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SUITS ANSWER CAREER CALL

Byline: Joshua Greene

NEW YORK — The demise of casual Fridays is proving to be good news for the suit business.
As the fashion pendulum swings back to a more formal, tailored period, suit firms are poised to reap the benefits for fall.
Adding to the heightened interest in the $600 million sector, which struggled and consolidated during the business casual trend that dominated the Nineties, is the new partnership between former Kasper ASL chief executive Arthur S. Levine and bridge suit maven Elie Tahari.
Levine is taking over the running of Tahari’s underplayed, but well positioned suit line, while launching an Arthur S. Levine for Tahari better-price line for fall, which will go head-to-head with the segment dominant Kasper Suits that he created and headed for more than 30 years, as reported. Kasper has its own drama going on, after filing for bankruptcy in January, which can sometimes handcuff the ability of firm to promote their brands, although company executives played this down.
Meanwhile, a strong jackets business has emerged for spring, which has provided an early impetus for autumn bookings. Executives attribute part of the shift in wardrobe philosophy to the post-Sept. 11 business mind-set, where women want to portray a more serious mood through what they wear.
Suits with softer, less-constructed silhouettes are key for fall, while jackets paired with pants or skirts in similar shades were also in demand. That fall look, vendors said, is a dressy yet contemporary alternative for the office when the head-to-toe uniform — think classic pinstripe — is too much.
At Kasper Suits, accelerated spring sales prompted a 10 to 20 percent increase for fall sales so far, said Gregg Marks, president. Sales at Le Suit, the company’s moderate line, are up 30 percent, he added.
“Because fall business slowed last year after Sept. 11, the stores feel there is a positive momentum that this fall will go up well against last year,” Marks said. “Everybody cut sales plans [in September], so there is opportunity for an upswing.”
In efforts to lasso a younger clientele, changes to the line will debut for fall, including longer jackets, frayed edges on skirts, leather trims, brightly colored linings, stretch fabrics and softer shoulders. However, 75 percent of the business will remain devoted to Kasper’s established customer.
“We’ve left the core customer alone,” Marks said. “But we’ve added a new element of younger suits and we’ve taken the social element from 10 percent to 30 percent.”
Kasper filed for a prepackaged Chapter 11 reorganization plan in January after suffering from debt loads partly incurred after acquiring the higher-profile Anne Klein labels, as reported. The corporate name will change from Kasper to Anne Klein Group once the company returns to profitability, expected at the end of this year, chairman and ceo John Idol said at the time of the filing. Marks said the company’s current financial situation will not effect Kasper’s quality or distribution.
As for the efforts of his former boss, Marks claimed that ASL for Tahari will not affect his business.
“There’s not one store that has come to us and stated they’re changing their plans because of Tahari,” he said. “Our business is developed, and we’re important. Nobody is cutting us back because of Tahari.”
At Tahari, however, Levine said there is reason for Kasper to be concerned.
“I think ASL for Tahari is a much more forward and modern look and the fabrics that we’re doing are also a little edgier,” said Levine, laying down the gauntlet.
Of the two lines he’s now heading, Levine noted that ASL for Tahari will run $79 to $115 wholesale, significantly less expensive than the Tahari bridge, which runs from $199 to $549 wholesale.
“[Tahari and ASL for Tahari] are two totally different lines,” said Levine. “It’s basically a combination of representing different types of looks. It’s a total wardrobe concept, instead of being straight suits, which Tahari was known for before. It’s now evening, social and career.”
Levine said he expects first-year sales estimates of $20 million for the new line. Total volume for the company is expected to be close to $100 million, Levine added.
Both lines are manufactured by contractors in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Levine said acquiring a factory in the Far East is a possibility.
“Since Sept. 11, the suit business has been excellent,” he said. “I definitely see a generation of career clothing ahead.”
Levine attributes the interest in the suit business to work environments that have reverted to business-formal clothing policies, following the defunct dot-com days.
In February, the investment bank Lehman Bros. announced it planned to enforce a business-formal dress code for all employees with client contact.
“For women, a suit with either a skirt or slacks, a dress, or other equivalent attire,” read an internal memo.
The new dress code went into effect on March 11, worldwide. A spokesman for Lehman Bros. said the investment bank did not take Sept. 11 into account when it made the decision.
Levine said he thinks Lehman’s polished look will ignite the formal-dress flame for companies looking to extinguish khakis and jeans at the office.
“There’s really no way to monitor the dress; everybody has their own interpretation of what’s casual,” Levine said. “The kind of outfits people were wearing was unacceptable. There is no question that Merrill Lynch, Chase and others will not be far behind.”
That in turn, he said, will be a boom for the suit business, since career women make up the majority of the consumer profile.
Kasper’s Marks agreed that, “People are concerned about their jobs, and when people don’t look serious, they’ll be perceived that they’re not working as hard.”
For Steven Garfield, president of Trio New York, which was acquired by the Leslie Fay Co. last year, structured suits are selling well since the consumer has started to dress more formally.
“People want to dress more seriously, and a suit gives automatic polish,” he said.
Garfield said jacket-driven items have experienced double-digit selling in spring, which he also said translated into strong jacket sales for fall.
For suits, Garfield said added feminine touches, such as ties instead of buttons or draped lapels and ruffled sleeves, have booked well. He also cited mismatched tops, bottoms and three-piece ensembles as key sellers.
This month, Trio will launch its first evening collection set for July delivery, incorporating dresses, suits and tuxedo looks.
“It’s kind of an extension into evening and dinner suits,” he said. “We have produced tuxedo and satin groups every year, we’re just expanding on those categories.”
At Saks Fifth Avenue, Platinum Label, the retailer’s private suit line, will expand its presence to about 15 stores, according to Michael Fink, senior market director. The line, which is manufactured in Italy with Italian fabrics, is currently available in eight stores.
Fink said the Platinum Label customer is looking for formal looks with an emphasis on slimming silhouettes and color to wear to the boardroom or to dinner. Casual items are not moving as quickly, Fink added.
“The look is very professional,” Fink said. “The customer is also asking for three pieces. We’re not pricing three pieces on the floor, but the option is there.”
Retail prices for Platinum Label range from $1,150 to $1,500.
Although it doesn’t offer a true suit line, Liz Claiborne is also seeing renewed interest in career looks, according to Anne Cashill, director of corporate design and merchandising.
Peacoats in lighter fabrics to be worn as tops and shorter jackets started to pick up in early spring orders and continued going into fall, she said.
“In general, there is a strong trend toward pants and mixing fabrics for wear-to-work looks,” Cashill said, describing the mix-and-match clothes as “the Monday-Wednesday-Friday option.”
A strong reaction to shorter jackets, specifically three-button and peacoat silhouettes with attention to details like seaming and buttons, is the biggest trend, she said. Upgrading fabrics was a priority for the Claiborne design team, who also refitted their pants, adding fashion details like contoured waistbands and backside lace-ups. The line added five different silhouettes, including flat-front and boot-cut pants.

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