Byline: Anamaria Wilson, New York / Georgia Lee, Atlanta / Rusty Williamson, Dallas / Kristin Young, Los Angeles

NEW YORK — Millennium madness has been replaced with recessionary restraint.
After the blockbuster holiday season of 1999 was nearly matched by a strong 2000, eveningwear merchants were in a celebratory state. Now, those high-flying times are a memory, as this year’s performance has been disappointing, with sales well below last year and generally far off plan, store executives said.
The cycle was bound to dip after so much consumption, but the economic woes and the aftermath of Sept. 11 have left few people in a party mood. When women are buying a new outfit, they are shunning flamboyance in favor of more casual separates and classic styling, while eyeing more affordable outfits.
“You had the millennium and you had the inauguration, two very strong seasons for eveningwear, one butted up against the next,” said Lincoln Moore, the designer, evening and bridal buyer for Saks Fifth Avenue. “We are down, it’s impacted our business pretty incredibly. It’s all about evening separates and well priced cocktail dresses.”
However, shoppers aren’t being restricted by price. Moore said, “They aren’t looking for a bargain, they are more concerned with looking appropriate. Styling was less glitzy and presentations were more low-key this season.”
Some standout sellers for Saks have included Badgley Mischka’s separates collection, produced exclusively for the store. The highlights of this line include bright red beaded laces and tuxedo looks. Vera Wang cocktail dresses are in high demand, especially a low-back number with tulle crisscrosses, which retails for $1,000. Helen Morley’s line of lace separates is also selling strongly.
Robert Burke, vice president and fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman, agreed that shoppers are interested in separates for evening this season.
“The peasant-blouse top translated into evening in a very strong way,” Burke said. “That kind of gypsy-bohemian chic type of off-the-shoulder, ruched or gathered pieces have been strong.”
Among the top sellers at Bergdorf’s have been Badgley Mischka gowns, Douglas Hannant’s leather tops and soft jersey dresses from Carmen Marc Valvo.
Burke said the overall feeling about eveningwear has changed.
“Things were more expected in the past, meaning that it was a lot about gowns and major dresses,” he said. “That doesn’t feel appropriate for the customer, right now. They are into more separates, which are a little more creative. It’s not about wearing the Academy Award dress right now — meaning the grand entrance dress.”
Burke attributed this more leisurely approach to evening dressing in part to people entertaining more at home.
“I think people are looking for things that are cozy and familiar as opposed to something slick and hard-edged,” said Burke. “I don’t think people are feeling terribly formal. They are trying to be and feel more individual and their take on evening now is much more about individuality.”
As far as styling is concerned, Bergdorf’s has taken a different approach.
“In the past we might have shown a strapless red gown with a fishtail,” he said. “Right now, what we’re showing is more like a Douglas Hannant blouse with a Valentino skirt. It’s more acceptable right now, or more interesting to the consumer, to mix and match things and to have things that are more eclectic, like bigger, chunkier jewelry.”
According to Lori Hirshleifer, vice president of Hirshleifer’s in the Americana shopping center in Manhasset, shoppers and designers have taken a more toned-down approach to evening dressing.
“There’s more black than there’s been in a while,” she said. “The clothes don’t have as many gems or sparkles on them. They are still body-conscious, but there’s definitely a different feeling in them. They’re not as decked.”
Top sellers at Hirshleifer’s include Badgley Mischka black gowns and jersey dresses from Vera Wang. Separates such as skirts or tuxedo pants paired with a dressy blouse are strong looks.
Jeffrey Kalinksy, owner of the Jeffrey stores, sees it a bit differently. “The few things I’ve seen being sold are true evening. I think it just depends on where someone is going. I don’t see or hear from my client a resistance to dressing up, but I do hear a following of the rules, so to speak. So if the Christmas party calls for business attire, then they aren’t wearing gowns,” he said.
Body-conscious dresses by Olivier Theyskens, Azzedine Alaia and Galliano are standouts for evening at Jeffrey.
Women on the West Coast have been picking separates with clear roots in ready-to-wear, according to retailers, who reported a general malaise in the category compared with holidays past.
Windsor Clothing Co., a junior-oriented retailer with 33 stores, dropped prices 15 percent in the special occasion category to jump-start some shopping action.
“Special occasion is really casual and playing off of the sportswear category,” said vice president Ike Zekaria. “So, we’re really going sexy and slinky with it.”
To wit, denim dresses have been checking, prompting the retailer to produce sandblasted denim dresses with fishtail hems for prom. Tulle swing dresses are also garnering some interest.
But the core drivers are in the romantic and Victorian vein. If they incorporate beading or lace, it’s a sure sale, said Zekaria. Windsor cited success with Los Angeles-based Scala, as well as Sean Collection and Zum Zum, two vendors from New York.
“It’s going to be a different holiday,” said Shauna Stein, owner of high-end specialty store On Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles.
Stein’s eveningwear business is down about 8 to 10 percent. Gone are the days when a woman buys a dress, wears it for one party, and relegates it to the closet, she noted.
“Things have gotten so casual in Los Angeles, and I think people want to wear what they buy again and again,” she said.
Some top sellers include a chiffon blouson from Moschino for $315 and an off-the-shoulder cotton blouse with lace inserts by Rebecca Taylor for $225.
Romance, ruffles and lace are driving business at Macy’s West. The look is showing up in tops, which consumers are pairing with velvet or lace pants for their holiday occasions, according to women’s fashion director Durand Guion.
“She’s even working it back to a pair of jeans,” he said. “She’s definitely versatile.”
As for promoting the dressier looks in advertisements, Macy’s stayed away from a celebration theme and put a spin on the idea of warmth and giving.
“People are feeling closer to home,” said Guion. “There’s something more special about the holidays this season.”
At Coplon’s, a Naples, Fla.-based specialty store with eight units in the Southeast, holiday eveningwear sales are even with last year’s. Separates, particularly special pieces with plunging necklines or fur trims, have been bestsellers.
“Customers have responded to novelty pieces that can be worn with leather, jeans or a satin skirt,” said Bruce Greenberg, president. “Eveningwear is big, but it’s not the mad rush we saw in the millennium season.”
While more sophisticated looks with less embellishment have replaced the glitz of past seasons, light beading on tops or sweaters has sold well. Bare looks are performing in halter tops and bustiers. Best-selling resources include Oscar de la Renta and Heidi Weisel.
Eveningwear business has been erratic, with sales down slightly from last year at Berlin’s in Charleston, S.C. Ellen Berlin, a partner in the family-owned business, bought 20 percent less than last year and has been filling in as needed.
Separates are outpacing gowns, with sportswear-inspired looks such as sweaters, tops and pants. With less glitzy looks than seasons past, bestsellers include lightly beaded asymmetrical skirts and chiffon tops with ruffles. While cutting back on print and radio advertising this year, Berlin’s has doubled the number of special events and fashion shows and increased travel to out-of-town clients’ homes.
Social occasion remains a bright light at Lilly Dodson in Dallas, with sales up by single digits against last year, said Bill Dodson, president.
“We have done surprisingly well with social occasion given the mood of the country and the prediction that there weren’t going to be as many parties this year, but that’s just not the case in Dallas,” Dodson said. “Women continue to dress up, but this time around it’s more opulent and romantic with less emphasis on sex and sizzle.”
Full-length gowns with trains were bestsellers, with beading and lace a key trend.
Best-selling labels include Peggy Jennings, which Dodson praised for its quality fabrics and construction and exquisite beading. Others standouts include Carolina Herrera, especially the full-length dresses with subtle doses of dazzle; Joanna Mastroianni’s evening separates, and Badgley Mischka’s slinky beaded gowns.
St. Thomas in Austin, Tex., is posting social occasion gains of 8 percent compared to last year, said Israel Riley Silva, co-owner.
“The parties haven’t stopped,” said Silva. “It spans from younger women wanting something fun and sexy to mother- of the bride. I have noticed that many women are waiting until the last minute to buy a gown, though, and they’ll spend money, but the dress better be perfect.”
Bestsellers include Rose Taft Couture, Badgley Mischka, Dolce & Gabbana Couture, Laundry by Shelli Segal and Victoria Royal.

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