While many women have been dressing down over the past few years, the resurgence of blouses and tailored shirts may be an indicator that the laid-back look is on its way out.

Apparel manufacturers whom WWD spoke with agreed that the blouse is a hot item. It gives a woman a dressy look without the need or cost of layered pieces — and it’s versatile.

Popular styles for fall include leather trim, high Victorian collars, ruffles and shiny fabrics. Knits mixed with woven fabrics, such as a knit top with a woven collar, placket front and cuffs, will also be a key look. Here, a preview of what to expect this fall:

Finley, based in Dallas, became a pioneer of the blouse category five years ago when shirts became the cornerstone of its sportswear collection. Sales for the line, which is wholesale-priced from $49 to $89, have been growing at 30 to 40 percent a year ever since, and the company expects that to continue.

Finley focuses on wovens and cotton or all-cotton looks and exclusive prints, but co-owner and designer Finley Moll said that pieces combining knit with poplin are also doing very well.

“We are also continuing to address the very feminine, flounced, ruffled look for fall, and we’re going to do some great cinched and draped pieces with exaggerated waist detail,” added Moll. “By contrasting men’s wear detailing with very feminine silhouettes, we always come out with a very positive response. That’s the whole idea that blouses were based on.”

It’s a similar story at New York-based View Collection, where tops used to be the weaker side of the business.

“Shirts were never really a big thing for me, but this last year, I’ve sold more shirts than ever before,” said designer and chief executive officer Walter Baker, who expects his blouse business to grow 50 percent in 2002. “The reason my business is exploding is because people aren’t buying a whole new wardrobe; they’re buying items.”

For fall, View will get more into woven, fitted shirts, Edwardian sleeves, high necks, banded collars, pleating and pin-tucking, as well as different types of sheers in white and eyelet.

The blouse business at Drama, produced by New York-based Kolsen Enterprises, is “beyond gangbusters,” said designer Anni Koltun.

“What the shirt has given the customer is something new in their closet,” she said. “Something see-through. Wear it open or closed. It’s given them something they haven’t had in a while.”

Overall, Drama expects about a 40 percent increase in its blouse business this year.

For fall, Drama will be adding a lot of leather trim and will continue doing lace pieces, with some in printed silk doupioni. Wholesale price points range from $59 to $79.

At Rayure Paris, buyers were hesitant to buy blouses when the company first showed them in August 1999. Their reluctance lasted at least a year, said Brian Downey, partner for RD Enterprises, a Houston company that imports the blouses from Paris. Since blouses have really taken off, RD’s business is expected to double or triple this year, he said.

“I think it’s a natural progression, as knits have been driving business for so long as a category,” reflected Downey, whose partner in RD is Mickey Rosmarin, owner of the Houston-based Tootsie’s specialty store chain.

Rayure specializes in knit blouses with collars and cuffs. “It’s a classic French-style shirt,” explained Downey.

For fall, the company is considering adding leather trims or shinier fabrics to their blouses, which wholesale between $25 and $80.

Remember when blouses were only worn with suits? At M-A-G in New York, the blouse craze has inspired some dual-purpose shirts.

“We revamped the classic tuxedo shirt and infused it with romantic embroidery,” said Monica Belag-Forman, president of Magaschoni Apparel Group. “Some standout blouses in the collection are a Victorian-inspired blouse in stretch cotton with a high collar and a classic white blouse with contrasting colored stitching. Both are great with suits or alone.”

Also new for fall at M-A-G will be peasant blouses and shirts with embroidery and lace. Tops wholesale from $58 to $68.

Femininity is driving design at Enough About Me, a division of New York-based Garfield & Marks.

“We’re going for feminine, soft, ruffled, wrapped, exaggerated, sheer, lace, pleating, and mixed media with lots of details, details, details — overall feminine,” said vice president of designer merchandising Kathy Fahy. “The mixed media of wovens and knits together is going to be very strong, whether it’s collar and cuffs or insets.”

Although Garfield & Marks has shirts in other divisions, Enough About Me is strictly blouses. Wholesale price points range from $55 to $75.

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