Byline: Leonard McCants
NEW YORK — Reports of the death of the suit appear to have been greatly exaggerated.
Retailers and designers have already heralded the return of the jacket to daytime ensembles, and suit makers are hoping 2000 will also mark the year they rise from obscurity.
As suits took on a major fashion persona on the recent fall runways — from Miguel Adrover to Valentino — reminiscent of the high-shoulder-pad Eighties, suit vendors saw what they believe could be a fresh sign of life for a category that basically bottomed out.
Now suit houses are planning several avenues of attack — including increased spending on advertising and more in-store events — to let women know there are wear-to-work choices other than casual separates, and to capitalize on the suit’s return as a fashion trend.
For Gregg I. Marks, president of Kasper ASL, the dominant better and bridge suit firm, the return of constructed looks offers hope that suits will get back some of the prime selling areas in department stores lost to sportswear in the Nineties.
“My biggest problem was the space,” he said. “Suits and dresses were moved back and back and back.”
Now that the talk in fashion and retail circles has returned to suits, Kasper is planning to renovate 100 in-store shops this year with new fixtures.
For fall, Kasper’s strong sellers include suits in sueded fabrics, sharkskin tops and bottoms matched with sweaters, jackets with covered plackets, and short jackets, many made with stretch fabrics.
“The suit, even though it’s constructed, is easier to wear and more comfortable,” Marks said.
Looking for more comfort in a constructed look, he said, women are picking up more pantsuits.
Marks expects them to make up half the fall business, up from 25 percent of suits sold in the past. Also, he noted, the short-sleeved suit is selling well again, especially in the South.
“Short sleeves are very, very hot, whereas last year they were the kiss of death,” Marks said. “I’ve been swimming upstream for the last two years. This should definitely help the profitability of my business and the profitability of the stores.”
At Kasper’s bridge-priced Albert Nipon division, president Cliff Epstein is projecting a 20 percent increase in fall sales. Kasper is also launching suits under the Anne Klein label it acquired last year, for fall retailing, which company officials believe will give the firm positive operating leverage in the second half. (For more on Anne Klein Suits, see page 10.)
“With everybody talking about suits, that will give us the jolt that we need,” Epstein said. Key looks from Albert Nipon include a gold double-faced wool jacket over a black dress, a tweed jacket with a leather skirt and a brown melange jacket with a Persian lamb collar.
A new Halston suit license being launched for fall could not have bowed at a better time, said Ira Kipness, president of The Morgan Miller Group, which holds the license. Kipness was formerly president of Arenzano Trading, the Oleg Cassini suit licensee, which folded in September.
For 2000, the line is projected to have a volume of $20 million, Kipness said.
In the better-priced Halston launch, Kipness is stressing jackets in different lengths, pantsuits and column skirts. Key to this modern reinterpretation is a “travel group” made of reversible wrinkle-resistant fabrics that can be mixed and matched as ensembles.
“I want to make this a $100 million company,” Kipness said. “If we get lucky with this, it will be sooner rather than later.”
Advertising increases may be on the horizon for Zaralo, which holds the license for the better-priced Larry Levine and bridge-priced Bill Blass suit lines, said Michael Leibowitz, vice president and sales manager.
“It’s definitely something that we’re talking about,” Leibowitz said.
Leibowitz plans to stage trunk shows in stores around the country and said the firm is in discussions with retailers about establishing in-store shops for Larry Levine.
The company is relying on new interpretations of the suit, including hooded jackets and drawstring pants, in addition to zipper treatments, stitched detailing on pockets, felted fabrics, funnel necks and cuffed trousers.
Bookings are nearly 25 percent ahead of last year, he said.
Bookings have also been strong at the designer level.
Louis Koppelman, president of Louis Feraud, said, “Our bookings have been superb,” noting some of the more popular looks have included suits in printed fabrics, belted styles and tweed numbers.
“One of our strongest groups features mauve and lavender,” he said. “Louis Feraud is known as a suit house, and our customers expect that from us.”
Adam Lippes, creative director for Oscar de la Renta, said, “Suits have always been really important for Oscar,” noting the concentration on jackets and matching skirts in its collections for day and evening.
The focus is on embroidery for fall, especially crewel detailing on jackets and skirts, Lippes said. Also, earth tones, double-face cashmere fabrics and cocktail suits with wide collars on short fitted jackets have been strong looks.
“Suit dressing is so easy for women,” Lippes said. “You can mix and match, so it gives you a lot of versatility.”
Klaas de Weerth, president of Rene Lezard, said, “The suit never lost its importance. What we are experiencing is a strong demand, but successful looks have to be soft in the shoulder and soft in the front. They can’t be too constructed.”
Suits with details like detachable fur collars and cuffs, beading and stitching in contrasting colors, “all of which give the suit a different look,” said de Weerth, are the key to the fall line.
George Simonton, vice president and designer of an eponymous bridge suit line, said his company would start advertising for the first time this fall and double the number of his in-store appearances at trunk shows.
“We feel that we should strike while the iron is hot,” Simonton said of his foray into advertising. “It’s beyond an ego trip anymore. It’s for the bottom line, and name recognition is very important.”
The ad budget this year will be about $500,000, he said. Ads should appear in women’s fall fashion magazines, including W, Town & Country, Harper’s Bazaar and Marie Claire.
To make a look that had its heyday in the 1980s more manageable in the current “casual everyday” era, Simonton has softened the silhouette and added stretch fabrics to his suits.
“We’re doing a small shoulder, not a football shoulder,” he said noting the size of shoulder pads in his line has been reduced by half an inch to a quarter of an inch. He’s also adding zippers to jackets, using removable collars and incorporating leathers and broadtail fur into the mix.
So far, the changes have helped, said Karen Cohen, national sales director for George Simonton. She expects $2.5 million in suit bookings for fall, an increase of 25 percent from last year.
Tamotsu, a better suit resource, does not expect to make any significant changes to the brand this season, according to Ellen Mullman, sales manager.
The line will continue its signature of minimally designed styles, with an emphasis on double-faced wool suits, including key looks like a red and black mohair piece.
Riding the suit wave, Mullman is coordinating at least eight in-store appearances to improve sales, starting in June, at underperforming stores, including accounts in Houston, San Antonio, Chicago and Pittsburgh.
Yael Nazmiyal, sales manager of better-priced suit resource David Bijoux, said her bookings were up 30 percent for fall, and she had signed several dozen new accounts.
“Customers are tired of soft dressing, and buyers are asking for constructed suiting,” Nazmiyal said.
Some of the bestsellers are duster jackets and pantsuits.
Plaids, especially in vibrant colors, are popular at Iris Singer, an upper-end bridge resource, said sales associate Jennifer Singer. She said tweeds, stretch cavalry and leathers were booking well for fall.
In the moderate category, suits are also selling briskly, according to several firms.
Kathleen McFeeters, president of Donna Morgan, said, “I love the return of the suit. I think it’s fantastic.”
Suits make up about 40 percent of her business, she said. The pantsuit is booking well, as are suits in suede and leather and jackets with zippers.
To capitalize on this trend, the company is planning an ad campaign with pages in Marie Claire and InStyle magazines.
At J.G. Hook, strong sales can be attributed to new suit fabrics and a softer silhouette, said Ann Taylor, merchandiser.
“The suit is not as hard as it once was,” she said. “Even though it’s career, it’s still softer feeling. The fabrics and the styles are not quite as structured and the fabrics are softer.”
She noted that suits in melange stretch fabric, dusters with trousers and wardrobers were booking especially well.
Eric King, president of J.G. Hook, added that the return of the suit was important for his customers, considering their lifestyles.
“Women don’t have time anymore,” King said. “They are going at such an incredible pace. You need simplicity in your life. It gives you another five minutes to put breakfast on the table.”