Clotheshorses Caught in Price Stampede : Retail Apparel Cost Shows the Biggest Increase in 13 Years

Times Staff Writer

Being a clotheshorse has suddenly become a more expensive proposition. After months of relative stability, apparel prices showed a sharp 1.7% rise in March over February's levels, the largest increase in nearly 13 years, and contributed strongly to the overall 0.4% jump in the consumer price index, the Labor Department said Friday.

In the Los Angeles area, apparel costs were up even more dramatically, with the category overall showing a 5.1% boost. That is the second-highest one-month increase since the index was developed in 1953, according to Faith Heinemann of the department's local office.

Prices of women's and girls' apparel were responsible for most of the increase, rising 10.6% in the five-county area. Men's and boys' clothing showed a much more modest monthly rise of 2.7%. (The local figures are not seasonally adjusted.)

Most retail industry observers agreed that the inflation in clothing prices reflects a variety of factors affecting imports--notably quota restrictions and the dollar's decline--and the trend toward more fashionable, better-quality clothing. They also expressed widely differing opinions about whether shoppers should gird for more in the way of apparel "sticker shock."

"I don't think the (clothing) prices will be sustainable," said economist Sandra Shaber of the Futures Group in Washington.

"Clothing is one of the categories where consumers are most price-sensitive. The short-run effect is that people will stop buying clothing, and then the next effect will be that the clothing will be on sale."

Bernard Chaus, chairman of Bernard Chaus Inc., a New York clothing manufacturer, said the company did not raise prices on its spring and summer lines, but said he expects to see increases of 10% to 15% for the fall. He added that the apparel increases in March might have stemmed in part from fashion trends. "Full skirts are selling quite well," he said, "and 3 1/2 yards rather than a yard and a half will (cost) a lot more."

In addition, he said, major department stores are putting more emphasis on moderate to better clothing and are moving away from lower-price apparel.

At least one Southern California women's apparel retailer acknowledged that its prices have risen recently but cited factors other than simple price inflation. Those included customers' desire for better-quality apparel made of natural fibers and for garments that are variations on old themes but require an extra, costly step or two in production, such as T-shirts with shoulder pads or blue jeans that have been faded with new processes. Prices of these fancier blue jeans, the retailer said, are up about 10%.

The increase in clothing prices "was bound to happen because it has become more and more difficult to import textiles and garments from our major sources, such as Japan, Korea and Taiwan," said Eugene Milosh, president of the American Assn. of Exporters and Importers, a New York trade group.

Scott Sudduth, a spokesman for the Retail Industry Trade Action Coalition, a Washington-based proponent of free trade, agreed that many of the group's members are starting to encounter shortages of apparel items because of quota restrictions that were imposed last summer by the Reagan Administration.

The shortages are prompting many stores to look to domestic manufacturers, which generally charge higher prices for apparel, he said. For example, the Limited, a specialty retailer based in Columbus, Ohio, that imports the vast majority of its apparel, announced this week that it plans to aggressively pursue more domestic sources.

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