OUTERWEAR: WATCHING THE WEATHER

Byline: Arthur Friedman

NEW YORK--It's an apprehensive time for outerwear makers.
There are predictions of a fashion-driven turnaround, with early-fall selling showing positive--albeit spotty--indications of good times ahead. But most outerwear vendors readily admit the August market often leaves them in a quandary.
Foremost is the looming third and fourth quarters--always a "hold-your-breath" time for the coat market, executives note. Retailers and manufacturers feel the right fashion mix of casual, functional styles and sleek luxury looks should entice a strong performance this year. Always in the background, however, is the caveat that the season ultimately hinges on the weather and the economy.
That leaves the challenge of trying to convince retailers to even look at spring merchandise, never mind place orders. For that reason, many firms exhibiting at this week's WWDMagic show that have fast-turn capabilities or leftover inventory will be peddling fall/winter goods.
"It looks like we're going to have a very good season," said Donald Eatz, president of Monterey Fashions. Eatz projected a hike of 30 percent over last year, which was the firm's "best year ever."
To meet demand, the fake fur and pile fabric vertical manufacturer added 50,000 square feet to its plant in Janesville, Wis. "And we're still limited by our capacity," Eatz said.
"It was a very cold, snowy winter last year. That has the consumer in a mind-set to buy outerwear, as evidenced by the strong early fall selling," Eatz said. "Consumers have really taken to pile fabric as a warm, soft, fun, multipurpose category that also represents something new."
Eatz said a hot style for Monterey is a plush fake fur jacket trimmed in Mongolian lamb. But the major growth vehicle is the firm's Denali line, which was introduced at last August's WWDMagic show.
Denali features an in-house fabric called Microplush, which is a fine-denier washable acrylic pile that resembles fleece. Its strength is in prints that depict winter or outdoor scenes, such as snow-covered trees, skiers, bears and wolves. Many styles are reversible--solids on one side, prints on the other.
Faye Frankel, vice president of the women's division of Wippette Rainthings, said early fall retailing has been mixed.
"I have some accounts that are doing very well, and others that are dying," Frankel said. "Fashion-driven junior stores are doing well, and the mass chains that played it safe are struggling."
She said even though the August market is earmarked for early spring wholesaling, few stores were shopping the firm's showroom here earlier this month, and the ones that were in town were looking for third and fourth-quarter merchandise.
"The stores are taking in merchandise later, waiting for September and October to highlight their outerwear, and that's good," she said. "But they are also buying much closer to the season, and that puts the manufacturer in a precarious position. It forces us to rely more on our crystal ball."
Frankel said outerwear has become more item-driven, and so has her company.
"This year, basics only make up 5 percent of the fall line, whereas last year they were about 70 percent," she said. "Vinyl as a fashion trend is very hot right now, which is great for us because we've been doing it for 11 years. The consumer is sending a message to the stores that she doesn't want basic outerwear anymore. She wants something that's fun and novel."
Two early hot items for fall have been a short vinyl rain jacket and a lined vinyl active look, each trimmed with reflective tape. Color is more important than ever, Frankel noted; white, yellow, lime and orange all are outselling black for the first time.
Wippette, which wholesales for $12.75 to $22.75, will introduce a better-priced rainwear line in October for spring retailing. The line, which has yet to be named, will wholesale for $25 to $50 and feature "high tech polyurethane" jackets, Frankel said.
At Vakko by Katia, early fall retailing is outpacing last year by 25 percent, according to Johnna Venezia, merchandise manager. Leading the way are novelty items, such as a group of shrunken lamb jackets with Berber wool contrast trim and sleeves. Key silhouettes are motorcycle jackets, zip-front car coats and long bombers.
Also scoring well are goat or calf suede wraps and unlined barn jackets, Venezia noted. Chocolate and chamois are the top colors.
"The big difference this year is that fashion is selling," Venezia said. "We already have some reorders on the shrunken lamb and Berber group. We're very optimistic because the early selling is an indication that the fourth quarter should be very strong."
Of The Earth, based in Vancouver, is seeing increased interest in its hemp line, which consists of outerwear and sportswear. Richard Ziff, co-designer and co-owner, said the look works for casual and career and appeals to consumers who are drawn to natural fibers.
The five-year-old firm is distributed in moderate-to-better boutiques in the U.S. and Canada, Ziff said. In outerwear, key looks for late fall and holiday are a hemp basketweave princess jacket and hemp overcoats lined in plaid cotton flannel.
"In general, I'd say things are picking up," Ziff said. "The line has the appeal of fine linen, but is cheaper and doesn't wrinkle as much. We distribute a wholesale catalog that's drawn interest and exhibit at many trade shows."

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