Byline: Georgia Lee

Separates are revolutionizing eveningwear. Practically nonexistent a few years ago, separates now represent well over 50 percent of sales for most social occasion lines. And with the excitement, comfort and versatility of sportswear, the category is a fresh alternative to the stuffy, one-time-only ballgown.
Separates allow mixing and matching, as well as unique pairings. They address a range of figure concerns for women who have different size requirements for tops and bottoms. Separates are generating new customers: both young women looking for updated looks and older women seeking an easy, comfortable alternative to a traditional dress.
Separates encourage creativity and individual expression. Savvy buyers can show consumers how to pair evening separates with sportswear — a beaded top with a pair of jeans, or a T-shirt over an embellished pant.
Evening separates helped drive holiday sales last year, even when Millennium Fever failed to generate the huge increase overall that some projected. The category picked up steam for spring and shows no signs of letting up into fall.
“Separates have been the saving grace for the past few years,” said Les Appel, president, Rex Lester, a Los Angeles social occasion manufacturer. “Our initial plan was for separates to be an add-on business, but it’s replaced a major portion of our dress sales.”
Introduced 18 months ago, separates now make up 50 percent of business for Rex Lester. Appel said separates have expanded the customer base between 7 and 10 percent, including specialty stores that don’t carry dresses.
A tie-front white taffeta shirt sold 45 pieces in three days at Nordstrom and is having a 35 percent sell-through, said Appel. For fall, separates will include more taffeta and laser-cut chiffon tops.
“Separates offer more personalized looks,” said Andrea Polizzi, designer. “We’re mixing more fabrics, such as specialty knits with taffeta for unexpected combinations.”
Tadashi, a Los Angeles-based eveningwear firm, pioneered separates five years ago with 25 units. Today, separates make up 30 percent of total sales, with 100 pieces per season. A 1999 sales increase of 30 percent was largely driven by the strength of separates. With dresses averaging around $150, separates are between $40 and $110 wholesale.
David Bershad, vice president, sales, said that separates, a natural extension of California lifestyle, had been a hard sell initially to buyers schooled in dress markets. Today the category is more accepted nationwide.
“Now, retail real estate for separates is incredible,” said Bershad. “Buyers understand the category now, even in the Southeast, where dresses have always been strong.”
Bestsellers are often part of the original collection launched five years ago. Fly-away georgette pants with front and back panels have sold 50,000 units.
To encourage more sportswear/eveningwear crossover, Tadashi will introduce a group of leather separates for fall, with 12 pieces of embellished leather.
“We’re aiming at the entertainment industry, with fashion-forward items,” said Bershad. “For a singer, we paired a leather bustier with a tulle skirt.” Bershad said the explosion of separates has also helped dress sales. Dresses have to be “more spectacular than ever” to compete with separates, he said.
Designer Victor Costa said that evening separates, now at 40 percent of the total collection, have always been a key part of his line.
“It’s a great, guiltless impulse item,” he said. “Yet it creates a whole new outfit.” Costa added that evening separates are flattering options for customers with unequal top and bottom sizes.
A white taffeta blouse with black laser-cut leaf embroidery has sold around 3,000 units wholesale and is a current bestseller at Neiman Marcus, he said.
For fall and spring 2000, Costa expands the blouse concept, with see-through sheers and built-in opaque bras, and adds 3-D flowers of raffia, silk embroidery or point d’esprit in an array of colors. Key items include “fancy pants,” a full sheer pant over tighter georgette pants. Jackets include boiled wool styles and a zip-front patchwork style, embellished with fake fur, velvet, embroidery or brocade.
“Women want interesting things now, because they already have a closet full of plain,” he said. “I’m doing things for women at the country club or at home cocooning, who don’t want to be all done up like a mother of the bride.”
Victoria Royal launched VIE, a separates division 18 months ago that is now 50 percent of the total line. Separates accounted for 15 percent of a 25 percent overall increase for 1999, according to Alan Sealove, chairman.
“It’s the phenomenon of sportswear that allows a woman flexibility to dress the way she likes, and it’s younger, sharper looking for a large range of people,” said Sealove. “At around $160 for an outfit, it’s less expensive than dresses, which start at $190. Stores that were afraid to commit to gowns can afford separates.”
With five choices of bottoms, VIE offers 25 tops including jackets. Groups include organza, satin, taffeta and lace. Out of six groups, only one could be considered basic.
Fall separates continue an ongoing trend toward opulence, and romance gives designers unlimited options for lavish, embellished looks. Texture, pattern and color are key, with embellishment in everything from embroidery to fur.
For Zola Evening, a New York manufacturer under parent company Kenny Z., launched September 1999, separates account for 70 percent of sales and make up 70 percent of the 100-piece fall line. Launched in September, Zola Evening projects $10 million in first-year sales.
Separates allow for faster reactions to trends, said Jeffrey Ciullo, vice president. For fall, fringe treatments, beads and special embroideries reflect the trend toward opulent even looks, while three-quarter-sleeved shirts, T-shirts, halter tops and capri pants add an edge for misses’ customers.
“Separates can give a look multiple personalities,” said Ciullo. “A woman can wear a buttoned-up jacket for a church wedding and then let loose in a bustier for the party afterward.”
Separates offer a three-piece look for around $399, compared with dresses, at $109 to $329.
At Bob Mackie Boutique, a three-year-old eveningwear line, separates have been great wardrobe builders. After introducing separates two years ago, the category now represents 50 percent of sales and should grow to 60 percent within this year.
With 60 pieces per season, 20 are always neutrals, in black or stone colors. Novelty pieces, such as a waterfall crystal beaded camisole or a paillette “disco” mix and match, with some looks carrying over from season to season. Overall sales tripled for 1999 over 1998 for the young company, in large part due to the success of separates, said Elaine Weisberg, vice president.
A few companies, such as New York-based Patra, have expanded separates from coverups to a much wider array of styles. Jackets or wraps, once reserved to 3rd- and 4th-quarter business, have expanded to a year-round, 200-piece category that includes a wide range of tops, skirts and pants.
Pants, particularly embellished styles, are statement pieces for fall, said Carrie Martin, national sales manager. Pants have evolved from basics to novelty pieces in animal skin prints or lace, embellished with beads or fur.
A vastly expanded coverup group now includes shawls, wraps, stoles and several satin evening coat silhouettes. Separates have expanded Patra’s account base with more bridal-related stores. Bridesmaid separates work well for a variety of sizes. At wholesale prices from $25 to $59, compared with $59 to $89 for dresses, separates offer multiple uses at affordable prices.
Retailers are increasing space and funding for separates.
At Jacobson’s, the category, introduced two years ago, has grown steadily from 2 to 50 percent of sales. Bestsellers include taffeta blouses from a variety of resources, little jackets over long skirts, sequin or lace pants and short sequin skirts.
“With separates, women can individualize their look and get longevity,” said Beverly Rice, senior vice president, fashion merchandising strategy. “By mixing pieces skillfully, she can fool everybody into thinking she’s wearing something new.”
Jacobson’s will increase separates for fall, which will become more prominently displayed within eveningwear departments.
“‘Evening separates are the dominant factor in eveningwear now,” Rice said. “They give women real options.”