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Active Looks Speed Along

NEW YORK -- Riding high off one of their best seasons ever, active outerwear firms are counting on another big year in 1994, generally projecting gains of 10 percent to 40 percent.<BR><BR>Retailers and manufacturers say the category -- ranging from...

NEW YORK — Riding high off one of their best seasons ever, active outerwear firms are counting on another big year in 1994, generally projecting gains of 10 percent to 40 percent.

Retailers and manufacturers say the category — ranging from casual cotton car coats to polyester microfiber anoraks — has emerged as a leader in the outerwear field.

The success, they say, is thanks to innovative styling and fabrics and a consumer mindset that has taken the category from primarily weekend wear into the broader arenas of career and lifestyle dressing. The fact that the category is generally priced below comparable wool or leather merchandise is also a plus, vendors and merchants say.

“The whole active lifestyle has been embraced by the customer,” said Benny Lin, fashion director at Macy’s East. “There is more fabric and style innovation in the category, which has grown out of the basic parka, weekend look and now goes with the customer’s total lifestyle.”

Lin said the category did very well last year because the market had a stronger variety of new looks and fabrics than in the past, and he expects that to continue this year.

“The whole active movement in fashion has impacted on a lot of categories, particularly outerwear,” said Lavelle Olexa, senior vice president for fashion merchandising at Lord & Taylor. “It’s a lifestyle statement that’s become so important today.”

Olexa said the category was strong this past season and she’s looking for stronger results in the upcoming season.

Gail Goldberg, divisional merchandise manager for outerwear at Henri Bendel, said the trend of doing casual bodies with better fabrics is starting to take hold as a career wear option.

“When the active outerwear looks are done with a sophisticated twist, such as fur-trim parkas in microfiber or nylon with gold zippers, our customer understands it,” Goldberg said. “We’ve seen growth and nice increases in this area and are planning additional growth this year.”

“The only way to describe last season’s active outerwear business was explosive, especially this past January and February,” said Ted Goldsmith, chairman of Bromley Corp., referring to his firm’s licensed J.G. Hook and Evan Picone lines. “The combination of the inordinate cold weather and a product that fits today’s casual, active life-style resulted in everything coming together. While there is always worry that the sponge could be saturated, so far there is nothing to make us feel the momentum will not continue in 1994.”

Goldsmith said a big plus for the upcoming season is that store inventories are clean because of the late buying.

“It will be a hard act to follow, but we’re planning to be up substantially,” Goldsmith said. “Business would have to come to a screeching halt, and we don’t see that happening based on early bookings and the fact that the season ended so strongly. Of course, if the fall and winter weather is particularly mild, it will negatively affect business.”

Goldsmith said key trends should include dyed-to-match fur-trim anoraks, sueded silk microfiber parkas, longer-length coats — from below the knee to full-length, and a renewed interest in down coats.

“Active outerwear has gained a greater degree of acceptance at the consumer level than ever before,” Goldsmith said. “The category has crossed the line from casual to career and it’s opened up a new market.”

Based on the strength of the category in 1993, Goldsmith said his company is introducing a Bromley Sport line of moderate-price outerwear and a bridge-price Anne Klein II collection.

Gary Jacobs, vice president of the JL Colebrook division of G-III Apparel Group, said his division is coming off a strong year and sees the potential for big increases in 1994.

“There is a consumer understanding that what used to be weekend wear is now being worn for career and dressy,” Jacobs said. “The lifestyle concept of wardrobing has taken hold in outerwear and is being accepted across the board. The appeal is a combination of comfort, function, price and look.”

He said washed-fabric products should be strong in the third quarter, including items such as cotton canvas jackets with button-out or plaid liners, washed twills and washed nylon with plaid or leather trim.

For the fourth quarter, important groups are expected to be washed canvas coats with heavier fillers, down polyester microfiber anoraks with leather trim or drawstring waists, and a three-in-one “systems” jacket, which is an anorak with a zip-out reversible baseball jacket.

Jacobs said orders are starting to come in for early fall, which is earlier than last year, another indication of a big season ahead.

Richard Madris, a partner in Listeff Fashions, said his firm’s NY 10018 collection is coming off a successful launch last year and is expecting an increase of about 15 percent this year.

The core group of the line continues to be printed polar fleece outerwear, Madris said.

“We’re taking it further in 1994, and we’re planning very big units in our early-season program,” Madris said. “The unlined active outerwear is proving to be a good third quarter item for retailers.”

In addition to the fleece program, casual styles this year will include fabrics such as cotton calico, Chinese canvas that reverses to polar fleece, machine-knit and handknit sweater jackets, and a silk microfiber anorak group. “Today, an outerwear house cannot be one-dimensional because the market is so fluid,” said Madris, whose firm makes the Winlit, LNR and La Nouvelle Renaissance leather coat lines. “Casual, active outerwear has good growth potential because it’s multi-purpose, has universal appeal and the price points are right.”

Arthur Rubinstein, vice president of the Braetan division of Lou Levy & Sons Fashions, said active outerwear is “the biggest growth area in outerwear.”

With a big year in 1993, Rubinstein, projects increases of more than 40 percent this year based on “good early commitments” from retailers. He said newness in fabric and silhouette is driving the business, as is the appeal of casual, functional outerwear.

Important looks include cotton corduroy and flannel jackets, flannel with thermal lining, and reversible jackets that combine cotton and wool, and solid and printed cotton.

“These types of looks have brought a transitional business back to the stores, and they carried through to the fourth quarter as well,” Rubinstein said.

For later business, looks such as anoraks with snap-out liners and down-filled and polyester fiberfill casual coats should continue to be important, he said.

“Braetan is way ahead of last year in terms of bookings,” Rubinstein said. “It’s very encouraging in this economy, which is showing signs of improvement, to see this kind of explosive business in a category. We think it’s going to be a terrific year.”

Arnold Forman, president of Forecaster, said that buoyed by last year’s action, he’s expecting another “outstanding year for the category.”

“The weather always plays an important role in the outerwear business and this year it certainly helped create business,” Forman said. “New fabric development helped create a wider market appeal and led to a very dynamic season. Fur trims were more important than ever, whether it was in dyed-to-match or natural looks. We plan to be up considerably, but you never know about the weather.”

New England Macintosh is joining the active outerwear crowd this fall with a new collection of jackets and coats styled in the same casual mode of its wool coat line, said Andrew Reid, president.

The line will wholesale for $50 to $95. It will feature looks such as cotton twill car coats with corduroy collars, wax cotton ponchos, cotton balmacaans with printed duck linings, and an assortment of nylon or cotton parkas, toggle coats and anoraks. In the upper-end of the line are a group of polyester microfiber down coats and three-in-one reversible stadium coats.

“We saw that this end of the business is accelerating, and its a way to expand our product offerings,” Reid said.

Stacy Baltz, sales and merchandising manager for Free Country, said the company is offering a separate women’s line this year after offering unisex styles the past three years.

Baltz said she hopes the separate line will increase the women’s end of the business from about 25 percent of overall volume to about 40 percent. She said the women’s collection is maintaining the same “rugged outdoors theme,” which includes such looks as ombre plaid parkas, earth-tone canvas or corduroy car coats, barn coats with leather trim and polyester microfiber anoraks.