NEW YORK — The standard black leather jacket and simple suede coat can still be found, but outerwear makers and retailers are trying to play up the more novel items in their collections.

Coat merchants and vendors were left with excess inventory last year when they banked on big numbers from basic black leather jackets. When the economy tanked last fall and the brisk fall weather that’s needed to drive outerwear sales blew into town as tropical breezes, the price-slashing followed and profits tumbled.

Determined not to repeat that scenario this year, many leather and suede outerwear vendors broadened their offerings and placed a greater emphasis on sportswear-inspired pieces.

Kenneth Cole has seen "a pretty dramatic improvement" in leather outerwear sales in its 49 freestanding stores, because of the recent change in weather in the last two weeks, said Paul Blum, president of Kenneth Cole Productions. G-III Apparel Group produces Kenneth Cole and Kenneth Cole Reaction outerwear.

"We’re selling new things more than traditional coats," he said.

Distressed leather jackets and styles with fur collars are leading leather outerwear sales, which should account for at least 50 percent of the company’s fall business. Last year, the company generated $386.1 million in revenue. Product diversification is part of the brand’s strategy to build 2002 sales.

Kenneth Cole’s secondary line, Reaction, along with Guess are two of the outerwear labels ringing up sales for leather and suede items at Marshall Field’s, according to Joanne Brunskill, senior buyer for women’s outerwear. Guess leather outerwear is licensed and produced by Winlit. The retailer has made a point of bringing in these labels to try to broaden its customer base, she said. The influx of colorful suede jackets has brightened up outerwear departments, attracted customers and helped sales.

Bernardo Fashions has seen consumers’ interest in smooth leather jackets and coats fall off compared with last year. Unlike two years ago, when that category was "fantastic," it is "very soft," said Stuart Pollack, president of Bernardo.

The glut of basics drove prices down last year and many stores opted to buy from manufacturer inventories this year instead of placing fresh orders overseas. That has continued to depress the retail selling price.Given that, Bernardo is selling fur-trimmed leather jackets and coats with zip-out linings. Known for its machine-washable leather and suede collections, primarily in outerwear, the brand launched machine-washable goat suede in bridge-priced separates. More importantly, suede, especially washable suede, is driving fall outerwear sales.

"Our biggest volume increaser is outerwear. Washable suede sales are off-the-wall," Pollack said. "That’s the winner and we don’t see it evening off."

More youthful-looking styles like suede jackets with faux Tibetan lamb trim are attracting more customers to Bernardo. There are women who want to dress more contemporary but in silhouettes that fit them properly, Pollack said.

Vakko’s suede sales are on the rise since suede sportswear pieces are becoming more of a fashion staple, with women on both coasts wearing it year-round, said Joel Kronfield, president. In addition, the company is selling a greater selection of leather pieces, and has already sold 10,000 leather and knit pieces this fall, he said. A funnel-neck sweater with leather panels and rabbit fur trim is one of the better-selling items.

"Basics are not where it’s at. That’s more of a commodity business now that more stores are doing their own private labels," Kronfield said. "Basic sales are down and novelty is up."

The company, which celebrates its 30th year in business next year, expects its $18 million annual sales to increase by 18 percent this year, he said. Items with punched leather detail, a process done on the interior of a garment, helped fuel fall growth.

Elements by Vakko, the brand’s secondary line, has also helped build business. That line appeals to stylish women in their 20s through their 40s. "They have a little richer taste and are more conscious of the cut," Kronfield said.

Playboy Enterprises has launched a leather outerwear and apparel collection. Produced by the JH Design Group, the line features blazers, biker jackets, pants, skirts and tanks imprinted with Playboy’s rabbit head and logo.

Jitrois, a Parisian leather firm that set up a U.S. showroom last year, is selling fashion-forward items. Known for its stretch leather favored by celebrities like Whitney Houston and well-connected stylists, Jitrois wholesales pants starting at $1,200, jackets at $2,500 and coats at $4,000.Despite those opening price points, retailers are not shying away from the line, said Alexander Oppenheimer, owner of the Nexus showroom here, which represents Jitrois. Stores are reporting "great" sell-throughs without discounting merchandise, he said. Pants, skirts, jackets and tops are among the bestsellers for Jitrois, which are designed to mold to the body and can be ironed for a glossy finish. The collection is offered in about 20 U.S. retailers.

"There’s a move away from…uniformity," Oppenheimer said. "To wear this line, you must be very confident. You will attract a lot of attention even if you are a woman who does not attract attention."

Sportswear-inspired items were also the big draw with the dozen apparel exhibitors at the second annual Think Leather Think India trade show, which was held earlier this month at the Metropolitan Pavilion. India exports nearly $2 billion in leather products annually, making it the second-largest leather exporter in the world.

Executives from major American brands and designers lined up private label programs with some of the Indian vendors at the show, said a spokeswoman for the Council for Leather Exports, a Chennai, India-based group that represents 90 percent of the country’s leather industry.

"They were much more focused on newness and ready-to-wear styling. That’s where the direction is with outerwear makers," she said.

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