DALLAS — A continuation of soft, feminine styling augmented by the return of the short skirt and the jacket is expected to drive up spring sales by five to 15 percent. After a lackluster fall, retailers noted that designers have addressed their career customers’ rejection of relaxed cuts and limp layering by producing a myriad of jackets — from waist to fingertip length — that often have minimal shoulder padding.

“The business woman still wants some structure — a jacket in some shape or form,” observed Joan Kaner, senior vice president and fashion director at Neiman Marcus. “She has become accustomed to it. It works for her lifestyle, and she’s learned to build a wardrobe around it.” Soft styling hasn’t been a complete flop, however. Customers bought into it for casual and eveningwear, and some retailers expect the move toward less aggressive power suiting will have a lasting impact. Others anticipate that a bit more structure will return next fall. Lucille Klein, fashion director at J.C. Penney Co. Inc., Plano, Tex., predicted that soft styling would assert a broad influence this decade. “We’re in a different era,” Klein reflected. “We are more self-confident with the power within ourselves, so we don’t have to dress that way to make that statement.” Penney’s is committed to soft looks for spring and will show two-piece soft print dressing, wide pants, long vest tunics, ruffled blouses and softly tailored jackets with minimal shoulder pads — clothing that is soft, but not limp. “I’m very, very bullish about spring business and soft dressing,” enthused Jim Hailey, president of the women’s division, projecting at least a 10 percent gain for the division. “We’ve gotten some of the merchandise in a little bit early, and it’s selling.” He expects sportswear and accessories, especially fashion jewelry and handbags, will lead the women’s division at the moderately priced chain. High-end retailers also were upbeat.

“I think soft will be much better for spring; for fall it got a little too classic,” observed Ron Frasch, senior vice president and general merchandise manager at Neiman Marcus here. “There is a lot less confusion over skirt lengths — there’s no long-short debate — and I also think we’ll have color, print, texture and normal 21-inch skirts, so those are all positives for consumer confidence.” Frasch declined to reveal Neiman’s plan, but said he expected spring would be better than last fall, when an overdose of black and spare styles failed to excite fashion shoppers, who sought novelty items instead.

“I think it will be an exceptionally strong spring and bringing short skirts back will give it a real boost,” said Shelle Bagot, owner of The Gazebo here. “We just had a Pamela Dennis trunk show, and a number of the women said they were thrilled to see short skirts.” The two-day trunk show, which did $100,000, was part of Bagot’s effort to grow her business without increasing inventory. “We are comfortable keeping it where it is for spring, and I think we’ll have a strong sell-through and a smaller percentage of markdowns,” she theorized, aiming for a 15 percent increase.

“We’re allocating a lot toward trunk shows.” Nan Napier, owner of Tres Mariposas in El Paso, Tex., has been doing well with soft styles — except pajama-style pants — and she expects the trend will continue through next fall. “On the whole, our structured things are selling much slower than softer styles,” she noted. “For more career-type dressing, Tamotsu is doing really well because they are using soft fabrics and tailoring that isn’t so hard-edged. Citi sportswear also is good.” Napier is projecting a five to 10 percent sales increase for spring. “We’re feeling positive,” she said. “I think the consumer is tired of staying at home so I think there’s some pent-up demand, and I think passage of NAFTA has put people in border cities in a better frame of mind.”

Stanley Korshak here is planning a double-digit increase. “I think the soft, feminine looks will still be good for spring, if the looks are not overpowering to the body,” said Rose Clark, general merchandise manager at Stanley Korshak, adding that customers rejected voluminous styles last fall. “In the market this spring there is still a lot of sameness from line to line and store to store because of wide distribution,” she noted. “We made an effort to seek out some new resources to give us a little individuality.” Next fall, Clark predicted, “I have a feeling that trousers are going to start slimming down and, quite honestly, I’m tired of these big pants.” Many merchants expect vests will continue to do well for spring, even though they have been popular for well over a year. “Things seem to be running in four-to-five-season cycles,” Kaner pointed out. “They just keep going — like sheerness and vests.”

“I think that vests are still going to continue, but it will be more of a vest as a replacement for a blouse as opposed to a vest over a blouse,” theorized Penne Weidig, buyer for American and European collections at Tootsies, Houston. “It looks like the soft, flippy skirt will be the new bottom because customers are really ready for short skirts.” Tootsies is looking for the most growth in contemporary collections, where volume is projected up more than 20 percent. Top performing lines are Gruppo Americano, Giuseppe, Go Silk and Et Vous. Weidig also expects European collections will do well because the stronger dollar has helped maintain or lower prices. She sees an end in sight for relaxed cuts. Reasoned Weidig, “I think the soft look will probably go through spring, but I have a feeling that by next fall customers will be over it and looking for something more structured and body conscious.”