By  on February 15, 1994

NEW YORK -- Coming off a fairly good year in 1993, leather outerwear makers are riding high in the saddle as they ready for what they feel will be a big year in 1994.

The consensus from leather vendors is that overall volume in 1993 ran from flat to considerably ahead over the previous year, which was difficult. Gains in 1993, though, often came at the expense of margin, because of the highly promotional retail atmosphere.

This year leather executives forecast there will be increased open-to-buy for the category, reflecting the renewed interest stores have seen from consumers. The makers expect more early, nonpromotional buying.

Casual looks such as anoraks, stadium coats, bombers and baseball jackets, which topped bestseller lists last year, are again being counted on for the fall-winter season. Makers are using mixtures of leather and suede with fabrics such as wool, cashmere and shearling for a fresh look, as well as developing new finishes and novelty skins to attract customers.

Morris Goldfarb, president and chief executive officer of G-III Apparel Group, said overall leather volume was about equal to 1992, which he said was a "major accomplishment."

Goldfarb said the firm's G-III label sold well at $75 to $129 retail -- the lowest range for this moderate-price line -- as did the Siena Studio line -- its bridge-price line -- at $250 to $350. Coats selling between those categories and above did not sell well.

"It shows that the designer customer and the moderate customer traded down," Goldfarb said.

Promotions were steep, making margins tight, Goldfarb said.

"But the promotions keep us on our toes," he said. "It challenges us to source more effectively, and find new places to manufacture that can help our margins."

G-III is also expanding its domestic production facility on West 37th Street here. It currently employs about 200, and the short-term goal is to add 100.

So far, bookings are 20 percent ahead of last year, Goldfarb said. He expects important elements this year to include sueded skins and pig napa in casual silhouettes such as baseball jackets, and dressy and casual looks in imported lamb leather.Jones Apparel Group is getting into the leather outerwear market through a licensing agreement with North Shore Sportswear Co., which makes the Avanti proprietary line and the Guess Leather licensed collection.

Stephan Bass, president of North Shore, said the company will produce leather outerwear this fall under the Jones New York and Jones Sport labels for the first time. Bass said Jones New York will feature career-oriented outerwear such as three-quarter-length coats and full-length trenches, while Jones Sport will focus on casual, weekend wear such as anoraks and shearlings.

Bass said the firm's Guess Leather line will have an expanded distribution and design concept this year, after selling mostly sportswear-oriented outerwear mainly through Guess shops.

The 32-year-old Avanti label, which is a more basic, volume-oriented product, had a tough year because of stiff price competition and heavy promotions, Bass said.

"Guess and Jones New York are great brand names, and more and more that's what the stores and the consumer want," Bass said. "You can knock off a product, but you can't knock off a label."

Bass said Guess is aimed at a young customer -- 18 to 25 -- while Jones will target women 30 to 50.

Steve Blatt, president of Searle Blatt Ltd., said: "Leather business was pretty good last year, and it will be better this year."

Blatt said shearling business was "excellent" in 1993, as were fur-trimmed leathers, and he expects those categories to perform well again this year. Pig suede, which Blatt presented as fake shearlings, has come on strong, he said, and should repeat this year because it's more affordable than real shearlings.

Michael Resnick, vice president of sales for Firenze Designs, which makes leather outerwear and sportswear under the Firenze, Positano and B. Free labels, said 1993 was a good year for vests and bombers, with strong sales through department store catalogs.

Resnick said a collection of washable and dryable suede jackets and sportswear, as well as a group of Futura II water and stain-resistant leathers, both introduced last year, performed well, and he's looking for more business in those areas for 1994.Other areas being counted on are a Spanish merino shearling program -- consisting of vests, bomber jackets and three-quarter-length coats -- and a cowhide group of antique-look and worn-look jackets with removable shearling collars. Expectations are also firm for a selection of silky pig suede Western jackets and vests.

Richard Madris, a partner with David Winn in Listeff Fashions, which makes the Winlit, LNR and La Nouvelle Renaissance collections, said 1993 started out with great expectations, fell flat in the middle of the year, and wound up strong but highly promotional.

Important looks included smooth lamb and distressed cowhide in anorak bodies, often with fake fur trim or mixed with polar fleece.

In 1994, which marks the company's 25th year in business, Madris expects the casual pieces such as anoraks and stadium coats to continue to be important, with colorblock suedes coming on the scene. Better-quality lamb is still a key element, but the high costs of skins will limit growth.

Pig napa has been added to the moderate-price Winlit line, as have some novelty looks such as suede mixed with polar fleece or acrylic, with fake fur or fake shearling linings and trims.

"Newness will create the images that will drive the business," Madris said. "Our January bookings, with all the negative elements affecting retail business, were very aggressive and ahead of plan, so we're very bullish."

Robert Nelson, corporate vice president at Erez Fashions, said that based on the success of last year's launch of a full leather outerwear division, he's looking for a bigger year in 1994.

"With the influence from our sportswear collections, we found a niche in the innovative, more creative end of the outerwear market," Nelson said. "Retailers are coming off a pretty positive outerwear year and should be planning up, particularly for fourth quarter."

Nelson said the collection, which will now be sold under the EL label -- last year it was sold under the Erez Editions tag -- will feature novelty looks such as embroideries, mixed media looks combining different skins, and leather mixed with wool or cashmere in mostly three-quarter length bodies.

Softer skins and acid wash and overdyed looks have been added this year, Nelson noted, as have some shearlings and nubuck sueded pieces.Outerwear vests are also important, he said, using hardware and quilting and combining natural skins with wool, cashmere or suede.

Brigitte Cist, account executive for the women's divisions of Andrew & Suzanne Co., said, "We had a phenomenal year last year, and we're planning to be significantly up in 1994."

In the firm's designer-price Andrew Marc label and better-price Additions by Andrew Marc, important looks are three-quarter-length casual coats, such as anoraks and blousons with real fur and fake fur trims, as well as some short crop jackets and motorcycle jackets.

In the moderate-price Marc New York line, bombers with zip-out shearling liners are a big volume item, Cist said.

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