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Winter break

THE BALTIMORE SUN

So you're searching the department stores for a new scarf and glove set to replace the one you lost who-knows-where, and right there, sharing floor space with the cable sweaters and fur-trimmed coats, are racks of tiny bathing suits, peppy pink and yellow T-shirts and skimpy wrap dresses.

What gives?

It may be winter outside for most of us, but for retailers and those in fashion's swankier circles, this bone-chilling part of the year is oddly called resort -- a mini shopping season between fall and spring that could throw the uninitiated for a loop.

Resort? In 30-degree weather? What's with these beaded halter-tops, tunics and tankinis in the middle of January?

"It's an interesting time," says Melissa Payner, CEO of bluefly.com, an online boutique of discounted designer men's and women's apparel. "This is the time when you go to the stores and you see lots of heavy sweaters and coats and boots. It's not the time of year where you'd typically see great things for the beach. But retailers realize that this is a time when people go on vacation."

"Resort" season is a retail construct, designed to provide travelers with an assortment of spring-and-summer wear in the dead of winter.

Resort season varies from store to store but generally falls somewhere between Thanksgiving and the end of this month -- a popular time for holiday traveling and winter-blues getaways. With that in mind, many higher-end retailers roll out clothes and accessories that defy the East Coast wind chill factor and put consumers in a St. Croix state of mind.

"Lots of white, lots of soft neutrals like beiges and ivories. There's always a very relaxed feeling to resort collections -- wide, fluid pants, cropped pants, easy fitted tunics, soft dresses," says Gregg Andrews, a fashion director at Nordstrom. "It's all very relaxed, very easy, very comfortable."

Some resort collections are entirely new, created by fashion designers each year in the off-time between fall and spring -- fashion's two major seasons. Other collections are pieces of what's to come in spring -- which will usually make its way to store showrooms around March.

Once for the wealthy

In its inception, years ago, the retail season called resort was almost exclusively for the most privileged. When Daddy Morebucks packed up Muffy, Buffy, the butler and the cook between Thanksgiving and New Year's to head for warmer climes, their made-for-Manhattan clothes just wouldn't do. So resort was born.

"Generally, people like to buy something new when they're going away," Payner says. "So rather than go back and look through all of the things they put in boxes or storage for the spring or summer, they look to see if there's something new that's springy or refreshing."

Wealthier customers tended to be the ones who could afford such luxurious travel plans, not to mention an entirely new wardrobe just for a few warmer weeks.

But today, more and more people are traveling to sunnier spots around the holidays and in the winter, fashion observers say.

Nowadays, "we can't predetermine who takes a vacation," says Payner.

And although it's still mainly the "true designer apparel lines that really create a true resort collection," says Andrews, "some of this does trickle down. You see parts of it in bridge [lines] and more moderately priced collections."

Today, "probably most retailers offer some amount of resort," Payner says.

At Casual Male, for example, a national chain of menswear, instead of buying entirely new designer lines in the winter and calling the collection resort, "one of the things we do is bring in our spring product earlier," says David Levin, president and CEO. "It's not like we're going to sell a lot of shorts in New York or Baltimore this week, but [we're] starting to show some basic things in some new colors. For example, the basic polo shirt: now we have it in spring colors."

Around this time of year, designer T-shirt maker Michael Stars ships to retailers tops and cover-ups in bright, suntan-complementing shades and most importantly, carefree fabrics.

"All of our tees are the most travel-friendly items you can carry," says Shelly Chaney, spokeswoman for Michael Stars, which is carried in Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale's, Anthropologie and other specialty boutiques. "Literally, you can take 10 of our different styles, put them in your suitcase, roll them up and you're set."

Resort even spills over into evening wear -- for those nighttime cruise parties, or winter weddings in the Caribbean.

"We do a lot of chiffon dresses," says Saul Maslavi, owner of Jovani Fashions, a line of sophisticated evening wear, sold locally at such specialty stores as Vassari and Octavia. "Knee-length things that are more flowy for the resorts, for the evenings that they go out. It's a resort, but they want it to be more chic."

Resort treatments

And resort is no longer limited to retailers and fashion designers. Beauty outlets have gotten in on the season as well.

"We love it this time of year," says Tara J. Oolie, founder of just calm down, a day spa in New York's Chelsea neighborhood. "We sort of become everybody's best friend this time of season."

For many spas and salons, resort season means a surge in clients who have decided it's time to peel off the tights, strip off the dark holiday polish and de-fuzz.

"To prepare to go away, they come in for manicures and pedicures -- especially their toes for when they're walking on the beach. They come in and change to a ... more going-away, resort-y color," says Oolie. "And a lot of clients get a lot of waxing this time of year. This is the time when people start doing their 'high cuts' again and their 'Brazilians' again."

Like during the major fashion seasons, there are trends to resort season as well. This season, knee-length shorts are all the rage, says Payner, of Bluefly.com, as are Grecian-inspired dresses and tunics.

"Everything is a little longer," Payner says. "Cover your hips."

Gold jewelry and gold detailing are omnipresent in resort accessories and embellishments. And sherbet colors offset all the white and neutral basics -- a promising prelude to the forthcoming spring season.

"Spring is a very nice, pretty season [for fashion]," says Payner. "And we really saw the very beginning of that in resort."

...................... tanika.white@baltsun.com

PINEHURST DEFINES 'RESORT CASUAL'

Going on a winter getaway and need fashion help? Here are a few tips from North Carolina's Pinehurst Resort, rated "No. 1 U.S. Golf Resort in the World" last year by Travel + Leisure Golf magazine, and site of the 2005 U.S. Open Championship:

Resort casual generally means collared shirts for men (golf shirts, casual shirts).

With the exception of our pool areas and our Beach Club, we prefer closed-toed shoes.

We prefer casual slacks and shorts [with hems lower] than your fingertips as a general rule.

No jeans are permitted in our upscale dining outlets. They are allowed in our casual dining outlets.

We highly suggest casual sports coats, but do not require a tie, for our upscale dining outlets at dinnertime.

All resort guests should have a wrap to cover bathing suits while walking through the interior of the hotel.

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