NEW YORK — Fall is only three weeks old, but outerwear sales are heating up.

Aiding the cause are two main factors: the weather — last year’s and this season’s — and pent-up demand. Merchants said memories of last winter’s chilly temperatures and snowy weather have prompted many shoppers to get an early start on outerwear purchases. Designers’ renewed interest in outerwear and the plethora of knee-length skirts in stores has given them another reason to pick up a new winter coat, retailers said.

Contrary to their typical wary outlooks for the unpredictable $2.1 billion outerwear sector, merchants are upbeat that the action will continue, if the weather cooperates.

Julie Gilhart, vice president of merchandising for Barneys New York, “This is one of the best coat seasons we have had in a long time. The category is really trending well. All we need is some cold weather and it will just get even better. It’s exciting.”

Fur and shearling have made a comeback on the runways and that is furthering interest among fashion-conscious shoppers at Barneys. Prada and Kiton men’s wear-inspired coats, Jil Sander “across the board” and Dolce & Gabbana “fitted and fashiony” coats are early standouts, Gilhart said.

“A lot of people haven’t bought a coat in a while,” she said.

Outerwear sales have been strong at Saks Fifth Avenue, which moved its coat department from the ninth floor to a larger space on the heavier-trafficked eighth floor near the store’s cafe. For the second year, there are also designer coats on the second floor, with Giorgio Armani, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan and Max Mara fueling sales, said Jacqui Lividini, senior vice president of fashion merchandising.

“Business has been trending very well,” Lividini said. “I think everyone got scared by last winter.”

In addition, color is more prominent in fall ready-to-wear, skirt lengths are longer and shoes are clunkier. Those trends call for new outerwear, Lividini said.

“Women no longer have one winter coat,” she said. “They have different coats for different outfits. That’s become a new phenomenon in the past few years. Color, which has been important for fall in general, is also important for outerwear.”Burberry is ringing up sales at Saks for quilted styles, trenches and wool coats. Cole-Haan and Andrew Marc are bestsellers for leather and suede outerwear, Lividini said.

Shoppers in the designer coat department are making more impulse purchases.

“It’s not a destination purchase. They’re not thinking, ‘Now I have to go buy my winter coat,’” Lividini said. “Novelty coats with much higher price points are doing very well.”

Henri Bendel shoppers are looking for slim and trim, knee-length styles.

“It’s all about fitted to the knee with a little bit of something going on,” said Ed Burstell, vice president and general manager. “We are selling things with more novelty to them. The same thing is happening on two different levels of our coat business — the designer coat piece and the ready-to-wear piece.”

Top sellers so far include a $2,600 Missoni shaped, knee-length, chevron check number; a $1,600 Vivienne Westwood black coat with an oversized fur collar; a $1,700 collage-print Clements Ribeiro knee-length style; a $1,800 Andrew Gn lace and velvet coat; a $1,900 Stephen Burrows stenciled-rabbit coat; Blumarine’s $1,000 fitted styles with leather or fur trim and a $2,600 Vasseur Esquivel knee-length cashmere coat.

As part of last week’s Coat Week at Lord & Taylor’s Fifth Avenue flagship, Cinzia Rocca, Anne Klein and Jones New York had informal modeling. The store also hosted a fashion show Thursday night for shoppers featuring 43 looks. Classic toggle and stadium coats in cashmere, baby alpaca and camel hair; ladylike tweed coats and trenches, as well as leather, suede and shearlings pieces were featured.

L&T shoppers are favoring light-weight styles such as short and knee-length, puffy down coats. Lavelle Olexa, senior vice president of fashion merchandising, said, “Down is certainly a fashionable coat, but it’s lightweight and lends warmth, as well.”

Knee-length wool tweed coats in pink and blue, faux shearlings, fur-trimmed coats and walking-length coats in “all price points seem to be working,” she said.

“The early cold weather this fall has been an important factor,” Olexa said. “Designer customers are responding to textured fabrics. Brown colorations and fur trim are also important.”A black maxi-length coat and a motorcycle jacket are ringing up sales at H&M. Both items retail for $129.

An H&M spokeswoman said, “Simpler more feminine styles are also selling more than parkas. People are looking to complete an outfit. Perhaps that will change once the weather changes and people ask themselves, ‘What can I wear to keep me warm?’”

Sandra Rossi, senior product developer for L.L. Bean, said, “We’re having great success in outerwear and part of it is due to the weather on the Eastern Seaboard. There’s been rain, hurricane winds and cool temperatures. Also, a lot of people held off buying coats last year.”

The company has made a push to increase performance aspects of its outerwear, broaden the color palette, update design and in some cases, lower price points. This fall, L.L. Bean introduced a $49 Adirondack barn coat, playing off the popularity of $79 classic style. The new design is cleaner without shoulder patches or flapped pockets and is offered in a wider range of colors, like deep red and dark purple. The Freeport, Maine-based direct merchant featured the Adirondack coat in its holiday catalog that shipped to more than one million consumers in July.

“Our customer looks for newness,” Rossi said. “They want to know why they should buy ours over someone else’s.”

More casual styles are also attracting shoppers to a $29.50 pullover in periwinkle and dark rose. L.L. Bean’s Super 200 trail wind fleece group comprising a $69 jacket, $49 vest and $65 pullover, is also driving sales. Each item is made of WindPro, which is supposed to be four times more windproof than most fleece. Deep lilac and rhubarb are key colors, Rossi said. Three-in-one ski-inspired jackets are also popular.

“They are an everyday solid garment,” she said. “They offer customers versatility. They can be worn alone or together.”

Carson Pirie Scott, a 141-unit chain with stores in 10 states, including colder ones such as Illinois, Wisconsin and Massachusetts, has seen a lot of early interest in smooth leather coats from Jones New York and Liz Claiborne, said buyer Cindy Stokes.“Once the weather kicked in,” shoppers started buying short wool and long wool coats from Liz Claiborne, Fleet Street, Kenneth Cole and Kristin Blake, Stokes said.

Carson’s saw outerwear sales pick up earlier this month after three or four nights of winter-like temperatures, Stokes said.

In juniors, key labels include Giacca, Esprit, L.E.I., Winlet and XOXO. Carson’s is promoting faux shearlings with in-store “What’s Hot” signs.

The department should get a kick next month when the retailer runs outerwear ads and reduces prices by at least 25 percent for such labels as Columbia Sportswear, Jones New York and Liz Claiborne, Stokes said.

At Burlington Coat Factory, down jackets are “the number-one item by far,” said Monroe Milstein, chairman, president and chief executive officer. They were leading sales even before unseasonably chilly temperatures arrived earlier this month and interest is across all brands and price points, Milstein said.

“It’s unbelievable how good it’s been this year,” he said. “It’s been so great that all divisions are up. We hope it portends well for the future.”

Sales are strong even though the retailer has not offered any special promotions.

“Across all price points, women’s outerwear has been very powerful,” Milstein said.



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