SAYING NO TO SHORTS
INSEAMS MAY BE HEADING NORTH ON EITHER COAST, BUT IN THE SOUTHWEST, CAPRIS ARE KING.

Byline: Patricia Lowell

Where have all the shorts gone? This spring, a spin of the rounder will show that many stores are turning away from thigh-baring summer favorites — mostly, say retailers, because the super-short cuts make a flattering choice for only the most lean and leggy.
For the specialty store customer, short-shorts continue to take a back seat to more flattering silhouettes, including capri pants, skirts and slim dresses.
“We just don’t have the demand for shorts that we’ve had in the past,” said Lisa Bell, store buyer and merchandiser for Jim Ball Inc., which has 17 stores along the Florida panhandle, including Surfer Girl, Bungalo’s, Hepburn’s and Tooley Street. “We’ve gone with a few styles of board shorts by Lucky that retail for around $65 and some funky PE style shorts by Girl Star that retail for about $40, but that’s about as far as we plan to go with shorts for spring. We carry those labels especially for our younger customers.”
According to Lee Lindsay, also a store buyer and merchandiser for Jim Ball stores, the capri and drawstring sweat-pants styles are dressier and more flexible than most shorts options. “They can work from day to evening, and for the money, our customers think they’re a better investment.”
Southern retailers agree that teens, especially those in beach communities, are the main customers for HotPants. They are mostly interested in the flat-front, short-cut style with a drawstring waist and no belt loops, Bell noted.
“It’s that Mariah Carey style that is the most popular,” she said.
For Melissa Murdock, owner of Sandpiper in Atlanta, the whole shorts business has gone right past her customer. “Our best customer is 28 to 45 years old, and these shorts are way, way too short for her,” said Murdock, who adds that most of today’s short-shorts look great on teenagers, but are not appealing to women beyond the realm of high school. “Our best customer is an urban contemporary woman who is not going to walk around with her bottom hanging out. The only place she could possibly wear these shorts is to the beach or pool.”
According to Murdock, who has seen the shorts market fade for the past five years, the Sandpiper customer is much more likely to go for a modified shorts style like the one she purchased from Kenar. “They’re like a shorter version of a capri that hovers right around the knee, and they’re very flattering,” she says. “There are lots of fun prints and plaids, and I can see our customer wearing them in a very whimsical way with mules and a polo shirt.”
Shorts did poorly last year at both Leslie & Co. Ladies Store in Houston and J. Hoffman in Lubbock, Tex. Owners of both stores said their customers prefer capris and pedal-pushers, especially styles by Garfield & Marks.
“Our customer has gotten older, and they don’t feel comfortable going to certain places in shorts,” said Denise Darnell, owner of Leslie & Co. “I’ll probably stick with ankle pants and capris. Even though it’s so hot here, the air-conditioning in restaurants is so intense it’s freezing, so you have to dress for that.”
Vickey Hoffman, owner of J. Hoffman, agreed.
“We didn’t sell shorts last year, and I don’t see us selling lots of shorts this year,” she noted. “Capris are easy. They don’t have to worry about suntans and great figures, and they are properly dressed no matter where they are going.”
In El Paso, Tex., where hot weather requires cool dressing eight months of the year, customers wear shorts, but only if they cover most of the thigh.
“I tried a few pair of those short-shorts last year, and they just didn’t fly with our customer,” noted Bobbie Baldridge, buyer for Tres Mariposas in El Paso. “I think the market has spent the past few years educating women on how to wear capris and cropped pants, so customers have basically lost interest in going any shorter.”
According to Baldridge, it’s the difference between a playful look and a sexy look. “Our customer can wear a capri pant almost anywhere. We’re not a very dressy or formal city, so women can wear their capris with a jacket to work or buy capris with beads or lace and wear them to dinner. Women have discovered they can have some capris, cropped pants and a few dresses and have no need for shorts.”
But Baldridge added that if she still has dollars left for spring, she’d buy a great shorts silhouette if she were to find one at an upcoming market.
“I think that part of the reason our customer is not interested in shorts is because no one out there is really wearing them, except at home,” said Gretchen Richards, owner of Grove Hill, Ltd., which has two stores in San Antonio, Tex., and one in Austin, Tex.
While most customers shy away from more adventurous shorts looks, Richards said that she does have a steady business in classic pleat-front walking shorts, like Votre Nom’s, which are made from Tencel. They retail for about $121, and the softer fabric keeps them from looking preppy or stiff.
“The thing with shorts is that our customer can pick up a pair in denim or khaki from the Gap for about $15 and wear them around the house,” said Richards. “Shorts for working in the yard are not an item that we’re really interested in, and that’s not the kind of item our customers want from us. They buy a couple pairs of shorts and wear them until they’re worn out. They’re not something that they want to wear with a nice top and a pair of cute shoes.”
Richards does, however, expect that the fashion tide will turn in the near future, and designers will again turn their interest toward dressier, more flexible shorts.
“Women have gone away from shorts in droves, but fashion is a very cyclical business. I fully expect that in a few years, we’ll all be saying, ‘What happened to all the capri pants?”‘

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