Byline: Leonard McCants

NEW YORK — The dress cycle is back on the upswing.
After several seasons of mediocre results and a consumer mini-revolt against the dress in favor of sportswear pieces, dress resources are talking about the possibility of a “phenomenal” spring based on early bookings.
Part of the reason for the optimism came from spring collections, where many designers featured one-piece dressing as a dominant theme to their runway presentations.
Donna Karan, known for her “seven easy pieces” approach to sportswear, apparently felt inspired by “one easy piece” this season, showing nearly an entire collection’s worth of dresses on her spring runway.
Vendors are hoping that retailers will be keying into that category with some increasing floor space dedicated to dresses.
“There are a lot of different trends this season,” said Ed Burstell, vice president and general merchandise manager of Henri Bendel, “and when there is no clear trend you stick with what you know. And we blow out dresses. We’ll give it another room on the fourth floor.”
That additional square footage will augment the dress space by 20 percent for spring, Burstell said.
“Dresses were strong on everyone’s collection and not just because it’s spring,” he added. “It’s over and above that. There are some definite opportunities over last spring.” Bright colors, jersey and prints are driving the spring business so far, manufacturers said, with cocktail dresses especially making a resurgence after lackluster sales for several seasons.
Jeffry Aronsson, president and chief executive officer at Oscar de la Renta said bookings so far have been “fantastic.”
“I’m looking at where we were last year compared to this year to date and it’s phenomenal,” he said, noting that spring numbers are running 80 percent above last year.
Aronsson attributes the increase to de la Renta and his design team who, he said, “evolve and change and yet stay true to a core.”
“They appeal to a new audience without alienating the existing customer and that is reflected in these numbers,” he said.
The company may face some challenges in the advertising arena, Aronsson conceded, where de la Renta will continue to compete with other designer resources with much larger budgets.
“It’s that much more important to be thoughtful and strategic and do it in a manner that is appropriate and consistent with what we are as a brand,” and of the image de la Renta wants to portray, he said.
Judy Scarpulla, senior vice president at Nicole Miller, said there’s a shortage of good cocktail dresses in the market, “and there’s a need for the little black cocktail dress.”
Scarpulla said the company’s prom business could increase by 40 percent this year.
Fresh from a trip to Paris for the Tranoi trade show, where 53 new accounts were registered, Astrid Martheleur, vice president of sales at Diane Von Furstenberg, said spring bookings have been “insane.”
“It’s incredible what’s happening,” she said. “The spring season has surpassed what I have projected. What I have done in one quarter is what I projected for three quarters.”
Martheleur said the line’s silhouettes, its feminity and designs helped propel it forward for spring.
“The formula is something that we do not veer away from,” she said.
At Marc Bouwer a designer-priced eveningwear company, Bouwer noted that some retailers are asking for a November delivery of seasonless spring merchandise like jersey dresses.
“The little black jersey dress you can wear whenever and [the retailers] love that kind of stuff,” Bouwer said.
He is also adding new fabrics and detailing to the line this season, including four-ply silk crepe, a stretch silk charmeuse, and intricate beading, which is continuing to open the collection up to a luxury clientele.
Bright colors are also important for spring, Bouwer said, noting the abundance of fuchsia, orange, chartreuse and seaweed green in the collection.
“Dresses are still hot” at Maggy London, said Bonnie Fox, director of merchandising, noting that bookings are up 20 percent from this time last year. “Retailers are loving the color and the prints. We’re definitely on an uptrend.”
Fox said the looks that have been the most popular include dresses that are skewing toward contemporary styling, embellished looks, and dresses in modern and graphic prints.
Initially, buyers came only to look at Mark Montano’s collection, the designer said. But more recently, they have returned to place orders.
“They want to see what was available in the market as a whole,” Montano said. “Buyers are being more cautious. Sales wise, they have to take a lot less risks than they have in the past and young designers can be a bit more risky. They want to make sure you really have a track record.”
With that said, however, he has added “several” new specialty stores to his account base for the season.
“Because this was primarily a dress collection, I was really happy about it,” Montano said. “And what I was really happy to see were the overseas orders from Japan, Hong Kong and England.”
David Meister said his evening and new daytime dress lines have done extraordinarily well this season.
“We’ve shown at the Coterie and in Dallas and it’s been phenomenal, way better than I ever expected and hoped for,” said Meister, whose dress lines are owned by the ENK unit of Kellwood Co. and are priced in the better category.
The eveningwear collection is more soft and simple, he said, while the day line, launched for the first time this spring, leans toward more structured looks.
Cocktail dresses are also preforming strongly for spring, he added, noting that stores booked 80 percent of the dresses shown in that category.
“For a long period of time, there was not a lot of cocktail dresses,” Meister said, “and the customer is seriously looking for them. They really want and need strong, sexy cocktail dresses.”
At Halmode, the moderate-priced division of Kellwood, bookings are 25 percent ahead of last year, lead by Sag Harbor Dresses, said Bea Myerson, executive vice president. Again, color is king in bright and midtones. In addition, textured looks, embellishments and two-piece jacket dresses are booking well, Myerson said.
At Leslie Fay Co., the spring dress business is looking “fantastic,” said John Ward, president and chief executive officer. “It’s significantly ahead of last year.”
Ward said he anticipates the continuation of career and more structured looks for spring as well as a large emphasis on color.
At Liz Claiborne dresses, the license for which Leslie Fay acquired early this year, the business is “running a big increase in where they were last year,” Ward said.
But, not every resource is experiencing positive results so quickly.
Stephen DiGeronimo said bookings for the season have not been coming in at a very fast clip.
“It’s been a little bit slow this spring because there is a change in the fashion and the stores are taking time to reevaluate the floor,” he said. “Some stores say they are replacing dresses with suits.”
Yet, he said, several areas of the line are succeeding, such as sleek looks in matte jersey, shirtdresses and the men’s wear-inspired clothing.
To add to the bottom line, Stephen DiGeronimo has added sales representatives in Dallas and Japan starting with the spring collection.
“These are the ways that Greg [St. Onge, his business partner] and I are trying to grow the business and reach out to more customers,” DiGeronimo said.
While business overall has been positive, eveningwear is the engine propelling Chetta B, said Howard Bloom, president.
“We’re certainly ahead of last year’s numbers,” Bloom said. “We have a lot of momentum on our side, but it’s primarily in the evening sector. My daytime bridge business is a tough business. Dresses aren’t as important as they used to be and it appears to be a shrinking category due to changing ways and casual dressing.”
Nevertheless, Bloom said, the company is focusing on making the daytime dress line “exciting and hipper” by adding embellishments, bright colors and patterns to the mix.

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