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Are We Seeing the Death of the Dress?

Fashion* A growing preference by women and designers for separates is pushing the former staple off the retail racks.

September 15, 2002|MARGARET WEBB PRESSLER | WASHINGTON POST

On a recent tour of a Hecht's department store, company President Frank Guzzetta stopped at a display of casual dresses.

"This is a category we can't make small enough, fast enough," he said. Sales of daytime dresses have declined eight seasons in a row, he said, because "women just don't wear dresses anymore."

Research shows that dress sales have been declining steadily for years. In 1997, $8.9 billion of dresses were sold in the United States, according to market research firm NPDFashionworld in Port Washington, N.Y. Last year, dress sales totaled just $5.4 billion.

But that raises a classic retail chicken-or-egg question: Are we, as shoppers, dictating the death of dresses because we don't want them anymore? Or is it a change wrought by the growing pressures on Seventh Avenue, the nerve center of the fashion industry?

Guzzetta said one of his executives who frequently wears dresses to work blames designers and retailers. "She thinks they're just not making good dresses," he said. But Guzzetta is skeptical, sensing the kind of Bigger Issue that vexes retailers, one involving cultural trends, fashion, shopping habits and women's tastes.

In fact, Guzzetta and the dress-wearing executive are right--sort of. There aren't as many good dresses being made now, but that's because no one is buying them, according to fashion industry executives.

There are simply more obstacles involved in making dresses than a simple suit, skirt or blouse. Creating a style that fits as many body types as possible, shoulder to knee, is difficult.

Separates are much easier to design, and therefore more economical; they also more easily fit a wider audience, leaving fewer leftovers at season's end.

Financial pressures on Seventh Avenue have been growing as big retailers are demanding financial concessions from manufacturers in case their clothes don't sell well.

At the same time, many retailers are hiring their own design staff and expanding private-label fashions. Designers have responded by trying to make their operations more efficient, and that's a good reason to ditch the dress for easier-to-design mix-and-match pieces.

But if women wanted to wear dresses three days a week, manufacturers would make it happen. The real story behind the neglected work dress is probably more about shoppers' lifestyles and changing tastes than changing economics.

It may be harder to make dresses and make money, but even Bud Konheim, chief executive of New York design house Nicole Miller, concedes that shoppers drive the issue.

"We don't dictate this stuff; the marketplace dictates what they're going to wear," he said. "There's no daytime dress business out there."

A dress may look pulled together, but it also looks dressy, while workplace fashion standards have been loosening up. Once women started feeling more comfortable wearing separates, they also began discovering that tops and bottoms have other advantages. Plenty of shoppers buy separates because they can get more wear out of them: A skirt can look casual with a T-shirt or sophisticated with a tailored jacket.

After wearing a dress, though, a woman might feel she needs to put it away for a few weeks before she can wear it again. That ends up being three or four appearances a season, and after a couple of years, it's either out of style or she's sick of seeing it in her closet.

Konheim said women miss the feeling of being "dressed," and that's showing up in the evening-dress business, which is booming. Women may believe it's OK to buy something they'll wear only a few times if it's for a special occasion.

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