THE UPS AND DOWNS OF BUILDING A DRESS LINE

Byline: Eric Wilson, New York / Rusty Williamson, Dallas

NEW YORK — Two rising stars in the dress industry are taking opposite approaches toward building their companies in the next year.
Donna Morgan, which has built a $60 million business in seven years and taken a dominant position in the better day category, is launching a bridge-priced social occasion line for fall called Morgan McFeeters, a combination of the designer’s surname and that of Kathleen McFeeters, the firm’s chief executive officer.
Going in the other direction is David Meister, a contemporary evening division of Kellwood Co.’s ENC unit. Meister, which topped $10 million in sales its first year, will launch a day dress division for spring 2001 retailing.
Both moves reflect a continuing resurgence in overall dress business during the past couple of years, where social has been considered a thriving category and day dresses are on their way back.
Donna Morgan has faced constant requests for more social dresses from stores that want to split the line into both day and evening departments, but company executives were hesitant to start a separate evening division because the firm has experienced some of its best sales in doors that merchandise the line as a collection concept, with day and evening looks hanging together. They were also concerned about the range of product they would be able to create at better prices, so they decided to focus on the contemporary bridge category instead with Morgan McFeeters, which wholesales from $98 to $350.
The company projects a first-year volume of at least $2 million.
“Donna Morgan has always done social occasion, day-to-dinner, prom and bridal dresses, in addition to day looks,” McFeeters said. “We wanted to use leather, suede and fur, beaded pants and separates, really do the whole thing. But we did not want to dilute it down to a $69 price point.”
McFeeters added that the contemporary evening category, while already hot with labels like Laundry by Shelli Segal, BCBG Max Azria, Kay Unger and ABS, still has room for growth, particularly with strong brand names. The firm is trying to set itself apart in that category with strong beaded pants, gold leather skirts, slinky matte jersey dresses accented with jewelry chains and snakeskin skirts in rich red, blue and silver tones, as well as separates made from dyed ostrich feathers.
David Meister is building on a strong first year in the contemporary evening category by targeting the day market, planned to open in December for a spring launch.
“We really think there is room for a true contemporary daytime dress line,” said Penny Aschkenasy, executive vice president of ENC. “Some of the contemporary dress lines have gotten so young that we think there is a place for a line that is not so better-junior looking, but truly contemporary, and David could do that very well.”
The company hasn’t set the design direction or wholesale prices yet, but Aschkenasy said looks in the day line will not top $200 at retail. It is also cementing plans this week for an advertising campaign for the line, as well as pursuing licensing opportunities for footwear and handbags.
The Los Angeles-based Meister, who formerly designed eveningwear for Laundry for six years, projected the business would grow 25 percent in the next year.
“The women who buy my clothes have a designer sensibility with a value mind-set,” said Meister. “Our customers like our clean approach to fashion trends and appreciate the versatility of evening separates.”
Meister’s fall evening collection includes looks inspired by sexy, short cocktail dresses designed by Giorgio Sant’Angelo in the late Seventies and Yves Saint Laurent influences, including beading, fur and leather trims, he said.
There are also tea-length, bell-shaped and mermaid skirts, sexy tops and lots of opulent fabrics, Meister said. Wholesale prices range from $100 for a metallic knit dress to $250 for a long, beaded dress with fur trim.
“The line is pretty and clean and on target for the younger customer,” said Gerald Barnes, vice president and divisional merchandise manager for evening suits and dresses at Neiman Marcus. “It’s feminine and not complicated.”
Beverly Rice, senior vice president of fashion and merchandise strategy at Jacobson’s, added, “The collection is very versatile and well made. The styling is updated and the fabrics are great. David Meister represents the fashion leadership and value that we love.”

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