Modular Looks Go Their Separate Ways

Karen Newell Young is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

They are called clothes, but they feel like pajamas. Multiples--a line of shapeless, inexpensive knit garments--rarely wrinkle, can be mixed and matched and are designed to fit every physique.

Which is why Multiples, and their ancestors, Units, are taking the retail world by storm. From Orange County to Boston, sleepy women are groping through their closets every morning for a soft tunic to throw over a soft skirt. Because nearly every piece can be matched with another, dressing can almost be done in the dark. Pull on a comfy component and presto! You're dressed.

A friend in New England reports that every fourth woman she has seen this fall is wearing Multiples. Even stodgy old Boston, which doesn't take kindly to fashion trends, is abuzz over modular dressing.

Orange County shoppers have been equally responsive. Students, housewives and career women are finding that the stretchy separates can go from home to work or classes to cocktail hour and still look stylish. The pieces, made of lightweight cotton blends, are especially suited to the climate here. In fact, Units is the No.1 women's clothing store in sales per square foot at MainPlace/Santa Ana, according to marketing director Judy Bijlani. Bullock's reports that its test run with Multiples last year was so successful that the chain soon decided to put the line in every store.

An increasing number of retail outlets are offering these items, and shoppers can expect to find more such lines and a greater selection within each line. Multiples, for example, owned by the Dallas-based Jerell Inc. and sold in many of the nation's largest department stores, will be joined by two similar Jerell lines next month: Singles and Pants to Go. Units are branching out of basic monochromatic modular pieces into brilliant patterns and shapes such as bolero jackets.

Multiples designer Sandra Garratt was a student at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles in 1974 when she came up with the idea for an inexpensive line of knits that could be mixed, matched and layered. Her first success with the idea came in 1977, when she designed the original Units line as a member of a partnership called Stinu (Units spelled backward). She continued with Stinu until 1987, when the partnership fell apart. (J.C. Penney now owns Stinu.) Garratt later launched Multiples through an agreement with Jerell, one of the biggest manufacturers of women's fashions in the Southwest, to a remarkable response.

Now Units and Multiples are scrambling to cash in on the trend. Multiples are now available in more than 400 places nationwide (mostly in large department stores such as Bullock's, Macy's and Bloomingdale's). Multiples sales are expected to reach $110 million this year. Units will not divulge sales figures, but the business is expanding. There are now 100 Units stores nationwide, including 21 in California and two in Orange County. The company plans to open eight new California stores this fall, with a third Orange County store scheduled to open next summer at Fashion Island.

Jerry Frankel, president and founder of Jerell, says the Multiples line is the one bright spot on the currently cloudy retail horizon.

"It's one of the few products selling well at regular prices," he says. "Lots of goods are selling well on sale, but Multiples is selling well normally. It's meant a lot of success for us. We've been able to establish a whole new concept of life style dressing."

Part of the sales gimmick is the versatility of the product. Most of the modular lines consist of about 10 pieces, priced between $5 and $50. A basic tube, for example, can be worn as a cowl, a hood, a belt or a bandeau, and it can be combined with pants, skirts, tops, jumpsuits or dresses.

It's the one-size-fits-all ease of Multiples that has made the clothes so appealing, Frankel says.

"You can be Size 4 all the way to pregnant and still look good in them," he adds. "You can gain 20 to 30 pounds and still fit into your Multiples. And it's creative. We've found that you can dress 100 different ways for under $100."

Although enough women are buying the figure-clinging knitwear to keep retailers happy, some are shying away. One 30-ish woman who won't buy them sums up the anti-modular sentiment: "It's for skinny women who look good in little clothes."

The marketing of the pieces is as out of the ordinary as their appearance. Items are packed in plastic bags and stacked on shelves. Customers try on samples in mirrorless dressing rooms, wearing the pieces out into the store so that they will be seen by other browsers and assisted by the sales clerks. (Buyers are especially on view at the Units stores, which have floor-to-ceiling glass walls and are generally in corner locations in malls.) The idea behind placing the mirrors outside the dressing rooms is that the sales staffs, called fashion stylists, can push the products by "training" the shoppers how to put together outfits. And if all the parading about snags a few more customers, well that's OK too.

Retail analysts have been positive about the modular idea, but they caution that few specialty clothing lines have had staying power.

"There's a lot of theater in it, and that's causing it to be very successful," according to Walter F. Loeb, a retail analyst with Morgan Stanley & Co. in New York. "I think it's a current excitement. It may be a fad, but I see it going strong for another two years."

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