Top designers try to fit prices to leaner times


NEW YORK-- When Mary Ann Restivo founded her business her prices rarely topped $400, but little by little they rose, like everyone else's, with inflation.

Now she has joined the ranks of designers and manufacturers forced to offer shoppers fashionable clothes at more reasonable prices.

"Everybody knows people are not spending a lot on clothes, so we decided to go back to where we were when we started 10 years ago," she said.

Designers like Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan and Louis Dell'Olio for Anne Klein have accomplished this by adding secondary collections, usually of more casual clothes. But Restivo, who sold her company to Leslie Fay in 1987, remaining as executive design director, has restructured the business to offer lower prices, which run from $110 for a sweater to $400 for a jacket for fall.

Stores refer to this range as "bridge" because it bridges the distance between moderate-priced clothing and designer lines.

As more women have entered the business world, this so-called bridge area has grown tremendously because it offers good career clothes at a reasonable price.

The group includes Ellen Tracy, Adrienne Vittadini, Dana Buchman and of course Anne Klein II.

Ms. Restivo has retained her familiar blazers and kimono jackets, shifts and trapeze-shaped dresses but, to lower prices, is

concentrating on more basic, less luxurious fabrics.

"We're using gabardine, wool crepe and flannel for the good, solid base clothes," she said, "then adding novelties like houndstooth checks and a plaid fabric woven with loopy yarns. To make the clothes special, we're using details like contrast piping, soutache embroidery and diamond-shaped cutouts."

To compete in the United States, European designers and companies like Giorgio Armani, Gianni Versace, Franco Moschino, Genny, Byblos and Emanuel Ungaro have added secondary lines. But mostly these lines cost more than American bridge collections, often hitting the $1,000 mark. That, too, is starting to change.

With the recent introductions of Ungaro's Emanuel and Escada's Apriori, Europe is challenging America's dominance of the bridge market with clothes priced under $500.

Emanuel, which was developed specifically for the United States by Gruppo GFT, is an extensive collection of sportswear that includes basic stretch bodysuits, pants and skirts, draped jersey and velvet dresses, tailored jackets and coats that reverse from printed poplin to fake fur.

The collection adds a sexy French twist to classic American sportswear. A glen plaid blazer, for example, is draped to button on one side, and a checked scuba jacket has Ungaro's gathered sides.

Apriori is the lowest-priced division of Escada, a German manufacturer that also produces the Laur'el and Crisca lines. The latest endeavor, first sold in Europe a year and a half ago, has been restyled for the United States. Like Emanuel, it ranges from casual country clothes to dressy career styles.

The sporty segment includes ribbed wool-and-cashmere sweaters, cire anoraks and baseball jackets of patterned microfiber with a silky finish. Citified styles include a long one-button blazer, a cropped plaid jacket and a stretch flannel jacket with a black velvet collar.

Come July, when all these collections reach the department stores, the customer will decide if they tempt her pocketbook.

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