Byline: Melanie Kletter / Shirliey Fung, New York / Rusty Williamson, Dallas / Kristin Young, Los Angeles / Georgia Lee, Atlanta

NEW YORK — There’s a fine line between business casual and business boring.
With an eye toward spicing up their wardrobes, shoppers have been hitting better and bridge sportswear departments this fall in search of luxury items and basics with a twist.
Retailers interviewed around the nation in a WWD survey reported that these sportswear categories have gotten off to a strong start this fall, with cashmere sweaters, leather and suede bottoms and blazers, and basic items jazzed up with novel fabrics or cuts sparking the season.
While separates remain a mainstay of a woman’s wardrobe, with casual trends holding their ground against a surge of tailored clothing, retailers also noted somewhat of a pickup in demand for suit looks — with novel fabrics and cuts, which allow one to be dressed up but not exactly buttoned down, winning their place in shoppers pocketbooks.
Merchants said that, by and large, shoppers are on the hunt for items they can wear with what’s already in their closets rather than seeking out whole outfits.
Further, while there are some clear trends, there are still no hard-and-fast rules among shoppers. For instance, one buyer claimed he “can’t get enough” animal prints, while another pronounced them “very, very dead.”
At Dallas-based Neiman Marcus, the bridge sportswear business is beating plan and charting strong gains against a year ago, said Ann Stordahl, senior vice president and general merchandise manager.
“Luxury fibers such as leather, suede, cashmere and tweed are extremely important, as are abstract-print blouses and structured jackets in a variety of lengths,” she explained. “We’re buying and merchandising the category with a strong focus on trends. Bridge is an important category and consumers are responding at full price.”
At Lilly Dodson, a women’s better-to-designer specialty store in Dallas, its bridge sportswear business is bought and merchandised by lifestyle, according to Bill Dodson, president.
Bestsellers, he said, include softly tailored sportswear from Ron Leal, Rena Lange, Zanella, Escada and Missoni M; cotton shirts from Finley; luxurious knit sweater sets from Tse; and leather ensembles from Claude Montana, Emma Black and Christian Lacroix Bazaar.
Dodson said relaxed social-occasion styles are also important this fall, including beaded tops from Carolina Herrera, organza blouses with crystal trim from Sylvia Heisel, lace pants and halters from Joanna Mastrianni and novelty items from Vivienne Tam.
On the West Coast, pants, skirts and blouses are driving sales in the better category, according to a recent spot check of several retailers here.
Draper’s & Damon’s, a 33-unit better specialty store chain based in Irvine, Calif., is having success with novelty decorated merchandise, specifically animal prints.
“You can’t get enough of them,” said Herman Heinle, Draper’s executive vice president of merchandise, noting that animal prints are doing best in shirts, sweaters and some jackets. “We’re really getting a tremendous reaction.”
The chain’s pants and skirt businesses continue to be strong while colors, mostly reds and plums, are helping to drive business.
Draper’s & Damon’s has been experiencing double-digit comparable-store sales increases year-to-date and Heinle said during the last three months sales have continued at that pace.
At Macy’s West, career is selling well thanks to updated merchandise in the category, according to officials at the San Francisco headquarters.
“The career zone has really updated their styling, not in a contemporary way but in a more modern way,” without abandoning the traditional misses’ fit, said Ruth Hartman, vice president and divisional merchandise manager in the better category for the department store chain.
Hartman noted that the career category has expanded to include knits and blouses in addition to its suit business, all of which are increasing sales.
Macy’s West is doing quite well with the color story of camel, red and black, according to Hartman. Color overall is strong and is heavy on reds with tomato, beet, pinks and fuchsia in the forefront. Other strong colors are purple and green.
Printed blouses are selling better than solid blouses; men’s wear influences such as plaids and tweeds are strong, and skirts in knee- or midcalf lengths are checking, as well. The stores are also seeing a resurgence in twinsets, specifically in cardigans. Leather pants are strong, too.
Macy’s West is having success with private labels Alfani and Charter Club. Other strong labels are Anne Klein II, Kenneth Cole, Slates, Lauren and Nine West.
“We’ve picked up significant volume over last year in total better sportswear,” said Hartman, noting that, in addition to updated merchandise, the better departments have added some space in stores.
Jill Roberts, owner of an eponymous boutique with two locations, in Beverly Hills and Santa Monica, said basic pants in unique fabrics are driving her better business.
“We’re selling a ton of pants and sweaters, because that’s how people are dressing,” she said.
Roberts said a pair of orange tweed pants from Chaiken is blowing out of the boutiques. Pants in herringbone, bright cherry red, fuchsia and gold lace brocade are also selling strongly.
Gold metallic-yarn V-neck sweaters and gold big chunky turtlenecks have also performed, she added. Basic T-shirts from Petite Bateau are keeping pace.
Roberts said the store in Beverly Hills has been pulling in sales increases in the double digits during fall compared with the same period a year ago. Sales at the store in Santa Monica have remained equal to figures posted last year.
Atlanta’s Rexer-Parkes, a better-and-bridge specialty store, reported a 31 percent sales increase over last fall. Manager Patricia Rexer said, “This fall is much more inspiring than last year — it’s all about luxury fabrics and color, and pieces that make you want to invest money in them.”
The store’s successful better and bridge lines include Trina Turk, Nanette Lepore, Chaiken, Vivienne Tam and, for the first time, Rozae Nichols. Best-selling items are luxury cashmere-and-mohair sweaters, flat-front trousers, twill ankle pants, and novelty skirts in A-line, knee-length, and asymmetrical styles. Suede pants and skirts have also been key pieces this season.
Rexer said better-and-bridge business has been good overall, with no one area leading sales. Markdowns have been as frequent this year as last year.
Buyer Denise Pugh of the two Minor Frances specialty stores in Memphis, Tenn., said fall has been an item-driven season. Business is up 20 percent over last September, with no markdowns so far.
Bestsellers include novelty suits from Lafayette 148, long notched-collar blazers from Tamotsu, low-rise cropped pants from Donna Degman and fake-python blazers from the recently introduced View line. Tweed, plaid, leather, pleather, velvet and lace blends are top-selling fabrics.
Mixing bridge and better lines in the store has proven beneficial for sales, she noted.
“Our customer, now in her mid-30s, 40s and 50s, is really stepping out this season,” said Pugh. “There’s so much fun and novelty in the market that she’s buying what looks good on her, rather than any one price point.”
Interest in better and bridge business is growing at Jacobson’s Stores Inc., a specialty chain with 24 stores in six states. The Jackson, Mich.-based company’s best-selling lines are Lafayette 148, Votre Nom, Ellen Tracy and Chaiken, with newer additions, including Rene Lezard, MaxMara and Michael Kors.
Career separates such as suit jackets, silk charmeuse blouses and plaid skirts have been strong sellers, as well as luxury sweaters, ankle-length skirts and funnel-neck tops, according to a company spokeswoman. Geometric and animal prints are important, along with fabrics like leather, tweed and wool-and-cashmere blends.
The spokeswoman said he attributes the strength of career and luxury trends to customers looking beyond the casual approach.
“The appeal is in the glamour of the ladylike look — it’s new, it’s the next wave and we’re wanting to put ourselves together again.”
The spokeswoman said fall sales have been good, adding that the company’s focus on full-price selling has limited the frequency of markdowns.
Nathalie Seaver, owner of the 700-square-foot Los Angeles boutique Seaver, said that skirts were selling well for her. One of her best-selling items was a Vert Rouge black twinset with a small, white colorblock trim on the bottom.
“The shell is so pretty on its own, we’ve had to reorder it,” she said. “It’s a great classic piece, but it has low-key, very special embroidery with delicate beading. It’s a nice alternative to a basic black.”
She said that although the cardigan has done well, the reaction has been stronger to the shell. The shell retails for $98, while the cardigan sells for $128.
“People are looking for a lot of add-ons,” she said. “They’re looking for that item that will just enhance something that they have.”
Seaver added, “Animal prints are very, very over. I expected the python print to continue a little bit longer. It was so strong for a while that it was a no-brainer, but it’s just slowed down.”
Seaver said that sales were slow in August, but they took an upswing in September.
At Seattle-based Nordstrom Inc., strong sales of leather and suede garments, as well as a resurgence in demand for suit looks — albeit those with a unique twist in tailoring or fabric — have been the main trends for fall, a spokeswoman said.
“To sum up, it looks like we’re seeing a return to suiting,” she said. “As you might expect for the season, knits in wool and cashmere are strong. Even though the traditionally deeper fall color palette is reflected in buying trends, customers are interested in wearing an increased range of colors. They’re considering a wider range of colors as being neutrals.”
She listed a number of top-selling lines at the chain this fall, including:
Lafayette 148’s silk charmeuse turtleneck blouses, cashmere wrap sweaters, silk blouses with French cuffs, diagonal tweed suits and pastel pinstriped jackets and coordinating bottoms are doing well in plum, orchid, violet and pastel blue, she said.
Dana Buchman’s leather-trimmed jackets and sweaters, shirtjackets, asymmetrical skirts, sleeveless and short-sleeved turtleneck sweaters and wrap blouses are also selling briskly for Nordstrom in muted orange and red, camel, chestnut and heather gray.
Bill Burns’s long fringed skirt, stretch wool flat-front pants, cashmere funnel-neck sweaters, cocktail capes, keyhole sweaters, felt cropped pants and fitted white cotton stretch shirts.
Eileen Fisher’s cowl- and funnel-neck sweaters, long cardigans, drawstring pants and cashmere ribbed T-necks are doing well in merino wool, boiled wool, mohair and fleeced wool.
She also noted that Classiques Entier, a Nordstrom house brand, has had strong sales of pants styles in brown and black leather and suede.
Stephani Greenfield, owner of the four-store Scoop chain in New York, said Kors, the bridge line from Michael Kors, has been selling “phenomenally.”
“Kors is on fire,” she said. “The best styles include tweed pants and the princess belted coats.”
Greenfield said she brought in fall merchandise early to help generate sales, and the cooler fall weather has provided a lift to her business. Top-performing categories so far this fall have been leather and sweaters, especially yarn styles.
Apparel and accessories associated with glam, late-Seventies and early-Eighties style trends have also been hot, Greenfield noted.

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