Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Frock of ages: fashion's (apparently) never-ending dress code

Frocks rule. Had he been as passionate a fashion writer as he was a conservationist - and exhibitionist - Steve Irwin might have said that.

As evidenced by pretty much every collection on Sydney's runways this week, the dress continues to be one of, if not the, biggest contemporary fashion story. And while to the ears of the uninitiated, it might sound absurd to say that dresses are currently a major fashion statement - as if they ever went away as a sartorial option for women - fact is, their popularity has waxed and waned over the decades. For the past couple of years however, the dress has been creeping back into collections with a vengeance.

Most major retailers with whom I have spoken over the past three seasons have all echoed the same sentiment - that the dress continues to power ahead on their sales floors. There are dress-specialist labels, dress-dedicated departments now in some department stores and even, it seems, some dress-specialist stores.

Take the Austique boutique over in London. Austique is operated by expat Australian Lindy Lopes and specialises in Australian labels - with 100% of what retailers refer to as "sellthrough" on dress-specialist label Alice McCall, reports Lopes, which means that essentially all the McCall stock that Lopes buys basically walks out the door. Lopes told me that, apart from a few jeans, Austique has only been stocking dresses for the past two years.

I was sitting next to Lopes at last night's Stephanie Conley show. Extremely well-connected (engaged to Brit/Australian fashion photographer Ben Watts, Conley is the soon-to-be sister-in-law of Australian actor Naomi Watts) Conley also happens to do a great dress, a pretty daffodil yellow example of which was famously pictured on Lauren Bush at the US Open a year or so ago. Conley's fresh-as-a-daisy solo AFW runway debut was jam-packed with some of the prettiest dresses on offer so far this week: from sweet floral cotton sundresses to some knockout cocktail dresses in buttercup yellow silk cinched with wide, clear PVC belts.

Almost every collection this week has been groaning with dresses. From the ubiquitous, trapeze-line, waistless shift and sack dresses - some of them perilously short - to pert sundresses, pinafore dresses, a few resilient bubble dresses from last season, and also the far newer, masculine-nosed shirt-dress or shirtwaister, which has been omnipresent. A good case in point, Ginger & Smart's pintucked white tuxedo shirtdress this morning.

Tina Kalivas' spectacular, colour-blocked show yesterday, while at times a little reminiscent of London's Marios Schwab, featured some terrific dresses as well - notably one spectacular black ballerina dress with intricate cutout bodice. This afternoon Fleur Wood showed an ultra feminine collection of dresses, some of the prettiest festooned with delicate lace, with layers of nude-coloured tulle cascading from Empire bustlines.

"Dresses are rocketing" Wood told me straight after the show. "[In] wholesale orders and retail sales... our dresses sold an extra I think 400percent on the year before, dresses to skirts, last summer to this summer. Phenomenal".

"It's the biggest category right now" said Ruthie Miller, womenswear buyer for the three-unit Californian fashion chain American Rag which already carries 17 Australasian brands and by this afternoon was looking to add at least two more - Anna Thomas and Zambesi, both of which collections showed, you guessed it, great dresses.

Added Miller, "I saw the change for myself, as a buyer watching trends.... [that] women didn't realise how easy it was to put on a dress. They were always putting on jeans with a blouse and top, belts and this and that. But it was just so easy to get up in the morning and just put on that dress and look fabulous and not have to think about what shoes go with which shirt".

Noted Mark Werts, American Rag founder who travels to Australia twice a year with Miller, "For us it started in vintage clothing about three or four years ago, when every girl was wearing jeans. The more fashion-forward girls were wearing dresses right in the middle of the jeans boom".

Another expat Australian who is carving out an Australasian-nosed fashion retail niche is Elizabeth Charles, who operates one eponymous boutique in New York and a week ago opened her second in San Francisco.

"The dress is by far my biggest selling item - it's about 90percent of my inventory" Charles told Fashion Season. "Once the dress bubble ever bursts, I hope I'm ready. If it swings around to pants, I think you don't want to be stuck with a heap of frocks".

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