NEW YORK — Encouraged by current sales and chilly temperatures, coat makers are optimistic their winter business will keep clicking along into the early part of next year.

They’re expecting a reversal of fortune for 2002, after last year’s 14 percent decline in women’s outerwear sales to $4.3 billion.

They’re also trying to buoy spring sales with styles that appeal to fashion-conscious customers.

Donald Levy, president of The Levy Group, expects the coat season to run strong through the end of January. "Last year we were done by December — actually, the business never really got started," Levy said. "But it’s a whole different story this year."

Given that, excess inventory should not be an issue early next year, Levy said.

"Retailers played it appropriately safe," he continued. "Nobody is sitting with a tremendous amount of inventory."

The company, which makes the licensed Liz Claiborne, Dana Buchman and Esprit lines and the proprietary Braetan and Donnybrook labels, expects 2002 sales to increase by 10 percent.

The Levy Group is being cautious about spring sales, which typically account for about 15 percent of the business, Levy said. The emphasis will be on the Esprit label, which now has more contemporary-oriented styles, such as denim jackets and corduroy and cotton styles. But spring, overall, remains a tough sell.

"It’s a growing business, but it’s still a very difficult time to create excitement for the contemporary customer," Levy said. "There are fewer treatments and trim like faux fur that can be used for the spring."

Searle is counting on January and February sales to comprise 45 percent of the brand’s annual outerwear sales, said Steve Blatt, president and chief executive officer. Instead of getting out of the business by February — a strategy embraced by most retailers — Searle keeps manufacturing coats for as long as they are needed.

"If we sell 50 coats, we make 50 more," Blatt said. "We try never to produce too far out. Most of ours are produced right here, so we typically cut coats week to week. We don’t have any customers who run their businesses that way, but it does work in the outerwear business. We might lose a little business doing it that way, but we don’t have much inventory."Searle also plans to use that strategy in its seven freestanding stores, and customers have learned to count on the chain for outerwear in off-peak months, Blatt said. From a trend standpoint, rainwear is expected to be a spring bestseller.

Glen Palmer, president and ceo of the Amerex Group, which makes Jones New York and Mudd women’s outerwear, is also tightening inventories.

"We’re buying less up front and closer to the orders," Palmer said. "There’s less speculation. We’re trying to reduce the cycle time to try to react quicker to emerging trends."

Cole-Haan is sourcing more material from Europe, as part of its plan to build business with upper-end customers, said president Matt Rubel. The brand’s outerwear is produced by G-III Apparel Group. Lightweight wools and leathers will be offered for spring, along with plenty of color and striped or patterned linings.

"From an outerwear standpoint, we’re really further defining the way in which we are setting the casual American aesthetic," Rubel said. "We’re doing that with innovation, luxury fabrics, great construction and versatility."

Bernard Holtzman, president and design director of Harvé Benard, said, "With the spring season, it’s get in, get out and go on with your life."

More stores are not ordering too much, too early in the season, opting to chase key items, he said. Given that, the company is offering eight styles of quilted jackets, which were an important fall item. Most are offered to hit the hip, with the longest length resting above the knee. Available in unusual shades like bubble gum, yellow and melon, as well as traditional colors, the quilted coats retail from $120 to $160.

"Spring is not the season to play around with the numbers," Holtzman said. "We keep prices reasonable. We want the customer to see it, love it and buy it."

Fredric Stollmack, president and ceo of the Weatherproof Garment Company, plans to be more aggressive with pricing. The plan is to offer spring outerwear that retails from $99 to $129 — about 25 percent less than last spring’s collection. Consumers and retailers are looking for better deals, he said. Weatherproof’s sharper prices should help stores avoid deep discounting."With the brand migration that is going on, you never know where labels will end up," Stollmack said. "You can see one garment in a department store for $129 and then see the same garment in a discounter for $49."

The line has been brand overhauled to focus more on contemporary and junior looks, Stollmack said.

"We want to attract the more fashionable customer who is shopping today versus the missy customer from two years ago," Stollmack said. "Unfortunately, spring is over with the blink of an eye. You deliver goods on 2/25 and hope it doesn’t get hot too fast."

This spring, Herman Kay-Bromley will also be serving up "edgier, cooler" outerwear for its Anne Klein licensed line, which includes AK and Anne Klein New York and Anne Klein lines, said Richard Kay, co-president. The company also makes Jason Kole and London Fog wool outerwear.

"Coats are back on shoppers’ agendas," Kay said. "They’re getting to be a fashion item again. It’s almost a sportswear approach to outerwear."

The company is counting on AK’s shorter looks, such as diagonal quilted jackets with novelty linings and trim that retail for less than $100 to fuel spring sales.

For the first time, Vakko, a brand known for its leather and suede jackets, is shifting its focus to bridge and contemporary sportswear for spring. That strategy has helped the company to open new accounts, especially with specialty stores, said Joel Kronfield. Setting up a sales force to be on the road — something he did in June soon after joining the company — has helped build spring sales.

A newcomer to the outerwear business, Edward An, a Los Angeles-based company, is working to "take coats out-of-the-closet and make them must-have accessories," said founder Elizabeth Stover.

Lightweight vintage-looking and preppy styles comprise the spring line. A pink cotton coat with kelly green trim, a transparent plastic raincoat and seersucker jackets are among the key styles. Stover worked for Kate Spade before relocating to the West Coast and starting her business about a year ago.

"It’s practical luxury for the modern traditionalist," she said. "We wanted to bring back coats and update them. We felt it was a lost segment of the business."Accessories and sportswear are offered to compliment the outerwear. Spring orders tripled compared with last year, and 2003 sales should keep that pace, hitting $1 million, Stover said.

Brands that are popular in the outdoor market are trying a few new strategies for spring.

Lowe Alpine will continue to sell to outdoor specialty stores, but it is also speaking with mail-order houses about selling more through their catalogs, a company spokeswoman said. For The North Face, the big push is for lightweight, packable jackets made with its proprietary Apex fabric, a polyester and nylon woven blend.

Pacific Trail aims to develop jackets that can be worn year-round and are well suited for travel, said Todd Gilmer, marketing manager for the division of London Fog Industries.

The company is rounding out its PAC Tech Lite group with more performance-oriented, versatile items. Keeping retail prices in the $50 to $100 range is another way the brand aims to increase spring sales.

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