By  on August 27, 2007

Coat vendors are lightening up, offering couture-inspired items and relying on established relationships with accounts to get them through what some are describing as a challenging time in the business.

With concerns about global warming mounting, and increased competition in the sector — especially from cheaper overseas imports — vendors in the outerwear category are saying that it's all about keeping overhead costs down, giving buyers what they want and combating rampant copying by offering new items. In addition, veteran companies feel they have the edge over newcomers, who might still be vying to gain a foothold in the market.

"There's so much competition, and some companies are very established, so it could be a tough year," said Israel Sasson, president and founder of the New York-based Outerwear Group, which manufactures under the Junior Platinum label. While Sasson is a veteran of the business, Outerwear Group is less than two years old.

"We are seen as newcomers again," he said. "Even if you know a buyer, he might not come and see something new. The competition is so strong that the minute I have an item and show it to a buyer, he can take a picture of it and then take it to [his suppliers] to make it for him." But Sasson said he has one or two key accounts, and, with an inventory that averages $15 at wholesale for polyurethane jackets, he's hoping to snare the mass end of the market.

Other newcomers — even to the wholesale side of the business — are hoping to capitalize on what they said is a demand for new and hard-to-find items.

Venus Brightstar, founder of the eponymous line of jewelry, shawls and jackets based in Santa Fe, N.M., and owner of the Venus Brightstar Gallery there, said she was showing at WWDMAGIC for the first time because of what she perceives as a demand in the market for unusual pieces. She has been selling the line through her own store, as well as at private gallery shows around the country, but is now hoping to introduce it to a wider audience.

As a member of the Ma-Chis Native American tribe, she uses embroidery techniques from her heritage to bring a handmade, artistic feel to outerwear that she said could be especially sought after in the high-tech age."I wanted to bring an ancient tradition to the modern world. We are doing it in a way that nobody else is doing," she said of her leather jackets and shawls, which come embellished with fringe, shells and stones. She also uses porcupine quills, soaked in water to soften them, to form the basis of some of her coats.

"It's really key to standing out in the market," she said. "I looked around to see what was missing, and found that everything seemed to look the same. I wanted something that would cater to different sizes of women, and it took off from there," she said. The line wholesales at $175 for the shawls and between $225 and $275 for the coats.

Other vendors cite climatic conditions as a potential problem.

"We don't know what's going to happen this year," said Mark Spektor, president of New York-based Zero Plus, a maker of luxury furs and sheepskin at the $500 to $1,500 wholesale mark.

"We think the year is going to be alright, but climate change makes a big difference. It was a problem for us last year." He's hoping to fight that this season by offering a lighter variation of his classics — even sheepskin and fur coats will be treated so they are less bulky and more weather-friendly.

"We are trying to do as much that is exclusive as possible," he said. "We have a lot of new things to offer that are completely different from last year. To be in this business now you have to do something new that nobody else has."

More established companies are less concerned about the outlook for the year.

"I'm definitely optimistic because I'm confident about what we offer," said Andy Lambadaros, vice president of New York-based Sam Yang Fur Co., a maker of fur coats at the $200 to $1,500 wholesale price point. "We've been in business a long time."

Edna Negari, manager of Shahchi in Beverly Hills, Calif., said she's had success with her line of trendy mink and fox fur jackets in brights and pastels, and believes the next couple of years will be equally successful."Buyers tell us that what we have is unique, and that they are hard to find anywhere else," she said of the Italian-made coats. "They are not regular fur jackets, because we make them very trendy with lots of details."

And at Rosleen Leather, a maker of cloth coats that range at wholesale from $80 to $250, marketing has become a new initiative.

"Business hasn't been great. It's been a little slow, but we put that down to the cycles in the market," said Lu Zhang, sales manager of the El Monte, Calif.-based brand. "In certain years, coats have been popular, and in other years, less so. I think it's coming back now."

To boost sales, he has been placing focus for the first time on marketing and advertising.

"We're considering more how to project the image of the brand, and strengthen brand recognition," he said. "That is an important new direction for us."

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