THE PEOPLE'S CHOICE Customers clamor for shorts, jackets

Is anyone actually buying those baby doll dresses? Or those see-through blouses and show-every-bulge catsuits? And are professional women really going to wear shorts to the office?

Designers and retailers may predict big hits for the coming season, but consumers don't always cooperate. Sometimes a fad just fades or, other times, an idea may take a season or two to catch on.


Above-the-knee skirts have been promoted in magazines and on the runways for close to five years, but it's only this spring that women have begun buying them in any real quantity (just as designers decide to confuse the issue and announce a desire to try longer skirts since short is starting to look, oh, just a trifle boring to them these days).

A survey of retailers, catalog companies and manufacturers reveals definite customer preferences are already shaping up for this spring. Baby doll dresses, sheer dressing and catsuits, by the way, did not turn up on the best-seller list. The demand for dressier shorts, the kind suitable for the office, however, has been explosive.


These aren't quite as tailored as the shorts first introduced for office wear a few seasons ago.

"The ones we have this year are drapier, with a little more fullness, almost like a skirt," says Nancy Powell, women's buyer for Jos. A. Bank Clothiers. "And the results have been phenomenal."

One of the biggest sellers in its spring catalog has been a soft rayon three-piece combination of jacket, shorts and tank in a mix of navy and cream shell prints.

"These are shorts that a lot of women can wear to the office, and then on the weekend for dinner at somebody's house, when they might have worn a blouse and skirt," says Ms. Powell.

At First Issue stores, a retail division of Liz Claiborne focused on the busy career woman, sales analysts have discovered that a great number of shorts and jackets are being purchased together and worn as an alternative to the traditional suit.

Jackets in all shapes and colors, to wear with shorts, skirts and dresses, are another widely popular spring purchase. It's a trend that got wide acceptance last spring and continues to grow as manufacturers offer ever greater variety.

"We've been selling tons of jackets," says Jan Maslin, owner of Trillium in Greenspring Station, who mentions them at the top of her list of spring successes. "They've been especially popular in reversible silk, some with studs or stones."

At Miller Brothers in the Towson Town Center, sportswear buyer Hilda Levin has had a similar experience. "The novelty jackets are doing incredibly," she says. "Women are buying jackets for $400, $500, $600, and not with any skirts to match. They're mixing the fabrics with whatever they feel like. It's a new casual attitude. They want something they can wear with a slim black skirt and then take and wear it with jeans.


Short skirts are hot items for some retailers, but the trend is not universal. At a national level, Liz Claiborne reports that both knee-length skirts and long full, midcalf lengths are selling equally well. Area department stores such as Hecht's and Woodward & Lothrop are finding a similar diversity.

"It's about the same as last year, about half and half," says Woodward & Lothrop fashion director Ginny Rupp.

At Jos. A. Bank Clothiers, sales also run the gamut, but Ms. Powell says more customers are choosing the 25-inch knee length than last year and a 23-inch above-the-knee length just introduced this spring is finding acceptance.

At the specialty store level, above-the-knee lengths are the favorites.

Ms. Maslin says her most popular skirts are between 21 or 23 inches, "about an inch or two shorter than last year. A few of the professional customers are buying longer -- the

ones who can't stand in courtroom with a skirt above their knees, but then they're buying shorter for evening."


At Nan Duskin, "all our skirts are short -- an inch or more above the knee," says Jane Ann Simpson, vice president and manager. "But that's what is offered in the designer collections we carry [which includes Chanel, Valentino, Calvin Klein and Michael Kors].

When it comes to color, customers seem to be gravitating toward the brights as well as graphic black-and-white combinations.

One of the instant successes in Spiegel's recent summer catalog was a two-page spread of black-and-white garments, including the houndstooth jacket shown at the beginning of this article as well as a tunic and skirt in black and white Mondrian color blocks.

At Hecht's, Nancy Chistolini, vice president of creative merchandising, says, "black and white did well from the minute it hit. And so did brightly colored jackets -- they're going to continue right into fall."

Of all the brights, she says, "green is selling best, in almost all shades, in apparel and accessories -- even green shoes are doing well. The two strongest are lime and emerald. If it's in a leotard or a sock, it might be lime, but a jacket for career is most popular in something like emerald."

But other colors also have their fans. At Jos. A. Bank and Trillium, bright yellow is mentioned as a surprise hit. "It's a color customers resisted last year," says Ms. Maslin."


At Nan Duskin, Ms. Simpson says, "most of the colors that are selling are the hottest, like really vibrant, shocking, Balenciaga pinks and lemon like those from Chanel. But on the flip side, the dusty pales we have are also doing well, from Michael Kors and Calvin Klein."

Then there are some of those little extras that are catching the eye of the consumer. At Nan Duskin, Ms. Simpson says Chanel accessories have become "extraordinarily popular," especially the handbags and the jewelry -- the multiple strands of pearls, gold chains and colored stones.

Jeweled baseball caps are flying out the door at Saks Fifth Avenue as are great numbers of wide stretch headbands in neon colors.