NEW YORK — In the weather-dependent outerwear sector, companies have learned to exercise flexibility.

Given the tentative nature of spring retailing for the category — a season that typically generates 10 to 20 percent of annual sales — vendors are using a variety of methods to become more limber. Among the key strategies to extend the fourth-quarter momentum into the first half of next year are beefed-up advertising, rounding out portfolios with new licenses, developing more easy-care and seasonless items and creating nonouterwear line extensions.

The economy — which only recently began to recover —a plethora of junior-inspired styles and relatively mild fall temperatures, especially in the Northeast, have taking their toll on this year’s sales, so far. This has lead to flat expectations, with sales expected to be on par with last year’s $2 billion volume for the market segment, executives said.

Despite that widespread conservatism, some new players are gearing up for 2004:

  • This spring S. Rothschild & Co. will introduce its licensed DKNY women’s outerwear in the U.S. and Canada.

  • Pepe Jeans London’s outerwear, which was unveiled this fall, will also have a spring collection.

  • At the Utex Corp., a Montreal-based company, William Calvert is putting the finishing touches on its freshly licensed Perry Ellis outerwear line that will debut at retail for fall 2004.

  • Herman Kay Bromley is counting on its new J.Lo license to be a “huge growth opportunity,” co-president Barry Kay said.

  • In January, “Sex and the City” star Kristin Davis will appear in the Weatherproof Garment Co.’s first print ads and outdoor pitch for women.

  • G-III Apparel Group, the New York-based apparel company that produces licensed NHL looks, has introduced a vintage hockey collection modeled after logos once worn by players in the 86-year-old National Hockey League.

Bernardo Fashions has a five-pronged attack for growth in 2004. The company has beefed up its advertising budget, doubled the size of its outerwear design team to four, developed more casual coats, will have a substantially larger showroom as of next month and will launch its first sportswear collection at that same time.Considering easy-care styles “is what has carried the business,” Bernardo has ramped up its washable suede jackets with stainproof and water-resistant qualities, said Stuart Pollack, president and chief executive officer. This year, the brand sold $100 million worth of women’s washable suede outerwear at retail, he added.

“If we don’t make a difference, we’re dead,” Pollack said. “To me, the whole investment has to be in product.”

Bernardo has doubled its showroom space to 11,000 square feet at 463 Seventh Avenue in Manhattan. That’s where the 80-piece sportswear line will bow next month. To try to get the word out about the brand, Bernardo will spend $2.5 million on advertising, up from $1.7 million last year, Pollack said.

Free Country will continue to run its current ad campaign and commercials through next month, as January is a key time for selling coats, said president and ceo Ira Schwartz. Next year, the company plans to spend nearly $1 million on advertising, which is comparable to this year’s budget. Next year’s versions will involve more movement, since active looks are a focus for the company, Schwartz said.

“We’re trying to solidify our brand message so that people think of us as an active lifestyle brand and not just a coat company,” Schwartz said. “We take the tack that the customer is more motivated by product they haven’t seen before than tweaked versions of last year’s coats.”

Women’s apparel accounts for 33 percent of the company’s estimated $38 million in annual sales, he said.

“Spring is such a tough season” that Cinzia Rocca is making more of an effort to keep its name out there through first-quarter advertising, educating salespeople about new products and developing lighter-weight jackets and coats, said Denise Bongiorno, managing director of Rodel USA. For the first time, print and outdoor advertising will continue beyond the core selling season.

“We want to push in spring as much as we do for fall, even though the time period [for selling] is shorter and the volume is smaller,” she said. “We feel we have to stay out there.”The advantage to maintaining a major spring presence is “at our price points, we don’t have a lot of competition for someone who wants better outerwear,” Bongiorno said. Cinzia Rocca is sold in 80 percent of the 130 domestic accounts that carry the fall line.

All too familiar with the fact that department stores tend to give up on outerwear, for the most part, come springtime, The Levy Group is looking for ways to broaden its retail presence for fall. The Levy Group produces licensed Liz Claiborne, Dana Buchman and Esprit coats, house brands Braetan and Donnybrook outerwear, as well as Wildlife sportswear and licensed Bonjour jeans.

Donald Levy, president and ceo, said, “Spring is a service, not a big season, but we support our stores. It’s a difficult time of year for all coat companies. We don’t plan spring marketing. We want to put our best foot forward for fall.”

Levy said he is negotiating for new licenses and plans to diversify the company’s portfolio. Estimating nonbranded coats account for 30 percent of all outerwear in department stores, Levy said, “I don’t believe there should be any nonbranded coats in department stores.”

Edward An, which launched its first outerwear collection last fall, expects to double its sales to $1.5 million this year, said Elizabeth Stover, vice president of sales. Spring orders have also doubled since last year, with waterproof nylon coats with a sueded hand being top picks, she said.

“Part of that growth is because the economy has picked up,” Stover said. “Store owners are more optimistic about buying more units and trying different styles.”

Edward An, which is offered in 120 doors, has added 10 employees and opened a new corporate office in Los Angeles in September.

Considering Harvé Bernard only sells 10 percent of its outerwear in the spring, the company is trying to strengthen that figure with Thames, a new group of colorful rainwear. More than 42,000 units have already been booked and only 600 are left, said Bernard Holtzman, president. The 12-piece group wholesales from $46 to $59 and has done “much better than anticipated,” he said.“The problem we have is one that everyone is faced with: Once you do your projections, it’s hard to respond to what performs. By the time people realize their coat business is good, there’s nothing I can do about it,” Holtzman said.

Like other coat makers, Harvé Bernard is more reliant on sportswear for its total volume. Outerwear only makes up $15 million of its annual $100 million sales. “I’m doing a lot more sportswear in my spring business,” Holtzman added.

Schneiders is freshening up its collection with “more updated and fashion-oriented” looks like short motorcycle jackets and sporty styles with performance accents, said Gisela Schwartze, vice president. Given that, the company is pushing to have more West Coast accounts. Earlier this month, she spent two weeks visiting Nordstrom stores in areas where Schneiders’ customers live.

The company expects to sell nearly $3 million worth of women’s outerwear this year, a 25 percent increase compared with last year, Schwartze said. Schneiders executives will hammer out the 2004 plan at a meeting this month in Austria.

The Amerex Group is in talks for an outerwear license that will cater to the urban market. That is one area that is underserved by the industry, according to Renee McGovern, who has joined the company as president of its women’s and men’s group.

The company also plans to spruce up its offerings for its Jones New York licensed line. A third objective is building and marketing its proprietary brands — Weathertamer and Gerry — to make them more appealing as “family-driven lifestyle brands,” McGovern said.

This will involve developing strategic partnerships with stores. For example, some Gerry products are for ski specialty stores and other styles are for department stores. Both brands will have more options for lightweight, functional and comfortable jackets. To try to accomplish that, Amerex’s brand teams are more unified and are working to convey a more cohesive image, McGovern said.

Pacific Trail is also going the family route. Last month, the company teamed up with Filene’s Basement to host a talent search for outdoorsy families to appear in its fall ad campaign. Now the brand’s executives have the task of choosing a winner for the shoot, which will take place in the next three months. Using real families instead of models is something the company initiated in this year’s campaign.Todd Gilmer, marketing and communications manager of Pacific Trail, said creating more compelling visuals to be used as in-store signs is a priority for the company.

“We are targeting accounts and will support them with brand signage,” Gilmer said. “It’s important for us to partner with stores to help outerwear achieve a visual presentation, with a look and feel that is consistent with their stores.”

Through March, Pacific Trail will be showing off its women’s styles with Stainstopper fabric protection. The 18-piece group will wholesale from $31.50 to $55 and will debut at retail for fall 2004. There will be cotton- and nylon-based styles.

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