Byline: Julee Greenberg

NEW YORK — Call it the casual hangover.
After years of overloading on pants and other casual styles, a return to ladylike looks and tailored clothing is whipping up substantial dress business at retail this season, across all price points and with an emphasis on prints and novelty.
Whether they buy chic designer collections or opt for more moderate labels, consumers have started their spring shopping early and are filling their closets with dresses.
Michelle DuPuis, a dress, suit and coat buyer for Henri Bendel, said prints are leading sales in the store’s dress department. Whether it’s in stripes, geometrics, florals or a mix of prints, consumers seem to like what they see.
“This season is completely print-driven,” said DuPuis, who cited Nanette Lepore as one of the store’s best-selling dress labels. “Looking at the dress floor, it’s one print story after another.”
Also strong for Henri Bendel is Diane Von Furstenberg’s entire collection and Betsey Johnson’s flutter-sleeve numbers, she said. Customers are also taking notice of dresses that come with pieces of jewelry.
“Laundry has some dresses with pins attached,” she said. “Some have flower pins+they like all the pins.”
While DuPuis said the store met its plan last year in the dress category, last week significantly exceeded expectations.
“I think our incredible week had a lot to do with our spring kickoff,” she said. “There were promotions going on that brought people into the store.”
Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president of fashion direction at Bloomingdale’s, said two dress styles are doing particularly well thus far: “Shirtdresses of all kinds are popular in geometrics, solids, brights and neutrals. Wraps are selling, both real and fake [fur] wraps.”
Ruttenstein also mentioned the popularity of jersey throughout the department.
“Jerseys in sleeveless, long sleeves, late day and into evening — this is a very hot fabric right now,” he said.
Similar news is heard from the dress departments at Nordstrom stores.
“In the better and moderate divisions, silk fabrics in two-piece suits and jacket dresses have begun to sell,” said a spokeswoman. “We are seeing customer interest in floral prints for both social and daytime dressing.”
In the designer area, leather dresses from Valentino, Yves Saint Laurent and David Cardona are selling in addition to print dresses from Valentino, Chloe, Dolce & Gabbana, Jean Paul Gaultier and Versace.
In Nordstrom’s Via C department, which showcases designer and gold range looks, there are a series of best-selling styles for spring.
“D&G’s stretch-cotton, micro-waffle dress, and their V-neck, camisole-style dress in white is selling,” she said. “Our customers are also excited about their stretch satin V-neck, V-back dress in blue.”
Along with those dresses from Dolce & Gabbana, Nordstrom is selling Blumarine’s almost-off-the-shoulder dress in black chiffon printed with pink flowers, a sleeveless multi-stripe dress with matching pastel cardigan from Bazar de Christian Lacroix, and Tracy Feith’s black and white floral dress with fitted waist and three-quarter-length sleeves.
This is all news that dress designers love to hear.
“This is a strong dress season,” said designer Nanette Lepore, “stronger than last year.”
Lepore said that while slipdresses were popular in years past, that silhouette is not driving her business.
“Customers are looking for more special items this year,” Lepore said. “Prints are popular and can be worn for day and night.”
Lepore said she designed her sportswear to go along with the dresses for the spring season and is continuing to do that for fall. For example, she created a cardigan that can easily be worn with many of her dresses. (For a story on Lepore’s new store in Tokyo, see facing page).
Geoffrey Blitz, a sales and marketing executive at Donna Morgan, said the spring season has gone beyond his expectations.
“Spring is totally sold out here,” he said, citing the company’s three divisions: mother-of-the-bride/cocktail, daytime and suits.
In the evening category, Blitz said mock-two-piece crepe dresses were the most popular items, while bright solid hopsack dresses with detailed trims and belts with novelty buckles sold in daytime. Also popular for day, he said, were jacket dresses and pantsuits in a range of colors like beige and bright orange.
In suits, silk skirt ensembles with funnel-neck underpinnings, and satin suits with crystal embellishments sold well, he said.
While Yigal-Azrouel’s collection includes various types of clothing, Donata Minelli, director at the firm, said dresses have become the designer’s signature.
“While sales are slightly higher than they were last year, he is known for his strong dresses,” she said. “Prints are driving sales of a lot of dresses.”
In addition to prints, Minelli said clean, feminine silhouettes are strong, along with halters and plunging necklines.
Prints are not the only game in town, however.
At Tahari, Mark Mendelson, president, and Tom Farley, vice president of dresses, said they are seeing a surge in dress sales for spring. Short cocktail numbers in black matte crepes and jerseys are bestsellers, they said, noting the importance of “sexy, draped, bare and black” within the collection. While some prints shipped for the season, they were certainly not dominant.
“This is a much better dress season,” Farley said. “When sexy is in, business is always better for Tahari.”
At Laundry by Shelli Segal, a division of Liz Claiborne, “Black is the number-one color,” said Andrea Scoli, executive vice president of dresses and sportswear. “It’s sexy and that is what our customer wants.”
Scoli said that while prints are selling to some degree, this is only seen in the social occasion category.
While the dress revival is good news for many merchants and vendors, Cynthia Steffe still believes that the best years for dresses are in the past.
“The strongest dress season was about two or three years ago,” she said. “This was when a pashmina or a cardigan came with a slipdress.”
Steffe said the first group of deliveries she sent out for the spring season are “selling very nicely,” but observed that dresses have become “sportswear oriented” and in many cases, appear as if they are two pieces.
“Eveningwear has even gone in that direction with the popularity of separates and beaded pants,” she said.
Steffe did note, however, that among her best-selling dresses are a black strapless jersey number and a chocolate dress with a belt.
“Any dresses with novelties seem to do well,” she said.