Byline: Arthur Friedman With contributions from Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK — Retailers are raving about ready-to-wear.
After more than a decade of sportswear in the spotlight, dresses and suits are front and center at stores this fall and heading into holiday.
Some industry insiders call the new dress and suit looks “sportswear-inspired.” Others say rtw has loosened the lock sportswear has had on women since the early Eighties, and they call dresses and suits “the new sportswear alternative.”
Retail executives say several elements are spurring rtw’s move:
The emphasis on value pricing — consumers are hot for rtw’s single-ticket price for a complete outfit.
The return of glamour and femininity, including romantic styles and curves.
The popularity of jumpers, tank dresses and rompers — clothes that can be worn on weekends.
According to Retail Merchandise Service Automation, a Riverside, Calif., research firm that tracks retail trends, suits and dresses came in first and second, respectively, out of 17 categories in August and September.
Suit sales increased 17.8 percent in August and 15.3 percent in September from the year-earlier levels, RMSA reported, while dress sales increased 6 percent in August and 9.9 percent in September.
Retailers from Sears, Roebuck to Neiman Marcus report dress and suit business riding high for fall, and credit the manufacturers for exciting consumers with a host of hot trends.
“Suit business has been excellent,” said Joan Kaner, senior vice president and fashion director at Neiman’s. “Dresses have been OK, but they should pick up for spring and summer because they represent an easy way to dress, which is also one of the reasons suits are doing so well.
“The very forward customers still like to come in and put together or design their own outfit. The suit customer and the dress customer don’t have to make as many decisions, and a lot of women like that.”
Suits should continue to be strong for spring as an increasingly important career choice, Kaner said. In dresses, she sees simple, shapely items such as colorful fit-and-flares and Empires as key looks. She added that jackets worn over dresses have been popular for fall and should continue to be important for spring because they provide an easy look with a lot of flexibility.
The ease of dressing, relative affordability and newness in the market have all been important factors in Macy’s East’s strong dress and suit season, said Benny Lin, fashion director.
“Dresses have been outstanding in social, evening and daytime career,” Lin said. “In evening and social, all the shiny, glittery and sequined looks have been spectacular for fall and going into holiday. For daytime, the big category has been knits like matte jerseys and ottoman ribs.”
Lin said suits have been strong for fall as well, particularly in plaids and textured fabrics and structured silhouettes. Jackets with dresses are also hot, he said.
“For spring, dresses are going to be the number-one item,” said Lin, citing key looks such as sheaths, tie-dresses and shirt dresses. “There’s more variety to choose from than last spring, when the only good trend was the slipdress. Jacket and dress combinations should explode for spring, especially in pastels and navy.”
At Henri Bendel, dresses and suits are performing “extremely well,” with both areas “running well ahead of plan,” said Teresa Tymoski, vice president and general merchandise manager.
She said suit business is getting more store space and open-to-buy because of its strong performance, notably in short, shaped jackets; A-lines, and pleated one- and two-piece looks.
“There’s a return to femininity, and the customer is also responding to texture,” Tymoski said. “We see this continuing for spring.”
Day and evening dresses are strong in all collections, she added. The dress with jacket or coat ensemble has been strong, as have A-line dresses, chenille sweater dresses and bias-cut satins with velvet trim.
For spring, Tymoski is looking at ensemble dresses, tank dresses, slipdresses and “flirty Forties fitted looks” as key items.
“We’re planning dress and suit business very aggressively for spring,” Tymoski said. “Dresses in particular have become a real lifestyle choice, even in casual, with the soft, easy flowing dresses.”
Linda Maynard, vice president and general merchandise manager for Jacobson Stores, Jackson, Mich., said dresses have been good across the board, and suits have also done well, particularly evening suits.
“Social is good and daytime is good, and usually they don’t perform well at the same time,” Maynard said. “Long column dresses have been great, and knits, jumpsuits and bias-cut dresses have all been very good.”
Janis Holcomb, divisional merchandise manager for the Sears Merchandise Group, Hoffman Estates, Ill., said dress and suit business has been “extremely strong” in September and October.
“Suits are having triple-digit increases, but that’s because we’ve added the category to many of our stores this year,” Holcomb said. “We have pantsuits at $39.99 that are flying out of the stores.”
In dresses, textured fabrics in easy shapes, jumpsuits and velvet columns are leaders in daytime and social occasion departments.
“There’s a lot of newness happening in dresses,” Holcomb said. “They are a good value because of the single-ticket price, and we’re selling dresses from $50 to $159.”
Holcomb said Sears is increasing its offering of casual dresses that fit into the dress-down movement in corporate America, including knits, denims and soft crepes.
“We’ve expanded ready-to-wear as a key element in selling career apparel,” Holcomb said.
In the last two years, suit sales at Macy’s West/Bullock’s have increased annually by at least 15 percent, according to Tina Rubin, suit buyer. Suits offer a better value than sportswear, she said. For example, a wool crepe suit retails at Macy’s West for $159, but two sportswear separates in wool crepe would easily exceed $300, she said.
Suits made of triacetate crepe, rayon-blend crepe and lighter wool crepes are turning up sales results since they are more shapely, she said. Military looks and suits with white collars and white cuffs have been bestsellers for fall and, they should continue to be for spring.
Kasper Suits generate 80 percent of all suit sales in the company’s 48 stores, she said, citing the line’s quality, fit and price.

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