NEW YORK — Hit by a particularly unforgiving season last year, outerwear makers are trying to make this fall a turning point for regaining the sector’s health.

Manufacturers are fighting back with fashion instead of going with tried-and-true basics like long wool coats. Their aim is to focus on more versatile items that are less reliant on chilly temperatures and can be worn for a wider range of activities.

Searle president and chief executive officer Steve Blatt said, "It appears as though outerwear needs to have a fresh start. Nothing in our fall line is really classic. We wanted to design anything that didn’t look like a coat you have bought in the last five to 10 years."

Last fall’s unseasonably warm weather, terrorist attacks and the onslaught of athletic companies getting into outerwear took its toll on coat makers. All that added up to a 14 percent decline in 2001 women’s outerwear sales to $4.3 billion compared to 2000 sales, according to market research firm NPD Group.

So now firms are spotlighting the novelty side of outerwear, above and beyond its practicality. This fall, Searle is offering brocade styles, shearlings, down coats and plaid or tweed items. Retailers "love" them, but cold weather is what is needed for a strong season, Blatt said.

"It’s not a question of fashion, it’s fashion and price and weather — not necessarily in that order," Blatt said.

Nevertheless, Searle is planning for increases in the next six months, due primarily to the fact that so many stores canceled or reduced orders following Sept. 11.

"Customers respond to what they need rather than price. They ask, ‘What’s fresh?’ and "Do I want something new this week?’" Blatt said. "If we work this way in the fall, even the coat business would be better."

This month, The Levy Group launches Liz Sport outerwear, athletic-inspired looks that are an offshoot of its licensed Liz Claiborne label. The pastel-colored skiwear, jackets with zip-out fleece and other styles should "make the sales floors in department stores’ coat departments" have more pop, said Donald Levy, president."This is the active piece of Liz Sport," he said. "It’s fun, casual and fashion."

Offering more items that are less weather sensitive is a key part of Levy Group’s strategy. For fall, the company also launches Dana Buchman outerwear, mostly seasonless coats that coordinate with the designer’s sportswear. The 40-piece line will be available at about 90 stores and Buchman’s four freestanding stores.

There has also been "a tremendous reaction" to the firm’s licensed Esprit outerwear, Levy said.

London Fog Industries expects fall sales to be flat with last year and spring sales are not expected to be drastically better, according to Paul Shriber, president of wholesale operations.

Consumers have pulled back on their spending and will only indulge when they see "products and prices that motivate them," he said. "People are not going out with a lot of money and just spending."

Recent corporate scandals and stock market plunges, uncertainty about the Middle East and the trend toward refinancing has turned consumers away from retail, Shriber said. To rev up fall business, London Fog will launch a national advertising campaign in the September and October issues of women’s magazines and will run them through the holiday season.

This spring, London Fog lowered its prices by about 10 or 15 percent. Cuts were made by sourcing better-priced fabrics from the Far East, since 70 percent of each garment’s cost is in the fabric, Shriber said.

Tryst and Ramosport, two brands that are sold in the same showroom, are trying to attract fashion-conscious customers earlier this year by shipping fall goods at the end of this month instead of in the middle of August.

"Fashion sells first. People want coats early," said Joni Wilkins, vice president.

For Tryst, rabbit shearlings are the company’s fall bestsellers. They are "denim friendly," have fitted silhouettes and are available in a three-quarter length or a seven-eighth length. There is even interest in them in Los Angeles, a city that does not typically generate a lot of shearling sales.

For Ramosport, vintage looks like a washed cotton jacket with patched fur trim should help make women want to shop this summer, Wilkins said. These types of slimming styles help freshen up the casual everyday attire so many women are fond of, she said."Jeans and a T-shirt do not look chic, but a coat can make a very put-together look," Wilkins said. "It’s also a way to maintain your shape."

Bernard Holtzman, president and chief executive officer of Harvé Benard, said he has no plans for early shipments. He noted that some "hefty business" is done in January and February. Given that, the company does not want to run the risk of having its fall offerings "look old before their time, especially to the people who sell them," Holtzman said.

Fresh looks like faux fur coats and Russian-looking tweed styles should get fall sales off to a swift start, he said. The company is also offering sportier styles, such as an orange A-line down coat with a shirt collar, hidden zippers and side vents.

"New items will sell because the fashion lady is out there," said Holtzman, adding that black utilitarian coats comprise 70 percent of the company’s fall business. "If the weather kicks in, we could do some real business.""

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