NEW YORK — Don’t tell American designers the fashion business is depressed.

As designer firms prepare to open fall — and bridge companies tally a rush of early fall orders — the mood is anything but gloomy.

With many expecting double-digit increases over last fall’s orders, manufacturers say three factors are primarily responsible for the rosy outlook:

  • Solid spring sales.
  • A belief that after two years of buying only items here and there, American women need to fully replenish their wardrobes.
  • Growing interest in American designers on the international front.

For the most part, manufacturers also reacted positively to the talk of a return to structure in the European collections, noting that women understand a slightly structured look better than an unstructured look.

But they stressed that a structured look of the Nineties is much softer than a structured look of the Eighties, referring to it more as a return to “glamour,” and away from what some referred to as the “anti-fashion” trend of the past few seasons.

“Over the past few years, women have been buying very selectively,” said Susan Sokol, president of Calvin Klein Collection. “Last fall was a difficult season overall and women were not buying full outfits. We’re seeing a move toward complete looks again.”

Sales of the Calvin Klein Collection are expected to be up about 20 or 25 percent this fall, said Sokol, as a result of spring business that she described as “very strong,” with numbers ahead of plan for February and the first few weeks of March.

“At the spring trunk shows, which have been very good, dresses and sweaters have been great for us as classifications businesses,” she said. “Sweaters are a strong component business that is growing each season.”

Sokol noted that Calvin Klein’s international account base will double over last fall, and will account for 25 percent of Collection business by the end of 1994.

“We’ve been inundated with interest from offshore stores,” she noted, “and we’re seeing a lot of growth in Germany and Italy.”

Sokol claimed the interest from Europe is fueled by the Calvin Klein name and European women’s positive reaction to a segment of the collection that focuses on soft dressing.

“We have an advantage going into the new season,” said Stuart Kreisler, a consultant to Bidermann Industries for its Ralph Lauren Womenswear business. “The stores base much of their buys on previous seasons’ sell-throughs, and ours are extremely high at full price.”

Kreisler said that volume of the Collection business could jump 20 or 25 percent for fall, with much of that increase stemming from the new Collection Classics group, which made its debut for spring. He also points to the fact that the firm ships its collection in merchandised groups, making it easier to coordinate full looks on the selling floor.

“About 60 percent of the volume we expect to do for fall will be from Classics,” he said. “It’s been a huge success because it supplements the Collection deliveries, especially in-between shipping dates, giving the stores coordinated merchandise year-round.”

The Ralph line, Lauren’s younger, hipper secondary collection, is expected to surpass its first-year projections, said Kreisler. The fall delivery opened in mid-March and “is already sold up,” he added. While Kreisler is obviously bullish about fall business at Ralph Lauren, he has one concern about the industry in general: “The one thing I think still needs to be done more, in terms of the whole industry, is that people need to adjust their heads on the calendar needs of the customers’ wardrobes. The customer comes into the store when the temperature starts to rise or drop, or if there’s a special occasion. She doesn’t shop in advance and squirrel away the clothes anymore.”

He continued: “The manufacturers have to regulate the shipments of their merchandise so that it will sell at full price when it’s in the stores, and the retailers have to stop thinking that summer merchandise should be in the stores in March, and that fall should arrive in June. I do think we’re seeing a change though, with the year-round fabrics that many designers are using.”

A spokeswoman for Donna Karan Cos. stated that fall business is expected to be up over last year. “We’re optimistic,” she stated. “Spring sales have been solid and we feel that will carry into fall.” But Donna Karan may miss the boat on the full spring selling season because of previously reported delivery problems. The delay is due to what the company said were mismatched dye lots, leaving many retailers with only a small percentage of Karan’s spring collection in-store in the third week of March. The firm said the rest of spring shipments would be completed within the first week of April. Retailers reported, however, that the merchandise they did have was selling well.

Anne Klein Collection has “the potential to double our business over last fall,” said Anne Ball, president of Collection.

“I think fall will be incredibly strong,” she continued. “We have had strong receptivity to spring, with excellent sell-throughs so far and strong reorders. We’ve also taken quite a few special orders for the second and third deliveries of spring.”

Ball said the added business is coming from existing accounts — a number of which have opened new, larger Anne Klein Collection in-store shops this season — as well as smaller specialty stores that are ordering the Collection for the first time.

On the international front, Ball said there have been talks with several European stores, but nothing has come to fruition yet.

“We have had more editorial coverage from magazines all around the world,” she noted, “but I’m not sure what that will mean in terms of retail clients.”

“We have seen in spring business, from December, January and February, that people are ready to go out and buy clothes again,” said Tom Murry, president of Tahari. He expects fall sales of the sportswear collection to jump 30 percent over last year.

“The reaction to the line has been excellent,” he said. “We’ve opened several major stores and a multitude of small stores. Our line used to be a bit trendier. It’s more fashion classics now, so we’re seeing greater expansion out of the urban, ‘A’ stores into the branches.” Murry pointed out that the Tahari dress division is expected to see a sales increase of about 100 percent over last year. He stressed that explosive growth is coming off a “very small base,” and is fueled by a drop in price, so dresses that retailed for $300 will now retail around $250.

Elie Tahari, design director, said the idea of more structured clothing is “music to my ears.”

“I’ve been doing that for 20 years, although the clothes now are much more softly structured,” he said. “The bottom line, the industry learned, is that women only spend serious money on essential clothes they can get long use out of.”

At Tyler Trafficante Inc., the concern for fall is how much to let the Richard Tyler signature collection business grow. The firm has seen a great deal of additional interest in the line since Tyler’s first collection as the designer of the Anne Klein Collection began to hit the stores in February. Tyler spent several weeks on the road making personal appearances for Anne Klein.

Wholesale volume for the Tyler collection this year is expected to be around $6 million to $7 million, a jump over last year’s volume of $4.5 million.

Lisa Trafficante, the designer’s wife and business partner, said the company’s volume rose about 50 percent this spring, and growth for fall is planned for a 30 to 50 percent rise over that.

“We could grow 100 percent every season,” said Michelle Trafficante, vice president. “But our factories can handle only controlled growth and we want to be careful not to overdistribute in areas where we already have small specialty stores.”

“We’re having some strong sell-throughs for spring so the accounts we’re in want to grow the business,” said Lisa Trafficante. “We’ve had some great trunk shows even in places we didn’t think were going to be big sales areas, and that gives the stores confidence.”

Both Trafficantes pointed out that much of the collection’s growth is coming from existing accounts that are placing the line in more branches. But there is also interest from new stores — especially, said Michelle Trafficante, from those abroad. For spring, Tyler-Trafficante opened two stores in London, two stores in Germany and one store [Joyce] in Hong Kong.

On structure, Michelle Trafficante added: “What’s always sold well for us is structure, but with a softer edge. We see the trend come and go, but it does always make women feel better to wear something that’s shaped. It doesn’t have a big shoulder, but it’s soft tailoring. It’s refined but defined.”

Noting that this is her fifth anniversary in business, Gemma Kahng is expecting her sales to jump about 50 percent over last fall, said the designer.

Part of that increase stems from Kahng’s licensed retail agreement with Bluebell, which has a Gemma Kahng boutique in Hong Kong and is considering opening one in Japan, said the designer. “I didn’t know what to expect for spring because of how strange things have been for the stores,” she said. “But we shipped and then started getting reorders.

“Right now things are looking very bright,” she said. “The trend for this fall is so different than what we’ve been seeing — glamour is back, pretty and sexy clothes are back. And it’s because the whole time the ‘anti-fashion’ clothes were in the stores, the consumer didn’t react. Women didn’t buy them.”

Todd Oldham is looking for about a 15 to 20 percent increase in its Collection volume this fall, said Tony Longoria, Oldham’s partner.

“Women haven’t really been shopping so there’s a big void in their closets right now,” he offered. “What’s great is that for the general consumer, everything is out there. There’s not one narrow focus. For us, we could never abandon Todd’s novelty prints or color. Whether that’s what’s happening in the rest of fashion is not our concern; it’s what the customer wants.” With increasing interest from stores in the Middle and Far East and Europe, Longoria said that foreign accounts will make up about 30 to 35 percent of Oldham’s business this year. “They’re accustomed to sexy clothes,” he said of the offshore interest.

As for the return to structure, Longoria sees it as just another option for the consumer. He noted that for the Oldham Collection, there have been strong spring sales in everything from novelty print dresses in long and short, to pants to short, black, sexy suits. An increase in volume of about 15 percent from new and existing accounts is expected at Isaac Mizrahi, said David Rubinstein, vice president of sales. “It seems that it’s a little clearer in terms of trends for fall,” said Rubinstein. “There are options, and there’s no longer confusion on long or short — it was definitely very short for spring, so we’ll go with that for fall.”

Rubinstein said that there will probably be a far greater balance of constructed and unconstructed looks offered for fall.

“Isaac’s always done unconstructed and constructed looks,” he said, but it seems that women understand a more tailored silhouette. We would not abandon one for the other, though.”

Randy Kemper is expecting to see a 20 percent jump in sales of his signature bridge sportswear collection for fall. Interestingly enough, Kemper does not think the increase will be a result of his participation in 7th on Sixth for the first time this season, because the collection opened with the bridge market in mid-March.

Rather, he points to his focus on where his line fits into the market and the impact of his first ad campaign — which just launched last month — as the reason for his increasing business.

“I’ve gotten so much response from the ad campaign already with stores telling me that women are coming in with the ad, looking for those clothes,” he said. “The fashion show really is for the press. “I think that after what’s been going on during the past few seasons, there’s a return to glam, with a focus on coats and toppers that go over sportswear suits, all done with a feminine look,” he noted. “It’s not a super-structured look; instead, there’s more concern about the cut and the way things are put together.”

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