Byline: Leonard McCants

NEW YORK — Suit vendors have been lamenting the consumer’s desire to dress down at work for years, but change seems to be on the horizon.
The manufacturer’s mantra about suit’s slip-on-and-go ease fell on deaf ears at retail in the Nineties, as women longed for less-structured clothing and sportswear looks. Compounding that was the success of the Internet and the laissez-faire dress policy at the dot-com offices. “Dress down” became T-shirts, jeans and flip-flops.
Several factors seem to be working in suitmakers’ favor. The value of a suit versus separates comes into play as the economy stumbles. At the same time, the dot-com fallout has many women trying to reenter the workplace and needing interview suits and returning to a more formal workplace environment.
Plus, the focus on suits on the fall runways seems to coincide with women yearning for the convenience of more put-together outfits, propelling early fall bookings and giving vendors hope for a solid suit season in what could otherwise be a difficult time at retail ahead.
“When the economy gets worse my business gets better because it’s a value relationship,” said Gregg I. Marks, president of suit powerhouse Kasper ASL. “The difference between suits and sportswear is that you can get a suit for $159.”
Ellen Mullman, sales manager at Tamotsu, said: “The truth is that people are coming back to the suit. When women want to feel put together, they put on a jacket. You can’t feel dressed up in a pretty sweater.”
The new suits are not as structured as they were in the Eighties and some women seem to want more pantsuits instead of versions with skirts to allow them a freedom of movement and more comfort, said George Simonton, head designer and vice president of his signature ready-to-wear and new Platinum collections.
“I see career going toward relaxed elegance,” Simonton said. “They don’t want to look too corporate. With pantsuits, they can wear flats and still look appropriate. With skirts, you have to cross your legs and think about pantyhose and the right pump.”
All of these elements are helping suit vendors generally post early-booking numbers above plan for the fall season to date.
Marks reported Kasper’s business is running about 15 percent ahead of last year, on the back of suits with suede, leather and velvet trim, longer skirt lengths and bright colors like orange, green and royal blue.
“I’m pretty optimistic,” he said.
The best-selling item at Tamotsu is a take on suits: a plaid wool coat that has a matching skirt, Mullman said.
“It’s an outerwear piece, but they are buying it alone or with matching chocolate suede pants,” Mullman said.
Also selling well for fall is a brown crocodile-textured viscose jacket with matching pants and skirts and a black pique suit with brown and cream pinstripes.
“The only thing that is not selling as well are the heavier items,” she said. “It’s about soft suiting, not hard suiting.”
For the season, she projects a small but steady increase in volume, adding, “I’m as busy now as I have ever been.”
Less-structured suits that are influenced by casual clothing have been best sellers at George Simonton, said Karen Cohen, national sales director.
Early bookings have improved nearly 25 percent over last year, she said. The best-selling item has been a wool glen plaid pantsuit with a coordinating blouse, she added.
In addition, novelty items like bold buttons and jewelry, bright colors, like red and blue, and lame finishes have been important this season.
Joann Langer, president of GM Design Group, which produces Garfield & Marks suits, Kenar, Womyn and Plein Air sportswear, said: “Our fall business is about 20 percent ahead of last year, which is excellent for us.”
Langer noticed an increase in customer demand for suits during a recent spring trunk show in Philadelphia, where women placed 160 special orders for fall.
Langer predicts suits in novelty fabrics will be popular at retail, therefore she has tripled her offerings to include houndstooth, checks and chevrons. Also important for fall are leather-trimmed jackets, skirts, as opposed to pants, and suit underpinnings.
At Morgan Miller, the company is shifting its focus to the signature collection of suits that retail for less than $100, said Richard Cavallaro, principal.
“For us as a company, we’re finding all of our growth and emphasis is going into our Morgan Miller line,” he said. “The suit business under $100 is great,” Cavallaro said.
The company also manufactures suits under license for Halston and Nolan Miller. Key items have been seasonless fabrics, column skirts and suits with embellishments and bright colors.
Bold colors and novelty materials and details are also important at Donna Morgan, where Geoffrey Blitz, a sales and marketing executive, said gold, hunter green, garnet and teal are important. Silk shantung, houndstooth, fur collars and glen plaids have also sold well.
“We’re booking suits like crazy,” Blitz said. “The company is ahead of plan.”