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NEW YORK — Retailers are tickled pink over spring business.

In a spot check, department and specialty stores reported that spring selling is off to a robust start, with double-digit increases in such categories as designer, contemporary, some accessories categories and denim. Consumer confidence may be down, as worries over jobs and the economy continue, but after a long, dreary winter, customers are excited about fashion again, said retailers. And, up against a soft quarter last year, things are definitely looking positive.

This story first appeared in the March 22, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“This was a very difficult time last year. It is great to see business back with such strength,” observed Judy Collinson, executive vice president of Barneys New York.

Consumer demand is being fueled by fashions that are some of the most ladylike and colorful in years, retailers said. Pinks, in particular, but also yellows, greens and oranges, are popular across the country, and short tweed jackets, flirty skirts and pretty cocktail dresses are being scooped up by consumers from Boston to L.A.

“The business is really strong, so everybody’s in a good mood,” said Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president, fashion direction, at Bloomingdale’s. “The feminine trend is really doing well. Color is what’s really selling across the board, both primary colors and soft pastels in feminine shapes in lighter-weight fabrics like chiffon.”

Tweedy jackets are selling well in every category, and “pink is the best color,” observed Ruttenstein.

Bloomingdale’s, which has gotten behind the dress business for spring, is carrying many exclusives from designers such as Calvin Klein, Zac Posen, Ralph Lauren and Donna Karan. Its designer category has seen sizeable gains this spring, with Chanel’s business doubling and Giorgio Armani’s business running close to double digits ahead, he said.

Most retailers surveyed said their designer business is showing substantial increases this spring, with the customer responding enthusiastically to all the colors and prints on the selling floor.

“The business has been phenomenal. Our customers are back, and back strong,” said Bob Mitchell, co-president of Mitchells and Richards, women’s and men’s specialty stores in Westport, Conn., and Greenwich, Conn., respectively. The gains are being led by accessories, shoes and jewelry and ready-to-wear, he said, and the spring business has gotten off “to a great start.”

“Color has been great from everybody,” said Mitchell. He said Etro’s business has seen a lot of growth; Dolce & Gabbana’s business is “completely revitalized and strong,” and Pucci, Giorgio Armani, Escada and Ralph Lauren are all selling very well.

“Valentino has been phenomenal at both stores. We had a great trunk show and it’s appealing to a lot of people,” he said. So far this spring, he’s seeing strong double-digit increases in the women’s area.

“I think the most exciting thing about the season is we’re experiencing the best retail in years,” said Jeffrey Kalinsky, owner of Jeffrey New York and Jeffrey Atlanta. “The business has been really fabulous, specifically Jil Sander, Pucci and Marni.” Cropped pants and pleated skirts to the knee are strong sellers. “We’re also selling lots of color and prints from Pucci,” he said.

At Barneys, “color is definitely selling,” said Collinson. “Pinks, yellow, green are strongest. Shades of lavender and whites are also great.” She noted that some of the biggest items have been tweed jackets, cocktail dresses, short skirts, pleated skirts and chiffon skirts. “Everyone wants a printed dress, a skirt with movement and a lot of tweed jackets,” said Collinson.

In the designer business, she said, “We are running ahead of last year by substantial double-digit increases.” She noted that Lanvin and Rochas are selling well, as are Balenciaga, Behnaz Sarafpour, Proenza Schouler, Jil Sander and Prada.

She said the store is also experiencing “very strong double-digit increases” in the contemporary area.

“Denim is even stronger than we expected. Washes are darker. The jean is still boot cut, low rise, but not as low. Citizens for Humanity and Yanuk are strong. Rogan is great. It has an edgier fit and detail,” she said, adding T-shirts from such companies as Rogan, Rogue’s Gallery and Generra also are selling well.

At Bloomingdale’s, top-selling jeans lines include Seven, Citizens of Humanity, A.G. Adriano Goldschmied, Blue Cult, Chip & Pepper and Notify, a new line, while best-selling T-shirts include C & C, James Perse, Theory, Juicy Couture, Michael Stars, Lacoste and Splendid, a new line. The chain’s contemporary business is “way up,” with strong sellers such as Marc by Marc Jacobs, Miss Sixty, Rebecca Taylor and Theory, said Ruttenstein.

Jaqui Lividini, senior vice president of fashion merchandising at Saks Fifth Avenue, noted that the store’s business was ahead 25 percent last month, partially fueled by the mailing of its catalogue in the first week of February. “The theme for the February catalogue was color, and we packed the store with color,” said Lividini, adding that color has been selling well throughout the country, especially yellows, pinks and oranges.

“We’re having one of the best designer seasons in a long time,” said Lividini, citing Peter Som, Marc Jacobs, Oscar de la Renta, Carolina Herrera, Michael Kors and Comme des Garçons as doing very well.

“Color is doing amazingly well, just as we thought it would,” said Karen Katz, president and chief executive officer of Neiman Marcus. “Our customer loves all the color. They are buying prints, and pink continues to be strong, as well as green. It has been terrific.”

Neiman’s posted a 24.4 percent gain in comparable sales last month that stemmed from strong business across the board, with the hottest spots in handbags, shoes and contemporary sportswear. “We’re at this point where almost everybody is doing well,” Katz said. “These moments don’t happen very often, and we realize that and are enjoying it.”

Neiman’s standouts include Dolce & Gabbana, Etro, Prada, Chanel and Gucci at the designer level and Marc by Marc Jacobs, Tahari, Theory, Juicy Couture, Seven and Citizens of Humanity in contemporary.

“The jeans business continues to be terrific,” she noted. “We did this exclusive denim from Seven with pink embroidery on the pocket, and that has been wild. The whole item business in novelty tops is also doing really well.”

LaVelle Olexa, senior vice president of fashion merchandising at Lord & Taylor, agreed that the biggest spring trend is feminine and ladylike looks. Items with pretty details, and bouclé and soft tweed jackets have been strong sellers.

“Grosgrain trim or frayed edges have been strong, and all skirts, especially flirty skirts with tiers, ruffles and pleats,” are doing well, she said, as have sweaters with bows. Pink is the strongest color, in all shades from pale to fuchsia, and green is second.

Olexa believes the season marks the return of the suit.

“The look is definitely suited, even in sportswear. Matching jackets and skirts are doing best,” she said. The pink bouclé jacket with denim jeans from the store’s private label Id/entity label has been a huge seller. In status jeans, DKNY remains the strongest and, in contemporary, I Jeans, Hudson, Rock & Republic and FRX. As for T-shirts, Sweat Pea, Language, Rebecca Beeson, Nu and 860 are leading the pack.

At Nordstrom, color, both brights and pastels, has led the way across all categories in the form of printed tops and printed skirts, said executives. The hottest looks include Blumarine’s pink-and-yellow floral cardigan, Jennifer Nicholson’s pink tiered baby-doll dress, Eley Kishimoto’s bright printed T-shirts and Tracy Reese’s silk printed trenchcoats. Fluid dresses, ruffles and tiering, trench silhouettes and tweed jackets and suitings in soft-colored jacquards are strong in the designer division, too, with Chanel and Christian Lacroix emerging as the most sought-after labels.

So far this season, Henri Bendel’s designer business has seen an increase of 30 percent. Key sellers have been anything by Missoni and Rick Owens leather jackets and knits, said Scott Tepper, fashion director. Luella Bartley, Alice Temperley and Matthew Williamson are doing very well, and Chloé handbags have virtually sold out, he said. “Generra, Perry Ellis and Diane von Furstenberg have been our big successes thus far in contemporary,” he said.

As for jeans, strong sellers have been Joe’s Jeans, namely The Socialite and The Lover in dark denim, and Notify in dark denim low-rise boot cut. C&C and Generra T-shirts also have sold well, according to Tepper.

Hirshleifer’s, the women’s specialty boutique in Manhasset, N.Y., has observed that its customer is definitely drawn to feminine looks in prints and color. “We’ve seen strong robust sales for resort-spring 2004,” said Caryn Hirshleifer, vice president of Hirshleifer’s. “There’s an energy among shoppers who seem eager to put winter behind and to start fresh. The overriding look is soft, pretty and feminine, and our clients can’t seem to get enough of it.”

The bestsellers this spring include Chanel fantasy tweed jackets, both long and short; the Chanel accordion bag adorned with clover and heart charms in pink or green; Valentino’s pastel knit halters with the pink butterfly shoe and bag; Roberto Cavalli’s asymmetrical bias-cut satin feather-print skirt with silk top; white tailored Dolce & Gabbana cotton pants with the D/G logo in crystal; the Malo knit dress in hot fuchsia; Missoni’s colorful knit print dresses; Carlos Miele’s printed chiffon evening dress in pastels; Tuleh’s turquoise and white polkadot chiffon dress with rhinestone closure, and J. Mendel’s floral appliqué suede short jacket lined in silk.

Jeans and T-shirts continue to set the pace at contemporary boutiques, which are also seeing brisk business.

“We did 30 percent more this week than a year ago, which was up 30 percent [over 2002],” said Stefani Greenfield, co-owner of Scoop, the six-unit women’s and men’s specialty store. She said C&C California T-shirts have been selling really well, as have Marc Jacobs’ new bags in pink, green and white and the jeans lines James and Notify.

Dresses also have been top sellers, especially Diane von Furstenberg’s toile print one, said Greenfield, as has a Missoni group, particularly a stretch dress in a classic stripe, and D&G’s fitted colorful printed jackets.

Sarah Easley, co-owner of Kirna Zabête, a women’s specialty store in SoHo here, said she’s selling a lot of lightweight Rick Owens leather jackets, in deerskin and washed leather. She’s also done well with handbags, such as Chloé’s silver chain-mail slouch bag and Balenciaga’s bag; Peter Som and Derek Lam cocktail dresses, many of which are printed silk florals, and Luisa Beccaria trousers, coats and dresses. Overall, she said, February’s business was “way ahead of last year, and March has been good.”

Jackets are performing well at contemporary boutique Isla, in Wellesley and Beverly Farms, Mass., with Chanel-tweed interpretations still favored, said Curtis Sanders, owner.

Denim is clearly seeing a lot of action. Citizens of Humanity is his top seller. “If we had had 100 more pairs at Christmas, we could have easily sold them,” he said. However, another Los Angeles resource, Chip & Pepper, is a close second. Outside denim, he’s seeing strong sales from Margaret Loves Peter, first known for its “jelly Kelly” bags, but which has diversified into vintage-flavored skirts, cashmere and pareos.

At Proffitt’s/McRae’s, an Alcoa, Tenn., division of Saks Department Store Group, color is driving spring sales, with pink performing best, according to Barb Schrantz, general merchandise manager, rtw. Generally, a more feminine direction in the market also has boosted business, as consumers have responded to new open necklines and details such as ruffles, ribbons and bows. Skirts have emerged as popular items, in new A-lines, circle and trumpet shapes for misses’ customers, and minis for juniors’.

More structured pieces, including updated suits and suited looks, have sold well, as have jackets, from novelty short bouclés and tweeds to three-quarter length and trenchcoats, which are selling as “completer pieces” for outfits.

Denim is slowing for spring, but the direction is toward cleaner, less-embellished looks, with belts, color and ribbon details. Strong junior lines are L.E.I. and Mudd. Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein are top sellers in misses’.

At Atlanta-based The Bilthouse, traditional preppy staples such as tops with bow embellishments, grosgrain details and cropped pants such as petal pushers in bright, feminine colors are moving fastest, said Kelly Thompson, sales associate. There also has been a resurgence in cardigan sales. Popular brands include Charlotte Tarantola, Lilly Pulitzer and Laurie B.

Thompson also noted an uptick in colorful suit sales. Store favorites by Womyn and Equestrian Designs include traditional straight-cut and capri pants and short skirts with related suit separates. Best-selling jeans lines are Citizens of Humanity, Chip & Pepper, Dylan Jeans and In the Wash.

Fabiana Mesquita, co-owner of two upscale contemporary stores, Daisy in Washington, D.C., and Daisy Too in Bethesda, Md., said her bestsellers have been Alice & Trixie’s halters, tanks and dresses; Ella Moss’ striped dresses, skirts and tube tops in blues, yellows and greens, and Diane von Furstenberg’s colorful dresses and layered tiered tops. Flirty, feminine miniskirts by Ella Moss and White are also strong sellers, according to Mesquita.

Suited looks, particularly those by Trina Turk, are driving business at her stores. One of her hot-selling Trina Turk suits consists of a short, flirty skirt and a Jackie O-inspired jacket with a mock neck, big buttons and three-quarter sleeves. Another is by Jenne Maag.

According to Maxine Rizik, president of Rizik Brothers Inc., an upscale boutique in Washington, D.C., “Pretty chiffon dresses in muted colors in the peach, pink, aqua and sage families and beautiful prints” are strong. She pointed to dresses by Bill Blass, Lourdes Chavez and Carol Peretz as a few of her bestsellers. Rizik said her top-selling suits are by Gianfranco Ferré.

At moderate department stores, women’s spring business at J.C. Penney is running ahead of plan, sparked by color, career suits and suited separates embellished with ribbons and bows, a spokeswoman said. Pink is the fastest seller, but shoppers are also responding to blues, greens and yellows. Denim sales are above plan, and private labels Arizona and St. John’s Bay are Penney’s top brands in juniors’ and misses’, respectively.

Julian Gold, the San Antonio-based chain that has four stores in Texas, has sold dozens of Tahari’s bouclé suits in pink and teal, and has done well with Teri Jon’s tweeds, as well as Kay Unger’s suits with feminine details such as stripes, little cascades and ruffles. The chain continues to do well with jeans by Seven and Citizens of Humanity.

Tootsies, a Houston-based specialty retailer with units in Atlanta, Dallas and San Antonio, has done well with circle skirts and embroidered skirts from vendors such as Ruth, Cynthia Steffe, Rebecca Taylor and Trina Turk. Suits are selling across the board in colors, stripes, prints and tweeds, noted Heather Domingue, contemporary buyer. Key looks include Nanette Lepore’s peacock-colored lightweight tweed suit and Cynthia Steffe’s bright tweed separates.

Tootsie’s designer business is up 40 percent, led by colorful styles by Pucci, Etro and Missoni, as well as ladylike suits from Emanuel Ungaro and Rena Lange and all-white pants, suits and dresses. “The more special and unique, the more it’s sought after, like Andrew Gn and Ungaro,” said Mickey Rosmarin, owner of Tootsie’s. Seven’s pink or light blue jean with a back pocket stitched with an “A” is the best-selling jean.

At Macy’s West, skirts in all lengths are selling, according to Rob Smith, vice president and divisional merchandise manager of juniors, sportswear, dresses and swimwear.

“All skirts, whether knits or wovens or pleated denim minis, are doing extremely well,” he said, adding that pink and turquoise are overtaking more trendy yellow and green as the store’s bestsellers. The top-selling items include a flippy linen skirt from XOXO, a black poncho from American Attitudes and a gold foil T-shirt from Baby Phat.

Suiting is also “coming along,” said Smith. “It’s a nice change, because we haven’t sold suiting for a long time,” he added. Other than that, he said, spring’s must-haves are the preppy look and cleaned-up denim across several brands.

— With contributions from Georgia Lee and Jonathan Radler, Atlanta; Kristi Ellis, Washington, D.C.; Katherine Bowers, Boston; Holly Haber, Dallas, and Kristin Young, Los Angeles

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