DALLAS — Outerwear is feeling the economic chill and is responding with fashion and discounts to sustain business and, in some cases, move ahead slightly.

Thanks to an extra-cold winter, women are embracing outerwear for pragmatic reasons, as well. Ready-to-wear and junior market trends such as fur trim, shearling, novelty, embroidery and textures are among the outerwear fashion stars for the fall-winter season, which typically ends on Presidents’ Day, with spring kicking into full gear.

Similar looks are expected to prevail for spring at retail in lighter-weight fabrics and return next fall in updated versions, stores said.

"Everything is about staying warm in style — fashion is extremely important right now. It’s not so much about price, but about fashion," said Bob Jezowski, general merchandise manager at Macy’s East in New York, noting that outerwear sales are flat with a year ago.

"We’re doing extremely well with shearling, faux furs and novelty. It’s not about traditional at all this year. Trims, finishes and beautiful textures are part of the novelty trend. Shorter lengths are very important. We could have done even better if we had more novelty. It’s a strong trend that will definitely be returning next year."

Macy’s East has promoted outerwear throughout the season and did a flight of TV ads last fall that showed outerwear as a fashion item, with much positive response, according to Jezowski. Key brands include Larry Levine, XOXO, Reaction by Kenneth Cole, JLo by Jennifer Lopez, Buffalo Jeans, Nine West, DKNY, Tommy Hilfiger and store label Alfani.

Discounts commenced last fall and progressed through the holidays. They are now in full swing at Macy’s East on much of its outerwear, with some prices slashed 50 percent or more. Examples include Reaction by Kenneth Cole’s faux-shearling coat at $169.99, Larry Levine’s distressed faux-shearling coat at $114 and Steve Madden’s long faux-shearling suede coat at $159.99.

At Neiman Marcus, outerwear business continues to be dominated by shearling, faux fur and fashion, said Terry Thornton, divisional merchandise manager.

"Fashion outsold the basics. Styles are more contemporary and there’s lots of trend detailing," he said. "Short lengths are ruling this season, especially at the knee or above, notably barn jackets, duffel and toggle coats and anything from Burberry."Other top-selling labels are Andrew Marc, Adrienne Landau and Vakko. Neiman’s spotlighted outerwear with multipage fashion spreads in the September and October 2002 issues of The Book, its monthly magazine that focuses on fashion and lifestyles. The 34-unit chain is in the midst of its Last Call sale and much of its outerwear is marked down from 30 to 65 percent, including Fleurette’s quilted camel-hair coat at $305, Jean Crisan’s fur-trimmed blue denim jacket for $309 and St. John’s wool and cashmere fur-trimmed cape at $456.

"Sales are about even to a year ago, but on the plus side, margin results are far superior," said Thornton, noting that its top-performing outerwear stores are in NorthPark Center in Dallas, Michigan Avenue in Chicago, King of Prussia Mall near Philadelphia and Tyson’s Corner in McLean, Va. Slowest coat sales are along the West Coast.

Allyson Krowitz, merchandise manager at Henri Bendel in New York, said outerwear is ahead by low-single digits and that nylon, down, shearling, wool, cashmere and angora styles are bestsellers. Standouts include shearlings from Joseph, Suede Mod, Andrew Marc, Blake, Plein Sud and Henri Bendel’s private label lineup; nylon and down jackets from Moncler, Burberry and Andrew Marc; fitted wool, leather or camel coats from Calvin Klein and Mackage. Bendel’s marketing approach included windows last July to promote early fall business.

As for markdowns, "we started selling early and had a great July and August. There’s not really that much left," said Krowitz. "We started marking down in November and holiday was good."

At Burlington Coat Factory, outerwear sales are even to slightly ahead compared with last year, said Monroe Milstein, chairman and chief executive officer. "We had spells when we went ahead when cold weather snapped. Overall, coats that are shorter in length and priced at $200 or less are magic."

Burlington is in the midst of a clearance sale with prices slashed 30 to 50 percent, including Columbia’s quilted down jacket at $59.99, Bernardo’s faux-fur swing coat at $89.99 and Jo-D Fashion’s wool and faux-fur cape at $99.99. Burlington’s styles are appealing to a wide range of women, from teens seeking junior fashion styles to misses’ customers looking for warmth, comfort and a touch of trend."Women are looking for style rather than a specific label," Milstein said. "Bestsellers have been shearlings, faux furs, denim and corduroy."

At Searle, sales remain "very good" compared with a year ago, said David Lazar, director of retail.

"Right now, it’s extremely cold and many women got caught off guard and are buying warm coats," Lazar said. "It’s about satisfying their need to stay warm: shearlings, three-quarter-length coats and anything filled with down are doing great, and our best-performing categories are not marked down."

Balliet’s, a better-to-designer specialty store in Oklahoma City, reported sales were up 62 percent in December, according to Lisa Benson, vice president general merchandise manager.

"Customers aren’t looking at price tags," Benson said. "They’re buying cashmeres that can reach $1,500. It got really cold this year and women are wanting to stay warm but stylish."

Other top sellers are shearlings, fur-trimmed denim jackets and leather, especially those from Fleurette and Cole Haan. Balliet’s promoted coats with a highly targeted newsletter to about 60,000 of its best customers. The mailers are sent out monthly and each focuses on current trends as well as spotlighting specific category, whether beauty, shoes or outerwear.

Elder-Beerman, a 67-unit moderate-to-better department store chain based in Dayton, Ohio, is in a promotional mode, said Gloria Siegler, manager of investor relations and corporate communications, with discounts of 50 percent off and greater on most styles.

"Customers are looking for the best value in all price ranges," Siegler said. "Our key item has been shearling and it is our top performer. Casual cold-weather coats have outperformed wool and short is outselling long, but long wools are picking up at the lower promotional prices. Liz Claiborne was a solid performer all season. Now that the weather is so cold and the promotional pricing is in place, Liz coats are blowing out of the stores."

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