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Coat Firms Loosen Up Their Looks for Fall

NEW YORK — The activewear influence, its acceptance with consumers and its impact on traditional coat styling and sales, will go a long way in determining this fall’s retail performance.<br><br>With ski jackets and down coats already a...

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NEW YORK — The activewear influence, its acceptance with consumers and its impact on traditional coat styling and sales, will go a long way in determining this fall’s retail performance.

With ski jackets and down coats already a staple in outerwear wardrobes and snowboard looks gaining broader acceptance on the street, outerwear companies are taking stock. The introduction of Lands’ End jackets and other apparel at Sears stores this fall will also play a role in shifting market share and the $1.9 billion acquisition of Lands’ End in May is indicative of the activewear clout.

Some traditional coat firms are offering more styles in microfibers and other alternatives to wool, and there’s also been a push to livelier colors and more technical fabrics and style elements.

At the same time, athletic labels have diversified their mix, with the hope of reeling in more women who generally buy their coats in department stores. Last year was not an easy one for outerwear companies, which saw annual sales slump 14 percent to $4.3 billion, due largely to unseasonably warm temperatures and the weak economy.

Ted Goldsmith, senior vice president of Herman Kay-Bromley, said of the outerwear-activewear firms: “It all comes out of the same pie. If they’re selling out, not every customer is buying those jackets to go mountain climbing or on the slopes. Stores are recognizing how well they’re doing. Every manufacturer in outerwear needs to take a good hard look at what they’re doing.”

Doug Perentice, vice president and general manager of outerwear for Columbia Sportswear, said, “Our goal is to create products at all levels of distribution. We’re not focused on one specific niche. We’re trying to segment our market to attempt to direct stores with products that are suitable for theme. What works for REI might not be the best thing for Kohl’s.”

Shoppers at REI, for example, are more inclined to buy waterproof, breathable, fully-taped seamed jackets “with a level of comfort that suits their activities,” whereas department store and specialty store shoppers are most concerned about warmth, Perentice said. Given that, Columbia offers more technical coats to outdoor specialty stores like REI and more everyday pieces to specialty stores like Kohl’s.

Columbia has broadened its advertising to include nonathletic magazines like People. With this strategy in place — a popular one with activewear labels competing for big chains’ buying dollars — the company is planning for increases for the year in the “huge single digits or high teens,” Perentice said.

This fall, Sears will sell Lands’ End outerwear in 10 markets in a total of 184 stores. The chain has singled out the brand’s outerwear for expansion and it will be rolled out to the chain’s 870 doors next year.

For the first time this fall, Lands’ End will mail a catalog that features only women’s products to select repeat customers, with outerwear among the offerings. An estimated 271 million people receive the company’s catalog annually.

“In the past, our catalogs have had more of a co-ed feel. Now the colors and silhouettes are more feminine,” said Melissa Colucci, associate merchant for outerwear at Lands’ End.

Reversible down jackets with black on one side and fresh shades like pink, blue, pale olive and plum on the other are expected to be a fall bestsellers. The company wants the $80 items to be “the first jacket women grab for any function,” Colucci said.

Lands’ End has added a five-piece “commuter” collection, made of Epic by Nextec — stainproof, waterproof cotton twill. The down-filled coats and jackets are geared for active women who want versatile items. On another front, the brand has also changed its sourcing to offer consumers a $10 savings on a lambswool peacoat.

Weatherproof Garment Co. has increased its sporty styles to 40 percent of the fall collection compared with 25 percent a year ago, said Kenn Sporn, designer. That direction should continue since outerwear buyers are showing more interest in athletic-inspired fabrics, colors and designs, he said.

“The world is getting more sports-oriented,” Sporn said. “There are a lot of armchair athletes out there and people are staying interested in sports longer in their lives.”

Given that, cotton and nylon styles, and polyester blend items are booking well for fall. Sporn expects the athletic trend to continue with a greater emphasis on “more cleaned up, functional, modern styles as opposed to coats with fake do-dads.”

Instead of trying to compete with athletic-inspired brands, Searle is staying focused on its dressier looks. There are plenty of other brands that specialize in wholesaling sporty styles and denim, said Steve Blatt, president and chief executive officer.

Instead, the company is counting on tapestry coats, shearlings and other non-wool dressy coats to ring up sales this fall, he said. Unless October and November are “very strong” for fall sales, Searle expects women’s outerwear sales to be flat, he said.

He noted the current mood for performance clothing is something that has been building for years, but probably has not been stronger than it is today. The junior market is the area most affected by the trend, Blatt said.

Woolrich has benefited from activewear’s influence on outerwear and is trying to build on the interest by offering more three-in-one jackets and techno wool jackets, said Paula Kosmatka, product design director.

“We’re a lifestyle-based brand, but the outdoor industry bleeds over so much into streetwear that makes more people in cities wear what you would wear in the outdoors,” she said.

Even still, the company expects this year’s sales to be flat or slightly ahead of last year, due primarily to last winter’s unseasonably warm temperatures creating low consumer interest in outerwear.

Burton aims to attract new customers with its three different outerwear labels: AK for highly technical items, Formula for more classic styles and Radar for streetwear-inspired snowboard looks. Radar is the most popular Burton label with women in terms of style, but the bulk of sales are for Formula, said John Colonna, category manager for outerwear.

More specialty stores that do not sell Burton snowboards are showing interest in the apparel, a bit of a switch for the snowboarding market. But Colonna said the company is limited in how far it can go into the outdoor industry due to the loyal consumer following for labels like Marmot and Patagonia.

“The women’s market has a lot of hype around it, but it’s growing at a reasonable rate of about 5 percent,” he said.

Dan Chirico, chief operating officer and chief financial officer of Bogner America, said the company recognizes the need to develop product that crosses over from department specialty stores. Given how fitness-conscious women are today, they are looking for sportier styles to show off the physical benefit of their hard work. That’s why Bogner is designing product to be more shaped and slimmer, he said.

Free Country also identified the fitness trend and has developed a handful of activewear styles for spring. Ira Schwartz, president, said, “Most of the [outerwear] business is around transitional pieces, not heavy wool products. We’re seeing a lot of stores like the Gap attacking the [active] category. It seems to be in vogue now. We feel good about our decision. The demand for product in the first and second quarters is not for outerwear.”

Free Country’s activewear will wholesale from $12 for pants to $25 for tops.

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