NEW YORK — The suit business is nothing if not resilient.
In the past few months, several Seventh Avenue sportswear firms have either made significant changes to their suit businesses or established plans to begin offering suits for next spring.
Retailers also have said the category is key, such as Lord & Taylor, which is upping its floor space for suits in every store this fall. That’s in addition to several smaller dress, sportswear and outerwear firms launching suit collections.
“It sounds so generic, but everything is selling,” said Jones New York Suit president Jackie Linitz. “Usually, you find that skirts are outselling pants or vice versa, but it’s all selling.”
So what’s causing all the commotion?
Perhaps it’s because the suit market generates retail sales of about $3.6 billion annually, and vendors want to tap that vein — sales have been consistently strong for eight months. Additionally, office attire has started to sway back from ultracasual to slightly more dressed up.
- Liz Claiborne, as reported, transferred its suit and dress license from LF Brands, formerly known as The Leslie Fay Co., to Kellwood Co.’s Halmode division in March. It will bow in August and be available at retail in the spring.
- Perry Ellis International Inc., meanwhile, inked a licensing deal last month with European Design Group Inc. to produce a women’s suit line under the Perry Ellis and Perry Ellis Portfolio brands, also in stores in the spring.
- Anne Klein launched its first suit collection for fall retail in 212 doors, while Kasper ASL Ltd. has added its bridge-priced Albert Nipon line at Macy’s Herald Square, Macy’s West and Dayton Hudson department stores.
- After teaming up with designer Elie Tahari last year, Arthur S. Levine launched a suit line called Tahari Arthur S. Levine with initial first-year sales projections of $75 million. Now that the line is nearing the one-year mark, Levine, who is president of Tahari Suits and Tahari Arthur S. Levine, said the line will generate sales between $150 million and $175 million in its second year.
“I’m experiencing business today like I did in the late Eighties and early Nineties,” said Levine. “Our business has doubled.”
Suit cycles generally last about 10 years, said Levine, who noted career looks are the strongest part of the business now.
“When it reversed around 1993 and suits were not trending, it lasted about 10 years,” said Levine. “But I would say from 1983 to 1993 [suits] were unstoppable. I think there is an abundance of the little T-shirt and there are a lot of women who need clothes to work in.”
Consequently, the explanation for the renewed interest in suits could be part of a larger cultural trend. When the robust economy of the Nineties fizzled in early 2001, so did the business-casual mind-set that many companies had adopted. Then came the dot-com fallout, 9/11, fears over terrorism and ultimately the war in Iraq, along with the yet-to-recover economy.
According to industry executives, the constant exposure to serious issues has shifted consumer habits to a more formal sense of dressing, as evidenced by the reinstated formal dress policies of several leading investment banks in the past year.
Rising unemployment also means more people are going on job interviews.
“Anything went in the roaring Nineties. Unshaven, no haircut, sandals — and if you complained, you were told you didn’t understand,” said Emanuel Weintraub, president and chief executive officer of management consulting firm Emanual Weintraub & Associates. “We’re certainly back to more structure and authority-driven workplaces, and that builds to the fashion picture.”
One of the biggest questions in the market right now hangs on the future of Kasper, the bankrupt suit firm that still owns a leading share of the category through its Kasper, Albert Nipon and Le Suit labels. Suit sales at the company have been on an upswing during the past six weeks, according to Gregg Marks, president, who also said May was the strongest month at retail for the company during the past year.
Industry analysts believe there are only two outcomes for the firm. Currently, management has an offer on the table to buy the firm for $100 million. That’s led by company chairman and chief executive John D. Idol, a group of upper management and a third party.
On the other hand, it is widely believed that Kellwood is interested in purchasing the company, though both parties remain mum on the deal. However, if it comes to fruition, Kellwood could end up making suits for Liz Claiborne, Kasper, Albert Nipon, Le Suit and Sag Harbor Suits, making it the leader in the field.
The demand for suits going into fall has several firms expanding their product lines, including Lord & Taylor’s private label division, Cinzia Rocca, Renee Shaw and a separates suiting line from Ricki Freeman for Teri Jon.
At Lord & Taylor, Lavelle Olexa, senior vice president of fashion merchandising, said the demand for suits has been significant enough that the store plans to increase floor space dedicated to the category in every store. Besides its key vendors, which include Kasper, Tahari Suit and Tahari Arthur S. Levine, Lord & Taylor will add Anne Klein’s new suit line beginning in July.
L&T also will offer product through a new private label line, Context, which retails between $150 and $200. Context will be a modern yet basic career suit line featuring seasonless fabrics — a current demand from consumers, Olexa said.
Italian design firm Cinzia Rocca has dabbled in suits, but this fall will mark the launch of its first full suit collection. Instead of centering on the standard business suit, the company has come up with looks for weekendwear, travel and special occasions. Similar to the brand’s outerwear, the 15 suit styles are broken into three groups —luxury, evening and trend. Suits are designed to coordinate with various outerwear styles, said Denise Bongiorno, managing director.
Bongiorno said, “At this moment, we’re known for our coats. We thought it would be a good chance to develop into new product categories.”
Beginning in late August, Cinzia Rocca suits will be offered at stores including Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor and Nordstrom. Wholesale prices will range from $275 to $475. In October, the company’s designer, Cinzia Rocca, will make her first in-store appearances in the U.S. to host trunk shows marking the brand’s 50th anniversary.
At Ricki Freeman for Teri Jon, president Bruce Blaustein said dressy suits for evening and special occasion are replacing the formal-occasion dresses, such as long gowns. Therefore, the brand will offer suit separates for the first time this fall.
“Women want something tailored, but it has to be whimsical and have more embellishment,” said Blaustein.
In terms of organizing production, Blaustein said making separates is no more difficult than set sizes. Since the customer will have more options to purchase coordinating items — two different skirts and a matching jacket, for example — Blaustein said he hopes it could generate more revenue. The addition of the separates category for fall has increased business by about 30 percent, he added.
Renee Shaw, the founder and former designer of sportswear firm Zelda, has joined the Iris Singer company in a new line named after the designer. It will offer bridge-priced day and evening suits to be sold at better specialty stores in the U.S. Renee Shaw will launch at the resort market in August and is expected to generate between $3 million and $5 million in its first year.