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NEW YORK — Like their counterparts in more upscale and discount arenas, moderate outerwear firms are turning to innovation to renew consumer interest in coats, regardless of any turbulence in the weather or the economy.<br><br>Classics styles in...

NEW YORK — Like their counterparts in more upscale and discount arenas, moderate outerwear firms are turning to innovation to renew consumer interest in coats, regardless of any turbulence in the weather or the economy.

This story first appeared in the August 21, 2002 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Classics styles in black and navy will be sharing floor space with pastels and other nontraditional shades. Silhouettes are sleeker without looking as though they belong in the junior department, and finishing touches like logos and animal-print linings have been added.

But plenty of challenges persist for moderate coat makers, particularly profitability and desirability: Climatic conditions have caused mild winters, leading to even more markdowns and price reductions that have plagued the sector for years, a well as a need to create styles that will renew interest in outerwear as a fashion item, not just a necessity.

Overall, outerwear business was off 14 percent in 2001 to $4.3 billion, with the moderate-priced sector making up a sizable portion of the category’s volume.

“There are a lot of bright spots to point to. We just need a good cool breeze,” said Jeanette Nostra, president of G-III Apparel Group, which produces its Colebrook & Co., Cole B. and JLC coat lines, as well as the licensed Nine West and Kenneth Cole labels.

This year, stores booked fall orders 30 to 60 days later than last year, due to last season’s troubles, Nostra said. More than anything, the weather never got cold enough, she said. To be in sync with stores this fall, G-III has tightened its production cycle to be able to accommodate late orders and is holding fewer preseason events, Nostra noted.

Stores are putting more of an emphasis on active-inspired coats, as well as denim, corduroy, faux shearling, aviator and distressed looks, Nostra said. Stores are also interested in developing their moderate private label businesses with more of a fashion bent.

Forecaster of Boston has diversified its line with additions like semiprecious fabrics, patterned fleece, pastels, brights and a variety of lengths. The company is planning for “a modest increase” compared with last year, even though it has upgraded the fabrics of some coats without increasing prices, said Gail Lisi, vice president of sales and merchandising.

“Stores are definitely more cautious because of the warm weather and the economy, but they’re very [interested in] diversification and newness,” she said. “Some stores are leaving some money open so they can come back later.”

Instead of focusing on dark colors as has been the norm for most coat makers in recent seasons, Forecaster is offering pastels, brights like red, and warmer shades like caramel.

Stores are being more aggressive about pricing moderate outerwear, due primarily to consumer willingness to cross-shop at Bergdorf Goodman one day and Costco the next, said Fredric Stollmack, president of Weatherproof Garment Co. Weatherproof tries to distinguish itself by offering sharp price points and not selling to discounters, he said.

Weatherproof has doubled its ad budget and is launching a fall print and outdoor campaign this month and next. The $2 million outdoor buy will be posted in New York, Chicago and Dallas.

On the fashion front, moderate retailers are interested in offering their customers “a little more fashion, but not that much of an edge,” Stollmack said. In line with that, Weatherproof has designed faux shearlings and pastel satin down coats.

Betsy Ferraro, president of Larry Levine, a division of S. Rothschild, said branded business is strong for the Levine and Via Spiga labels. The company is also seeing early reorders for its private label outerwear for such stores as Talbots, Express and J.C. Penny’s Worthington labels..

“Consumers go to certain specialty stores looking for a specific look,” she said. “I don’t know that our private label items do any better than our branded goods. It’s a matter of having the right item, at the right time and the right price.”

Herman Kay-Bromley is counting on its Jason Kole suede jackets and coats to be a key fall item, according to Barry Kay, who is co-president with his brother Richard.

Wool peacoats and walking coats are also expected to be important. Stores are interested in “younger, more contemporary” moderate styles, Richard Kay said.

The firm’s Anne Klein AK coats, an upper moderate line, includes $120 down coats and $200 wool coats for fall.

“Stores are committed to price points more than anything,” said Ted Goldsmith, executive vice president. “It’s not like years ago, where if you had a great product, maybe people would pay a little bit more.”

He also noted that outerwear did not lend itself to private label as easily as some other categories. Most importantly, “weather trumps the economy, so it’s a matter of having the right product,” he said.