US retail apparel sales in 2004 totalled $173 billion, a four per cent rise from $166 billion in 2003 and the first increase in three years according to figures published yesterday by The NPD Group.

"Apparel's comeback is good news for an industry that's been looking for ways to find growth. This year I expect to see consumers step up to the plate and buy apparel as needed...after all, you can only wear your khakis for so long before they wear out or don't fit anymore," said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst, The NPD Group.

"Consumers want clothes that are new and exciting; if the industry can deliver that then I think the growth will continue," said Cohen.

Throughout the nineties, the apparel industry witnessed steady growth, peaking in 2000 at nearly $176 billion. In 2001, apparel sales took a major dip in dollars and the downward trend continued for two years due to low consumer confidence, increasing unemployment rates and consumers' lack of passion for fashion.

Across gender segments, men's and women's clothing sales both showed growth, while children's apparel sales were flat.

In 2004, men's apparel sales produced over $49 billion, up from nearly $47 billion in 2003, over a 5 per cent increase in dollars.

Women's apparel sales earned almost $95 billion in 2004, up from $90 billion the previous year, nearly a 5 per cent increase in dollar sales.

Children's apparel sales were $29 billion, showing the same sales from 2003.

Among the top apparel categories in 2004, men's tailored clothing flew off the racks. The category, consisting of men's suits, suit separates and sportscoats and jackets, experienced double-digit growth of about 24 per cent.

Total men's tailored clothing sales were over $4 billion dollars in 2004, up from over $3 billion in 2003. Men's fleecewear and sleepwear also displayed strong growth, up 12 per cent and 11 per cent respectively.

"Consumers, especially men, realised they finally needed to update their wardrobe because it was either out of style or it didn't fit anymore and so they were forced to buy new clothes," said Cohen.

"Women, on the other hand, played dress-up by adding colour and feminine florals to their closets."

For women, 2004 was all about knit tops and sweaters. Women's tops generated over $31 billion dollars and grew 9 per cent from the previous year.

The women's swimwear and intimate apparel businesses both grew 8 per cent in dollar sales. The outdated thong was replaced with the new, stylish boy panty.