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NEW YORK — Is fashion back?

The Sixties styles that flooded fall runways might just have been the tonic that retailers and consumers were craving, because stores around the country say fall business is off to a strong start. And forget basics — it’s hot fashion that’s driving the retail engine.

This story first appeared in the September 2, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Business is running ahead of a year ago, and the boost comes amid rumblings that an economic upturn might take hold later this year and signs that consumers are becoming more confident about job prospects and their financial situations.

Mod miniskirts, minidresses and accessories are selling briskly, as are such new silhouettes as longer coats over short skirts, fur-trimmed outerwear, bouclé tweed jackets and skirts, and denim loaded with hardware like buckles, buttons and zippers.

In addition, career sportswear appears to be making a comeback, and corduroy pants, miniskirts, particularly in denim, and track jackets have checked well for the back-to-school crowd. Color, especially pink, violet, fuchsia, purple, aubergine and yellow, are seeing brisk retail action.

But Mod’s swinging Sixties styles — graphic shapes, short silhouettes and electric colors — appear to be clicking with consumers of all ages.

“Anything mini, bouclé or Mod is selling very well,” said Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president of fashion direction at Bloomingdale’s.

“We’ve sold very Mod pieces really well,” agreed Jeffrey Kalinsky, owner of Jeffrey stores in New York and Atlanta. “Almost everything we bought from Celine has sold out, such as geometric black and white coats, Courrèges-inspired dresses, and black-and-white accessories.”

Overall, stores said anything designer-oriented, embellished and elegant is doing well, with polished looks overtaking casual styles this fall.

Jeffrey, for example, already sold out of modern fall suitings from Rochas, designed for the first time by Olivier Theyskens. Kalinsky also noted Gucci has been selling “amazingly” well in both stores, in particular shearlings and jersey dresses. “We started selling Gucci in mid-June. We’ve been shipped 70 percent of our buy, and we’re 50 to 60 percent sold. And we still have months to go.”

In accessories, he said the new Jimmy Choo handbags “are doing really, really well,” and a Lambertson Truex clutch, for $2,400, has been reordered. “August is a very strong month,” said Kalinsky, adding the stores are about 10 percent ahead in sales.

“As a whole, things that are very designed and look like the runway are really doing well. Things that are basic are not selling,” said Robert Burke, vice president, senior fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman.

Top sellers include Yves Saint Laurent’s ruffled leather jackets, Narciso Rodriguez’s short black dresses, Alexander McQueen’s zippered jackets, Gucci’s black dresses, and Etro’s paisley coats. Another top performer has been Dolce & Gabbana’s brocade pieces. The store sold out of a pink brocade bouclé dress for $2,150 that was featured on the cover of the fall preview Bergdorf catalog. The store is also experiencing brisk sales with Theory, Tahari, Tracy Reese, Diane Von Furstenberg, Marc by Marc Jacobs and Kulson.

“Right now, the biggest thing is Mod,” said Ruttenstein. He pointed to Marc Jacobs’ black-and-white double-faced cashmere jumper and black-and-white cashmere hooded coat as stars. Celine’s Mod black jumper and matching coat has performed well, and its OpArt fabric coat sold out at at $1,350. Zac Posen’s Mod dress has also sold out.

Another hot trend has been bouclé tweed jackets by Chanel, Donna Karan and Giorgio Armani. In Bloomingdale’s Y.E.S. department, tweed bouclé jackets and miniskirts have done well from such vendors as Rebecca Taylor, Tracey Reese, Jill Stuart, Development, D&G, Miss Sixty, Joie, Ruth, White and Aqua. Denim with hardware, D-rings, buckles and zippers have seen a lot of retail action, including Blue Cult, Miss Sixty, Joe’s Jeans, Citizens for Humanity, Seven and Paper, Denim & Cloth. In accessories, Marc Jacobs handbags, Marc by Marc Jacobs shoes, “anything Burberry” and Chanel sunglasses have sold well, according to Ruttenstein.

Ed Burstell, vice president and general merchandise manager at Henri Bendel, said Mod is happening in several areas and price points. For example, a metallic halter minidress from Missoni at $1,058 has sold well, as have Anna Sui and Mary Quant minis from $198 to $398. With minis being such a strong category, legwear has had excellent results, he noted, especially Fogard’s colored opaques at $29. In addition, Bendel’s sold out of Rick Owens’ distressed leather jacket at $1,698.

“We’re still selling a lot of denim,” added Burstell. For example, Daryl K’s multizippered jeans at $198, and those from Rock & Republic and Paper Denim & Cloth have “a bit more interest. They’re multizip or have a different wash. They have a slightly higher rise than in the past.”

In particular, outerwear got off to a good start and the store has placed reorders on novelty fitted coats from D&G and Bluemarine. Bendel’s has also done well with Adidas and Diane Von Furstenberg tracksuits. Burstell said the retailer is up from last year in business.

Robert Jezowski, executive vice president and general merchandise manager of women’s ready-to-wear at Macy’s East, said, “Career is doing very well. The suit business is terrific. Tahari is outstanding. We’ve sold a lot of skirt suits and updated career.”

Judy Collinson, executive vice president of Barneys New York, said the designer business is off to a strong start, citing such resources as Alexander McQueen, Narciso Rodriguez, Azzedine Alaïa, Rochas and Lanvin.

In the Co-op area, she added: “Denim is maintaining itself brilliantly,” citing strong resources such as Chip & Pepper, Satellite, Citizens for Humanity and Rogan. In accessories, long, colored chandelier earrings and handbags by Marc Jacobs and Balenciaga are doing well. She said the women’s business, despite the blackout, is “above last year.”

Jaqui Lividini, senior vice president of fashion merchandising at Saks Fifth Avenue, said the Celine pre-fall merchandise, which references Mod, is hot, with lots of pink, blue and short skirts. In addition, Junya Wantanabe’s line, highlighting bows, is performing extremely well, with 75 percent sell-throughs. Donna Karan’s black flounce skirt has had a 77 percent sell-through. “A lot of femininity is selling,” she said. Additionally, gloves have been a real standout, and “fur accessories — even in 100-degree weather — are doing really well,” said Lividini. Marc Jacobs’ “Stella” bag continues to be a big seller, as are the new Jimmy Choo handbags.

Sue Patneaude, executive vice president of designer at Nordstrom, which will open its 91st unit on Thursday in Richmond, Va., said in the Savvy contemporary department, short skirts and miniskirts are selling, including denim and pleated versions from Harvey’s. “Denim is hot with stretch looks from Von Dutch, Miss Sixty, A.G. and Juicy Couture. In addition, bomber jackets are performing well in leather, denim and satin, along with flirty skirts and short jackets from Nanette Lepore and Trina Turk. In the designer department, Tracey Reese and Catherine Malandrino are top sellers.

“We’ve got good, early response to coats, and a lot of interest in tweed coats,” said Patneaude. She also cited Donna Karan’s double-knit cashmere, tweeds and flounce skirts; Ralph Lauren’s herringbone skirts and jackets and suede ruched pants, and Michael Kors’ python jersey skirts. Dolce & Gabbana’s yellow wool cashmere belted coat and Marni’s yellow coats, as well as Stella McCartney’s aubergine cashmere wool belted blouson, are all checking.

“In general, fall is definitely more whimsical, flirty and colorful. Business is good and it’s up,” she said.

Stefani Greenfield, partner in Scoop, which will open its seventh unit this month in Greenwich, Conn., said, “We’ve sold 35 percent of our receipts from fall. The Mod trend is happening, and it’s registering with the mini.”

So far, she’s selling miniskirts in denim and twill, and boots, leggings and tights again. Declaring that the new jacket silhouette is belted, Greenfield noted, “With Prada Sport and Miu Miu, it’s all about belted jackets. It’s taking the jacket and cinching it.”

Among bestsellers are Prada Sport’s puffer coat with sheepskin lining, Vince’s off-the-shoulder cashmere sweater, Development’s stretch wool pleated skirt, in gray or black, at $185, Miu Miu’s goat coat for $2,500 and Theory’s short rabbit jacket at $625.

Sarah Easley, partner in Kirna Zabete in New York, cited Behnaz Sarapour’s little camel and black sleeveless shirts at $875 and Viktor & Rolf’s triple collar blouses ranging from $560 to $660.

“We sold out of several styles of Rick Owens’ ribbed tops and leather jackets,” she added. The store has done Mod with a quirky British label called Iley Kishimoto. “They’re very London — lots of prints and very bold, graphics in prints and dresses.” Other bestsellers have been Andrew Gn’s Edwardian collection of black velvet and burgundy embroidered coats and dresses.

Khajak Keledjian, owner of Intermix, the five-unit specialty chain with units in New York, Boston and Miami, said, “August has been a good month for us. We’re ahead in the high-single digits. I think things are turning around. There’s a little more stability, and we have a fashion-conscious customer. How much can she hold back in her urge and desire?”

His key looks: bomber jackets with fur collars from Vince; slim pants in black wool and jeans from Stella McCartney; miniskirts in leather and embossed crocodile on leather; animal print jackets from Chloé, for $1,590, and an off-the-shoulder cape sweater from Catherine Malandrino, at about $250.

Miniskirts, sportif styles, denim jeans and Mod looks are leading fall trends at Neiman Marcus, where Chanel, Gucci and Prada are performing well. “Miniskirts are selling well in designer and contemporary, and the whole sportif trend is doing really well from Prada Sport to Y3 and Juicy Couture,” said Ann Stordahl, senior vice president and general merchandise manager. Top Mod looks include Marc by Marc Jacobs’ little dresses and outerwear, Dolce & Gabbana’s black-and-white looks, Kate Spade’s patent boots and colorful styles by Pucci and Missoni.

“With the Mod look, hosiery is selling strongly in opaque and fishnets, especially the novelty really wide ones,” Stordahl added. Boot-cut stretch denim jeans remain important while some narrow legs are also checking. Top resources are Seven, Citizens of Humanity and Roberto Cavalli.

Rose Clark, general merchandise manager at Stanley Korshak in Dallas, said Missoni’s Mod halter minidress has been a standout at Korshak, along with Etro’s embellished jackets and coats, Narciso Rodriguez dresses, fur vests from Michael Kors and Valentino, suede bags by Lambertston Truex and miniskirts by Michael Kors, Alberta Ferretti and Missoni.

“My women’s business is really good — up double-digits,” Clark noted. Even better, sales have leaped 60 percent in the shoe and handbag department, which was expanded last month. Collections with the best sell-throughs are Narciso Rodriguez, Agnona’s luxury sportswear and Loro Piana casual cashmere. Other top performers at Korshak are Donna Karan, Roberto Cavalli, Jean Paul Gaultier and Valentino.

Fall is off to a “wonderful start” at Mix in Houston, where sales are up more than 30 percent, said Evelyn Gorman, owner. Top trends are above-the-knee skirts from Michael Kors and Balenciaga, bolero and shrunken jackets by Paul Smith, Rick Owens and Balenciaga, and cargoes and jodhpurs by Masons. Narciso Rodriguez’s sportswear is one of the leading collections, and Mix is also doing well with John Galliano.

At Tootsies, which has four stores in Texas and Atlanta, Mod styles and minis are moving fast in all categories. “We’re doing extremely well with Missoni and Pucci, and Dolce & Gabbana’s black and ivory color-blocked mini and trenchcoat have sold well. In contemporary, color-blocked dresses by ABS are doing well,” said Penne Weidig, senior buyer.

Tootsies is also selling a lot of cashmere from Ralph Lauren.

Interestingly, West Coast retailers report cable-knit sweaters and wool pants got an early jump, while consumers are certainly interested in the latest Mod styles but not enough to commit significant dollars to the trend yet.

At Macy’s West, polished, tailored tweed suits, trenchcoats, peacoats and top-stitched leather coats are driving customers to the registers, said women’s fashion director Durand Guion. Flared and boot-cut corduroys are also working early in the season. As for an early read on Mod, customers are achieving the look via accessories. Add-on sales such as belts and opaque tights have been strong. “[The customer] will take elements of it but she’s not going on the streets head-to-toe,” he said.

Wet Seal’s 622 stores have seen strength in canvas workpants, cargoes and corduroys. Miniskirts, especially in denim, and track jackets have also checked well for back-to-school. However, check woven pants and striped pants have been “underperforming,” said Peter D. Whitford, the junior retailer’s chief executive.

“I don’t think it’s been a buoyant back-to-school period,” he said.

At Patrick Reid, a trendy retailer in Santa Monica, Calif., denim still has legs. The owners, brothers Patrick and Tommy Reid, project it will march on robustly through the fall. Adriano Goldschmeid (AG) and Paper Denim & Cloth remain the brands of choice, said Tommy Reid. There have been early sales of crewneck cashmere sweaters in sky, black, navy and butter, priced between $250 and $350.

At Traffic’s three boutiques in Los Angeles, shoppers are buying leather motocross-style jackets and fitted wool coats, despite 90-degree weather. A version from Vivienne Westwood with an exaggerated wrap collar for $1,200 has been successful, said buyer Carl Dias. Kristensen Du Nord’s ribbed wool cashmere knits worn in layers are also selling at $400 a pop. Deconstructed dresses, such as a crinkle satin shell over a lace shell, and exaggerated wide-leg pants in stretch wool gabardine from Los Angeles label Loy and Ford, are other bestsellers.

In New England, tweedy looks, quilted jackets and novelty skirts have gotten off to an early start.

“Maybe fall is selling well already because people remember they needed warm clothes 10 months last year,” joked Boston-based boutique owner Kelly Frey about last year’s protracted winter and its possible connection to the brisk kickoff of fall sales. Frey, owner of contemporary shop Wish, was typical of Boston retailers in reporting robust consumer appetite for fall styles, even though the weather is still steamy.

Per its tweedy reputation, New England embraces fundamentally conservative styles, gravitating towards trends with classic appeal. To wit, this season’s quilted jackets, Chanel-inspired tweeds and novelty skirts (in mini and pencil silhouettes) drew customers’ attention. Having wholeheartedly bought into summer’s girlie pink, they’re also responding to fall’s hot pinks and purples.

New York resource Milly — with three straight strong seasons under its belt — has developed a strong following. “We just got in an op art print from Milly and people are loving it,” Frey said.

At E.A. Davis, a century-old upscale department store in Wellesley, Mass., Burberry’s quilted coats and Lilly Pulitzer’s reversible tweed miniskirt are selling well, noted president Rob Skolnick. The sundress powerhouse has become appropriate “for every month of the year,” he said.

In the mass market, retailers seemed most able to give a read on junior styles, the star of the back-to-school season.

“The customer is, as always, wear-now,” noted a Wal-Mart spokeswoman. She cited activewear and active-influenced styles as “the strongest trend in sportswear.” Accessory sales are also “solid,” led by newsboy caps, embellished handbags and wallet chains. Boy briefs and sheer tops are also doing well.

Kmart is doing well with military-flavored offerings, including Joe Boxer’s olive cargo pants and coordinating camouflage belt, the bungee cargo and the “army” shirt in red, brown and olive. Building on the success of cheerleader and kilt miniskirts in the junior market as a whole, there’s also interest in schoolgirl tops for back-to-school. A Kmart spokeswoman said sweater vests with attached shirts in a traditional black-tan-red palette are doing well.

Visits to Target stores in Massachusetts showed the Minneapolis-based retailer is also offering schoolgirl-style shirt-and-vest combination shirts, as well as lots of autumnal-toned corduroy from Mossimo. A contrast is Isaac Mizrahi merchandise in acid-brights like lime, fuchsia and red.

“It’s so bright. I was a little disappointed this is what he sent us,” confessed a female store associate, directing a customer to Mizrahi’s merchandise. The line featured oversized “big shirt” styles last seen topping stretch pants in the Eighties, denim pants with elastic waist and snap-front knit tops. Mizrahi’s butterscotch suede A-line skirt and matching wrap jacket — noticeably more subdued than the rest of the offering — appeared to be selling well. The single unit left on the rack was a size 16.

Corduroy pants and men’s wear-inspired skirts are bestsellers at Knoxville, Tenn.-based Goody’s Family Clothing, said junior divisional merchandise manager Barbara Mesecke. Popular bottoms moving fast this month include five-pocket corduroy pants by L.E.I. and Bongo, striped knee-length skirts by Tracy Evans and patterned pants by Jou Jou.

Denim bottoms continue to drive sales at Blue Genes, an Atlanta boutique, said partner Jane Arrendale. Key denim items for early fall include stretch and nonstretch denim roll-up pants and side-lace jeans by Joe Jeans and pre-rolled cropped jeans by Juicy Couture. Denim jackets were also among strong sellers for late August, with tailored, waist-length distressed leather bombers by Development and faux fur flight jackets by Mint moving fastest in that category.

In traditional jeans, best-selling brands are Seven For All Mankind and newly acquired resource Chip and Pepper. Other popular items include wool-blend stovepipe-styled skinny pants by Catherine Malandrino and Mod-inspired miniskirts in textured corduroy by Development.

Asian-inspired pieces are checking at A Nose For Clothes, a nine-unit specialty shop based in Miami, said partner Freda Greenbaum. Current hot items include Mandarin collared T-shirts by Michael Stars and Asian-themed printed and embroidered silk skirts and dresses by A.B.S.

In Washington, the weather is still hot and humid and the whisper of fall is not yet in the air, but consumers are still buying early fall merchandise across the board.

Fabiana Mesquita, an owner of two contemporary stores, Daisy and Daisy Too, said, “This season it’s a lot of tweeds and Mod is definitely selling for us.” Mesquita said she can’t keep Mod items, such as a black traditional miniskirt with 4-inch pleated bottoms from Miss Sixty, in the store. “We sold out of that skirt in two weeks and I’m looking for more,” she said.

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