DOLLARS AND DRESSES: THE LADIES ARE BACK AND SALES ARE STIRRING

Byline: Julee Greenberg / With contributions from Leonard McCants

NEW YORK — It could be their time again.
Dress designers have been struggling for more than a decade with the sportswear revolution — which spawned a slew of sportswear brands incorporating dresses in their collections and the casual movement that often made ready-to-wear seem old and in the way.
But the recent trend toward more tailored and ladylike looks, with dresses once again flowing down the runways, has served to give the category that prides itself on femininity a much-needed boost.
Designers that began in the dress business returned to their roots in their spring collections: Nicole Miller showed lots of floral-mixed print dresses in bright colors, Cynthia Rowley sent out eye-catching eyelet numbers in fresh, light colors, and Jill Stuart mixed the ladylike trend with the Eighties-retro look in bright, frilly spring dresses.
Even sportswear kingpins Calvin Klein and Donna Karan adorned their runways with a variety of dresses for the season.
With the approach of the spring retail selling season — always a key time for dress makers — a revival of sorts is in the works.
As sportswear stalwart Cynthia Steffe said: “People seem to be buying dresses this year,” pointing out the ease of slipping on a dress and still looking great. “A dress is such a nice look and a no-brainer way to dress.”
This spring, shoppers will see a bigger selection of colors, styles and fits than before. Dress executives said that based on what the stores have bought, the top ideas range from elegant, embellished evening gowns to frilly minidresses and casual and comfortable shirtdresses.
There are many reasons for the interest in spring dresses, said Bud Konheim, chief executive officer at Nicole Miller, who believes that while a dress is an easy-to-wear item, the good economy is also offering opportunities for dress wearing.
“With the general economy still doing well, there are still occasions going on where women need dresses,” Konheim said. “The only difference now is that consumers are a bit more price-sensitive than they used to be.”
While Konheim said the company is focusing on offering better items at more “popular” prices, he finds it ironic that the number-one-selling dress so far is the most expensive on the line.
“Bookings have been just outstanding this season,” he said. “Last spring, we had more separates and now we have more dresses. The dress business is stronger right now.”
Also reporting strong spring bookings was Felicia Marie Geller, senior vice president at Shoshanna.
“Even though we are focusing on the development of separates, dresses did book very well,” she said.
Geller said this is the company’s third spring season as a dress firm, with the label extending into separates and swimwear.
Known for her signature wrap dress, Diane Von Furstenberg has been hard at work developing items to grow her business by offering more than just dresses, but still sees dress bookings “highly above” last spring.
“It has been a terrific spring, so far,” said Paula Sutter, president of Diane Von Furstenberg, pointing out that the company is offering looks from flirty and feminine dresses to simple, go-to-work styles.
Bonnie Fox, director of merchandising at Maggy London, said spring dress line bookings are flat to last year’s spring sales, but she sees a positive in the way orders have been placed.
“The accounts that took greater risks with product enjoyed better retail sales and their purchases are up,” said Fox, stressing that styles that “read newness” seemed to be selling best.
On the other hand, “Stores that played it safe and based their purchases on the ‘tried and true’ rather than the ‘new and not yet known,’ did not enjoy the increase at retail last year and their purchases are slightly down for this spring,” she said.
“The best-received trends are those in bright, modern and color-drenched silk prints and Mondrian-inspired colorblock styles,” she said, “the best being the geometric prints and Eighties-retro abstract patterns.”
Fox said that dresses with ruffles, tiers and asymmetrical details have been well received, as were the basic “little black dresses.”
“The most important fabric is silk and the newest fabric interest is in sensuous, drapey matte jersey,” she added. “The newest and most ubiquitous style bought and requested has been the shirtdress.”
Stephen Digeronimo has added a larger color palette to his dress line and is offering a deeper range of prints, as well. Pedro Cruz, assistant to the president, said some of the popular prints include a colorblock motif and some geometric items.
“This season has seen much better bookings,” over last spring, Cruz said. “I think dresses are much more popular this year.”
While some dress designers want to get consumers out of the sportswear department, Cynthia Steffe wants to keep them there, but give them dresses, as well. When creating dresses for her spring line, Steffe had her sportswear collection on her mind.
Steffe said a few of her best-booked numbers this spring include a “dancing dress,” a chocolate halter piece designed with a Western influence, and a peach and cashew-color suede shirtdress with a snap front.
Known for her playful feminine looks, Cynthia Rowley’s spring show, labeled “The birds and the Bees,” showcased a variety of different looks with a Fifties influence.
“The line was inspired by Cynthia’s aunt’s wedding in the 1950s,” said a spokeswoman.
She said some of the most-popular items for the season include the eyelet dresses and cut-off bridesmaid dresses. Also booking well is the “lucky clover” dress, which is an off-white style with a green clover print.
Although dresses are not a plentiful item at Bill Blass, sales director John Lindsey said there is always a demand for dresses, especially in the the spring and summer.
“When a woman goes out looking for a dress, she has a specific idea about what she is looking for,” Lindsey said. “She knows what she wants in a dress.”
Lindsey said the best-booking styles are not embellished, as they were in the past, but are sleeveless numbers in longer lengths and brighter colors.
On the other hand, Jay Diamond, president and ceo of the Halmode Apparel division of Kellwood Co., which produces the David Meister and Sag Harbor lines, said he is booking many embellished looks.
“We are 30 percent ahead of where we were last year in a tough market,” Diamond said.
He pointed out that spring is always a better time of year for dresses and Easter items make the season “our time of year.”
Diamond said he believes business is up this spring because his brands offer a good price-value ratio.
“People are watching their money in what is becoming a tough economy,” he said.
For David Meister’s new daytime line, which bows at retail in the coming months, short dresses in bold and brightly colored patterns, and black-and-white- printed silks and cottons were key trends for spring.
“There is definitely a return to good dresses,” Meister said. “For the last year or two, it was about dresses, but now consumers want true dresses.”
Bookings have been “better than expected” as orders surpassed first-quarter projections, he said.
At Yigal-Azrouel, dress bookings are up 18 percent over last season, according to Donata L. Minelli, director.
Retailers were looking for “risque” dresses from the line, especially “plunging, halter dresses and looks with deep V-necks,” Minelli said. Prints outsold solids nearly 2 to 1.
“We feel dresses will trend aggressively this season,” she added.
Daytime dresses at Chetta B By Sherrie Bloom and Peter Noviello are booking at the same pace as last year, said Howard Bloom, president.
“I consider that a real feat,” he said. “We have been playing down daytime in favor of our evening dresses.”
He said the company shrank the line from nearly 100 looks last year down to about 25 versions this season. Matte jersey, printed chiffon and silk organza have been the best-selling items, he added.

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