $59 to $89, should also contribute to the company’s projected 15 percent increase overall, he said. Last year the Warren Group’s seven dress divisions amassed $60 million, said Marmalstein, noting less expensive offerings are bolstering sales. “We’re looking for a big year in ’94, ” he said.
In response to growing business, dress offerings were doubled at New Classics, a branded and private label ready-to-wear manufacturer here. Rayon and acetate desk-to-dinner coatdresses and other multifunctional looks have boosted sales, according to Madeline O’Brien, president of sales. Spring and summer dress sales were nearly 20 percent ahead of last year, and the company is expecting a comparable increase for fall.
“Last year we were more career-oriented, but now we concentrate on desk-to-dinner, as well as other options for the career woman,” she said. “With all the clean, sophisticated and updated looks in dresses, now women have more reasons to buy again.”
New Classics also manufactures private label dresses for 10 accounts, which comprise 60 percent of its total dress business, O’Brien said. Fall bookings for private label are 30 percent ahead of plan, and the New Classics label collection is 10 percent ahead, she said.
“The dresses with more end uses are performing better. People want to get their money’s worth,” said Harriet Mosson, president of the dress and suit division at Liz Claiborne Inc., noting this new focus is being counted on to turn the division around. “Strictly career is a tough business since it’s so price-focused.”
Long, softer dresses will be important since they can be worn from day to dinner, she said. Mosson also pointed to the growing importance of color. While forest green, brown, bordeaux and other rich colors will be key for fall, she said bright colors will highlight the spring collection.
Claiborne last year combined its dress and suit divisions, with sales hitting $130 million, down 24.1 percent from the previous year. For fall, Liz Claiborne has more than 70 day and career offerings, which wholesale for $60 to $110, with the average dress price checking in at $67, according to Mosson.
Rabbit Rabbit, the Vernon, Calif.-based sportswear and dress manufacturer, expects a 30 percent increase in dress volume this year, said Diane Randall, owner and president. Projected volume is $30 million — an $8 million increase compared with last year, she said. Depending on the season, dress offerings may change every month, Randall said. It is not uncommon for the company to produce the same style dress in six different fabrics, including as many as 10 different prints, she said.
In addition to producing moderate-priced junior, misses’ and petite dress collections and a better-priced dress line called Chris McLaughlin for Rabbit Rabbit, the company will introduce a day-into-evening line — Rabbit by Diane Randall — in September. With wholesale prices of $50 to $100, projected volume for the new division is $2 million, Randall said.

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