Byline: Kristin Larson, New York / Kristin Young, Los Angeles / Holly Haber, Dallas

NEW YORK — Despite reports that show September was one of the worst months ever for apparel retailing, moderate and better sportswear departments have seen some pockets of strength.
Notable performers have been a variety of sweaters, suede styles, denim looks and plenty of patriotic items. Retailers across the country reported last week that consumers have been slowly returning to the stores and grabbing onto these looks, following the consumer malaise that was intensified by the Sept. 11 attacks.
Scott Baskin, president of Mark Shale, which has eight stores spread over Chicago, Dallas, St. Louis, Kansas City and Atlanta, said business has crept back to normal since the events of last month.
“The business each day has been better, but we still haven’t recovered,” Baskin said. “Up until the event, we were way ahead, and on Sept. 11, our plan changed. On Sept. 12, our business was down 30 percent and gradually, each day is better. We have a lot of out-of-town business, particularly in Chicago, Atlanta and Dallas, and that business stopped, but is starting to recover.”
Sweaters and tops have been the lead sellers, along with low-rise trousers and suede items. “There hasn’t been one dominant look, it’s more items,” Baskin said. “The trend of casual has performed well and wherever there’s newness, it’s been successful.”
At Gottschalks, based in Fresno, Calif., the moderate category has done well when stacked up against children’s, men’s and women’s better sportswear categories, said Gary Gladding, senior vice president of merchandising. The moderate career business, weekend wear and casual denim have been the success stories, said Gladding.
“Year-to-date, we had a mid-single-digit increase, but after [Sept. 11], it’s been flat,” Gladding said. “Relative to other businesses, that’s good.”
Moleskin, chenille sweaters, cashmere cardigans and zip-back mocks have been successful, and consumers have been finding comfort in leggings, as well, he added.
Comfort also has been the priority at San Francisco-based Macy’s West, according to Durand Guion, fashion director of women’s ready-to-wear.
“It’s hard to sort out what’s happening in the moderate category,” Guion said. “Are there fewer people at the moment? Absolutely, but at this point, our strategy is not to panic and stay focused day to day.”
Macy’s West is banking on selling items that are “comfy and cozy,” concluding that more customers will want to spend more time at home. Anything novel is doing well and Guion expects that trend to carry into holiday.
At JoAnn’s, a five-store chain in Houston, novelty T-shirts, textured knit sweaters and leather and suede bottoms have been the strongest of the season.
“The better sportswear business is probably a point or two up this season,” said JoAnn Burnett, owner. “Sept. 11 threw everyone for a loop, but our business is good. It’s not great, but good and strong. We work very hard on the phones every day and we cannot wait for people to walk through the door.”
At Nordstrom, customers have responded to newness and classics with an updated twist, said Bonnie Junell, vice president and corporate merchandise manager of Point of View, the store’s better sportswear department.
“Newness is really driving the selling,” Junell said. “And anything in patriotic red and navy has trended really well, obviously because of what happened.”
The top-selling brands have been Lauren by Ralph Lauren, Sigrid Olsen, Tommy Bahama and Jones New York. In addition, the classic, collegiate look has performed well, noting the popularity of ankle-length pants, polo shirts and equestrian looks, she said.
“Season-to-date, we’re pretty much flat,” said a spokeswoman for The Bon Marche in Seattle. “But in the moderate category, we’ve been holding our own all year.”
She added the moderate category has gotten a boost from consumers who would otherwise be buying better merchandise, but have opted for less expensive prices.
Like many retailers across the country, top sellers have been sweaters and sweater coats, cashmere and sleeveless shells. Denim is another bright spot, with jeans, skirts and jackets emerging the strongest.
“We’re just going to look at remaining positive and setting ourselves apart with points of difference, such as great service,” said a spokeswoman for Jacobson Stores Inc., which has 23 stores in Michigan, Ohio, Kansas, Kentucky, Indiana and Florida. “The buys are placed and we had great planning for what we bought for holiday, and now it will be up to us to provide the extras.”
In addition to suede, hot-selling items at Jacobson’s have included novelty T-shirts and items with embellishment. The best-performing better sportswear brands have been Sigrid Olsen, Karen Kane and Ellen Tracy, according to the spokeswoman.
At Elder-Beerman Stores, based in the Dayton, Ohio, soft-touch sweaters such as styles made in chenille and angora, as well as turtlenecks, sweater coats and rib knits, have excelled, said a spokeswoman. Fashion colors also have done well, and the retailer expects forthcoming shipments of pastel knits to perform well, too.
Leading denim vendors have included Tommy Hilfiger, Levi’s, Bill Blass, Liz Claiborne and Gloria Vanderbilt. Evan Picone separates have sold strongly, and Tommy Hilfiger has been a leader in misses’ and junior sportswear departments.
“The business has been tough all over, but we do see some bright lights,” the spokeswoman said. “We’re having trouble determining when things will settle down. They have not since Sept. 11, yet things did pick up at the end of September. We really don’t know whether it’s going to keep up or not.”
Elder-Beerman reported comparable-store sales were up 0.1 percent, to $59.5 million, for the five weeks ended Oct. 6, helped by the shift of a promotion from October into September.
Sweaters, particularly cashmere, continue to play strong at Chicago boutique Sugar Magnolia, which has maintained its Oak Street presence since 1979. Owner Leslie Gersten said long sweater coats are the top sellers, in all sorts of colors. In addition, she said items to pair with the sweaters — such as pinstripe and cuffed pants — are big hits.
“We’re way up in sales in September and in October and we’ve been doing well since the tragedy,” Gersten said. “People still need things and they need items to enjoy their life. Also, people can afford to shop in our store whether they’re a young person doing the clubs, a working person or a home person — these are not items that will break the bank.”
At Lord & Taylor, patriotic merchandise, denim and suede are among the strongest performers this fall, said a spokeswoman. Top-selling brands have included Polo Jeans, Tommy Hilfiger, Lauren by Ralph Lauren and the store’s private label Kate Hill.