DRESS AND SUIT SALES START TO REBOUND

Byline: Leonard McCants, New York / Holly Haber, Dallas / Kavita Daswani, Los Angeles

NEW YORK — There are signs of life in the ready-to-wear world.
Stores across the country said last week that they have seen a resurgence in business following the consumer paralysis that resulted from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, with dresses and suits a key part of the comeback.
From New York to Los Angeles, retailers reported strong consumer reaction to fall’s easy dressing options in rtw across price points. Some noted that casual and novelty pieces have outperformed more dressy looks, as women follow the lead of dressed-down events such as the Emmy Awards and an overall sense that embellishment just doesn’t feel right in the current economic and political climates.
The uptick isn’t universal, though, with some retailers noting that the malaise that kicked in four weeks ago still remains. However, the price-value relationship of the single-ticket, rtw purchase, compared with sportswear separates, was cited as a factor in buying patterns.
Suits have been strong at Saks Fifth Avenue, especially those with interesting details, said Jaqui Lividini, senior vice president of fashion merchandising. Best-selling dresses also have details such as belts and trompe l’oeil trim. Key suit resources have been Armani,Yves Saint Laurent, Akris, Christian Dior and John Galliano.
Challenging the notion that the luxury sector would be among the hardest hit during tough times, the category has done well at Barneys New York, said Judy Collinson, executive vice president and general merchandise manager.
Dresses from Versace, Marc Jacobs, Jil Sander and Collette Dinnigan have been standouts this season, as well as high-end suits from Kiton, Barbera and Giorgio Armani.
Robert Burke, vice president, fashion merchandising at Bergdorf Goodman, said: The look of the season is Tom Ford’s “peasant-bohemian type of dressing” for Saint Laurent.
Other important resources included Didier Angelo, Marc Jacobs, Dolce & Gabbana, Chloe, Roberto Cavalli, Calvin Klein and Romeo Gigli.
“Dresses are easy,” said Stefani Greenfield, co-owner of Scoop. “Everyone who can find a great dress will get it in different colors and fabrics.”
Knit dresses and those in suit fabrics from Diane Von Furstenberg have been strong sellers, in addition to looks from Cacharel and Theory. Scoop is not known for its large selection of suits, Greenfield said, but does carry novelty pieces such as Michael Kors’s vicuna suit with a fox fur collar that sold out, as well as Helmut Lang’s tuxedo.
At Henri Bendel, key suit styles have featured tweed, velvet, boucle and double-faced wool from Anna Sui, Rebecca Taylor, Sara Berman and Nanette Lepore, according to Allyson Cohen, merchandise manager.
Key dress trends include chiffon numbers from Thread, Von Furstenberg’s matte jersey styles, Christina Perrin’s lace pieces and stretch satin looks from Mandalay, Cohen said.
At Dallas-based Neiman Marcus stores, tweed suits have been among the strongest trends for fall, with pantsuits selling well, and anything with a fur trim, especially colored fur.
Key suit vendors at Neiman’s this season are Albert Nipon, Teri Jon and Alberto Makali, said Ann Stordahl, senior vice president and general merchandise manager.
Structured dresses with jackets, as well as matte jersey styles, have also done well from such labels as Kay Unger, Nanette Lepore and Laundry.
Ladylike looks such as little black dresses and tweed suits have been popular at NM Direct, the online and catalog division of Neiman Marcus Group.
The direct merchant unit felt business drop off after Sept. 11, but has seen some categories begin to make a comeback, including suits and dresses, according to Gerald Barnes, senior vice president and general merchandise manager for women’s apparel and accessories.
NM Direct is also seeing action in three-piece ensembles that offer a suit with a matching shell, as well as wardrobers that combine a jacket with pants and a skirt or a dress.
Best-selling dress styles have been asymmetrical, one-shoulder and matte jersey numbers, especially in black, he added.
At Tootsies, which is based in Houston and has five specialty stores in Texas and Atlanta, the little black dress, especially in matte jersey, has been a hot number in an otherwise disappointing season.
“Business is tough in dresses, and suits are not as strong as anticipated,” said John Maguire, buyer.
Key resources include Nicole Miller, Laundry, Tahari and Tadashi.
The dressing down of the Emmys and other major events from formal to more casual attire has influenced women’s buying decisions, Maguire said.
“People are embarrassed to dress up until we get past [the emotional impact of the terrorist attacks] because they think they’re being frivolous,” he said. “But sooner or later, people will need to dress up. In another month, they’ll say they need a cute dress. There will be a need to feel happy again.”
Likewise, since the atrocities business has been slow at Colberts, a Dallas-based better specialty chain with 12 stores in the South.
“After all this tragedy, people just stopped buying,” said buyer Rubye Warren. “Nothing is selling. It came to a standstill.”
Sales started to pick up before Sept. 11, she noted, with some action in knit sweater coats over dresses by Adrianna Papell and Joseph Ribkoff.
Suits also have been trending well, especially classic pinstriped looks by Alberto Makali and Ice Cube, suits with a bit of Lurex by Albert Nipon and anything trimmed in leather, Warren added.
Jersey dresses by Pucci and stretch wool challis dresses by Etro have excelled at Tender, a designer boutique in Birmingham, Mich.
Tender has also done well with Blumarine’s wool tweed suit with a mink collar, said Karen Daskas, co-owner, noting that luxury styles remain strong. The boutique’s business is up for the year, and its customers have not stopped shopping since Sept. 11, Daskas noted.
On the West Coast, retailers have noticed strong demand for denim suits and dresses, ideally in crisp and classic shapes. At Los Angeles boutique Beige, owner Tina Webb said fitted, simple denim pantsuits from Luis Verdad were doing well.
“People are wanting a more casual suit,” said Webb. “But fall is going to be a big dress season, as long as it’s sexy. Some customers like a prettier dress, others something a bit more edgy, but they are all selling.”
In dresses, unadorned styles that fall right below the knee are important. Among the top sellers have been Rozay Nichols’s black rayon V-neck dresses and a kimono dress from Heza.
At Planet Blue in Malibu, manager and buyer Jen Rossi said her stock of Von Furstenberg dresses has been a strong addition to suits from Katayone Adeli and Development.

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