NEW YORK — The first true blast of cool fall weather arrived in the Midwest and Northeast just in time to put a fire under outerwear sales.

Retailers said sales were warmed during the traditional kickoff of the coat selling season, and as long as the climate cooperates, they believe business should be strong throughout the fourth quarter. Most stores said they were ahead compared with last year at the same time, although they noted that the weak economy has held back a better performance.

Last year, coat sales dropped sharply due in combination to the aftermath of Sept. 11 on the consumer psyche and record-high temperatures across the country. Outerwear sales were off 14 percent in 2001 to $4.3 billion, as reported.

The early selling has been led by fashion-conscious women looking for trendy merchandise, with basics expected to pick up later in the season.

Noting how the weather is so vital to coat business, Monroe Milstein, chairman, chief executive officer and president of the 300-store Burlington Coat Factory, said: "Before the weather turned, sales were off," but picked up when temperatures dipped.

The retailer is seeing a lot of interest in down, denim and corduroy jackets in the $49 to $59 price range, Milstein said. He cited First Down, Zero Exposure and Steve Madden as key resources, especially looks with "a little younger styling."

Top looks have included jean jackets in dirty denim and antique denim, thin- and wide-wale corduroy coats with faux-fur trim and down jackets with fleece lining.

Ed Meisel, merchandiser of coats, said: "We haven’t sold corduroy in more than 10 years. Very basic coats are not selling yet."

With many of its 59 clothing stores located in the Midwest, Marshall Field’s is seeing interest in outerwear as a wardrobe item instead of a seasonal necessity, said Joanne Brunskill, senior buyer for women’s outerwear. Brunskill credited vendors for "doing a great job of developing our outerwear into a year-round business practically."

She said there were some strong trends so far this fall, adding that "it’s all about leather and suede and color." Ruby red, cigar brown and nectar are some of the top shades for suede. In leather, embellished styles from key brands such as Guess and Kenneth Cole Reaction are driving sales. Most Field’s shoppers are spending about $200 for suede or leather coats from these brands."They’re offering up some great things to attract some new guests in the department," Brunskill said. "They appeal to a younger-thinking and more stylish customer, but our older customers certainly like the newness."

The color array is also wide in active jackets and coats. Soft blue, pink, silver and white are some of the popular hues this fall for $99 down jackets and $149 three-in-one jackets from brands like Columbia and Pacific Trail.

Making a major statement with shearling coats this summer helped Henri Bendel to drum up interest in that category in July, which is typically not prime time for such cold-weather items.

"Fashion customers were buying them early," said merchandise manager Allyson Krowitz. "Our other customers will come in once the weather gets cold."

Quilted jackets are also important, including a Burberry’s number for $315 and a fox-trimmed style from Moncler for $520.

"Anything with fur trim is doing well," Krowitz said. "Cloth coats haven’t been that important."

During a special storewide event on Thursday that spotlighted Los Angeles designers, Bendel’s sold 20 coats in one night due to increased store traffic, even though the designated designers don’t make outerwear. Black, chocolate brown, red, beige and olive are key colors this season for coats, Krowitz said.

Noting more seasonable weather this early fall than last year’s warmer trend, she said: "Business is already better than last year. August sales were the same with last year, but July and September were better."

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