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Reality Check / How we really shop and dress.

So 20 Minutes Ago

Trying to buy a spring dress in spring? Good luck. The crazy retail calendar for seasonal wear is based on a long-standing tradition.

April 23, 1999|BARBARA THOMAS | Times Staff Writer

The birds are out, the rain has stopped. The weather is warm. It must be time to buy a sheer spring skirt. So you go to a department store to buy one. But they've already been picked over and relegated to the discount racks.

There are, however, plenty of swimsuits in April even though summer doesn't officially begin until June 21. By August, winter coats are in stores. Try finding a perfect holiday dress two weeks before Christmas. Better start in October.

Such fashion calendar madness drives shoppers crazy. Why do stores seem so out of sync with what shoppers want when they need it?

The answer to this shopping conundrum: tradition.

"The whole thing is an awful mess," says retail trend forecaster Kurt Barnard of the Barnard Retail Trend Report in Upper Montclair, N.J. "You walk into a store, say, in the months of August or September when's it's really hot, and you see loads of winter clothes--who wants to even try things on?" he asks. "This has been an issue for years and decades, and I don't see it going away."

Retailers, analysts say, are operating on a fashion calendar begun a century ago by East Coast retailers whose customers obeyed the traditional rules of fashion: Wool was only worn in the winter, cotton in the summer, and for goodness' sake, no white before June.

Everyone knows these fashion rules have changed, but most traditional retailers, such as department stores, remain on a very set schedule. Springwear comes in February, summer frocks in spring, fall clothes in summer, holiday wear in the fall and cruisewear in early December.

If that's not confusing enough, just as spring clothes go on sale in stores, major designers, such as Ralph Lauren and Donatella Versace, show their new fall clothes to retailers and the press. A few short weeks later, high-end specialty stores start inviting fashion-forward, high-dollar customers to order fall clothes before summer.

Most Southern Californians, meanwhile, shop by real calendar seasons and have much more casual ideas about dressing, as in "do I wear pantyhose/a sports jacket to work or not."

Real people may triumph. The fashion calendar is beginning to change--albeit slowly--because of changes in fashion, fabrics and demands by consumers.

For one thing, consumers are moving more and more toward a seasonless kind of dressing--not just in warm-weather Southern California. In addition, fashion is becoming more democratic, thanks to chains like the Gap and Banana Republic (cashmere for everyone), which are making affordable hot looks available faster. And most savvy and discerning women simply don't buy into fashion dictates from designers, retailers or anyone for that matter.

The fashion world is morphing, says June Rau, fashion director for Nordstrom Southwest region.

The typical retail calendar for Nordstrom stores in Southern California is shrinking into three strong seasons from the traditional five, she says, "spring, fall and definitely holiday."

Fashion is fusing daytime into nighttime, spring into winter.

"Sleevelessness is a year-round trend," she says, which allows shoppers to find such dresses--once relegated to summers only--year-round.

Paris fashion is blurring into Milan into New York into L.A., she says. "I think that if you were to look at the American runway and the European runways, they speak the same language because American sportswear is the driving theme in fashion right now."

Fabrics are losing their seasonal boundaries. A generation ago, a winter suit meant only wool, a summer suit was silk, cotton or linen. Today, with such versatile fabrics as matte jerseys, stretch rayon crepes and ramie blends, a dress can be changed from summer to winter just by changing shoes or accessories.

More and more designers are offering seasonless dressing, so shoppers increasingly are able to find something appropriate for summer from a fall or winter line. For example, in contemporary women's line Nicole Miller, "There's so many more fabrics that are conducive to year-round wear. . . . The thing that makes it fall on our line is the color switch," says Jody Hughes, West Coast regional sales representative for the line.

With an exceptional few items that are specifically geared toward the harsh winters of Chicago and Minneapolis, the Nicole Miller line doesn't change much from coast to coast. A woman in Los Angeles may go a little more bare than a woman in New York who prefers a dress with a jacket, Hughes says. "I think any designer today has to design with the world in mind."

If you're not the seasonless type and want more fashion, competition is working to your advantage. The speed with which companies can knock off hot styles is having some impact on when the goods get into the stores. Within a few months of being seen on American and European runways last year, pleated skirts and cargo and capri pants reached the mainstream. Companies like ABS, Laundry and XOXO check out the runways and then quickly translate similar fashions at more affordable prices.

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