Return of the frock puts Britain's retailers back in fashion

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The Independent Online

"Dress n. Clothing, esp the visible part of it." Just in case you could be in any doubt of the one trend that is single-handedly driving retail sales even in the current sub-seasonal temperatures, Topshop's Brighton window display spells it out for you in black and white. The dress is back.

From floral frocks to 1960s shifts, retailers are rejoicing at the return of the dress, that fashion basic that lies at the heart of every woman's wardrobe. And customers are pretty pleased too. After several seasons of tricky trends, such as last summer's gypsy-inspired look, at last here is an item of clothing that everyone can wear - provided they choose the right style.

Marks & Spencer, Laura Ashley, Austin Reed, Burberry and New Look are among the retailers enjoying the benefits of latching on to the easiest look to interpret since, well, the dress was last in fashion. Strong trading updates from M&S, Laura Ashley and Austin Reed all bucked the general trend in retail sales, which as the British Retail Consortium again highlighted this week, is still down.

The backdrop to the frock's comeback is the prevalence of more formal styles that provide a sharp contrast to last year's boho-chic. Francesca Zedda, the executive fashion editor at the women's monthly Easy Living, believes the smarter look is helping to drive high street sales. "The ladylike, refined, grown-up look is a more comfortable way of dressing for a typical English woman. The clothes that are around are ones for normal people so maybe people feel more comfortable about buying clothes again after a few seasons of more alien trends," she says.

Tamasin Doe, the fashion director of the wardrobe bible In Style, says: "It's a big dress season. For women that's a cure all. You don't have to think about anything when you're getting dressed except your handbag and shoes and maybe something to cover up with. A dress does the whole job."

She adds that from the 1950s-belted pieces that suit a more traditional British pear-shape, to shifts that work for those lean of body and leg, "the high street is covering most bases. That's one of the answers to its success."

Phil Wrigley, the chief executive of New Look, a value retailer with its wedge heel firmly in the fashion camp, thinks: "Dresses in almost every variety, from shirt dresses through to heavily printed georgette dresses, are everywhere. They are incredibly wearable for grown-up customers as well as younger customers."

A quick flick through some of this month's women's glossies tells the same story. In a supplement this month, the fashion bible Vogue devotes a page to the dress, which it says is "this season's one-stop style update". Harper's Bazaar meanwhile trumpets floral-printed dresses for bringing "joie de vivre to feminine shapes".

Many of the retailers reporting rises in underlying sales, including the menswear retailer Moss Bros yesterday, are finding the more formal dress code is playing to their core strength: their heritage. Ms Zedda said Laura Ashley, which said its fashion ranges fuelled most of its 11 per cent like-for-like sales gain, "has struck lucky". But she thinks others, from M&S to the Spanish-owned Zara, "have followed the trends very well".

Nick Hollingworth, who as chief executive of Austin Reed has been charged with reviving its fortunes, believes another important factor is at play: the fact that his core older customer can afford to shop because she is not up to her credit limit like many of the high street's younger fans. This helped the retailer to scrape into the black last year after heavy losses in 2004. Sales at both his brands, which include CC, the new, sassier name for Country Casuals, have risen strongly in recent weeks despite the persistent chill in the air.

"As some of the older brands start to do a better job, the older, more affluent women are coming back. They weren't comfortable with the younger looks of the past five years, such as distressed, ripped, frayed and vintage, but are more comfortable with the general fashion trend for more dressing up," Mr Hollingworth says.

Men's fashion is sending a similar message. Moss Bros, itself a basket case just four years ago, reported a 9 per cent rise in preliminary pre-tax profits to £6.2m and said current sales were up 2 per cent on an underlying basis. Philip Mountford, the chief executive, said the group was selling 500,000 suits a year compared with 350,000 three years ago.

He said men at both ends of the spending spectrum were splashing out on smart office gear that they were also wearing out after work, minus the tie. Its new Ventuno 21 brand, for street-savvy 21 to 25-year-olds, is selling hyper-fashionable suits at £149 a throw. "It's for first jobbers who don't want to wear a plonky suit," according to Mr Mountford. Meanwhile Savoy Tailors Guild, its chain targeted at an older professional, is also doing well. Which leaves the mainstream brands in the middle, such as Pierre Cardin, having a tougher time, he adds.

For men, one of the key looks this summer is more structured tailoring, starting with smart chinos and ending with a preppy blazer. Pique polo shirts in stripes and multi colours are also big news. "The days of men wearing chinos that looked like they'd done the gardening in have gone," Mr Hollingworth adds.

At M&S, the chief executive Stuart Rose also had a special mention for the fact that "formality" was coming back in menswear. This week the retailer reported its best quarterly sales figures for three years and said it had gained share in all of its markets.

As well as dresses, other strong trends for this summer include tailored City shorts, which women are wearing to work with a matching jacket, and formal linens. This summer linen trousers come fitted, with belt loops, rather than wide-legged with a drawstring tie. At New Look formal linen cuts are outselling casual lines at a rate of three to one, according to Mr Wrigley.

The other fashion story that reads well for retailers is summer's fascination with all things nautical. Repetitive it may be, but navy and white stripes, boatneck tops and wide-legged trousers continue to be churned out and lapped up. Mike Kingsbury, the chief operating office at Laura Ashley, said nautical was popular because his core customers - "traditional Middle England" - wanted something with "a bit of longevity. They want a fashionable wardrobe that is still practical but is up to date. They want to see the strong trends such as nautical."

On a softer note, fashion's love affair with femininity is reflected in all the bows and whistles being added to even the most basic cardi or skirt. In Style's Ms Doe says: "We are going through a period of very feminine clothes. Most women want to look like women." Satin ribbons, sequinned flowers, lace collars and colourful embroidery adorn most of the items on sale on the high street.

The good news for retailers and customers alike is the dress will remain the key must-have for autumn and winter. So get shopping! (n. going to shops.)

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