NEW YORK — Perhaps no other industry has had to polish off its image, find new customers and shake the uneven hand of weather on more than one occasion, than outerwear.

That said, instead of plugging along with the same strategies their predecessors used decades before, coat makers are trying to be proactive — energizing their businesses with more stylish coats geared for the youthful-minded and more frequent deliveries to liven up sales floors, following a strong performance for fall-winter. They’re also slimming down their collections and keeping inventories equally lean.

"The whole outerwear industry is changing and taking on a sportier approach," said Richard Kay, co-president of Herman Kay Bromley.

For Harvé Benard, that means selling more coats to sportswear departments instead of outerwear. For others like G-III Apparel Group, which is ready to launch Black Rivet, and London Fog, which unveils its Manhattan collection this fall at retail, it means creating new labels to appeal to more fashion-conscious customers.

Diversification remains an important part of the equation, with powerhouses like The Levy Group and Fairbrooke Enterprises offering a variety of labels that meet the needs of different ages and price points. Companies are trying to keep their share of the $3.5 billion retail outerwear market and pick up a little extra business where they can.

G-III has become a major player by building a portfolio of brands distributed to various levels of retail. The company licenses women’s outerwear for Cole-Haan, Kenneth Cole, Nine West, Bill Blass, Blass Sport and Jones New York. It also markets the proprietary Sienna Studio and Colebrook labels, and will launch Black Rivet, a contemporary line, next month at the WWDMAGIC trade show in Las Vegas. Geared for department stores and specialty stores, Black Rivet will wholesale from $40 to $60 for wovens to $75 to $125 for leathers.

G-III president Jeanette Nostra, said, "Outerwear is constantly changing and we knew we needed to bring new products. We looked at who the consumer is and what they want to address."

The decision to launch Black Rivet reflects G-III’s entrepreneurial attitude, something Nostra sees as the 230-person-company’s greatest strength.

"There’s a very entrepreneurial spirit that runs through this company," she said. "We’re interested in getting things done and not figuring out why we can’t do something. Management encourages innovation and creativity from sales, marketing and distribution, as well as design."To be more competitive, G-III is looking into barcoding boxes in the Far East as soon as the goods are packed, instead of waiting until they clear customs and arrive at the company’s New Jersey warehouse. G-III is also considering sewing microchips into garments, which can be scanned by radio frequency. In recent seasons, the company has been handling more units due to consumers’ interest in such casual outerwear as down-filled and denim jackets.

"The chips would be less labor intensive and would help us to advance our handling of goods," Nostra said.

G-III is adjusting to the changing buying trends. Instead of buying in November and December, as was the norm for years, more customers are buying outerwear in December and January, Nostra said. With outerwear becoming more trend-oriented, G-III is working on "disciplining the organization to meet time schedules," said Nostra, adding, "the pace of our business has quickened and we need to pick up the pace."

Fairbrooke is also trying to be more time sensitive to trends by shipping product on a monthly basis, so the same merchandise is not sitting on the sales floor for extended periods of time. The $50 million firm sells licensed outerwear under the Calvin Klein, CK, DKNY and Donna Karan labels, as well as its own Drizzle rainwear.

Each label appeals to different types of customers and steers clear of overlap, said Gregg Solomon, who took over the role of president from his father, Gerald, in August. The company is sharpening the price points for CK coats to try to appeal to younger customers and increasing prices for other labels, which consumers perceive as luxury items, Solomon said. The fact that this has been the first real cold winter in six years has helped business, he said.

Fairbrooke has reduced the size of its fall collection from 100 styles to about 45 to simplify shopping for buyers and consumers, Solomon said. The company is continually trying to improve partnerships with retailers. Staffers are making a greater effort to analyze weekly sales reports and to offer a better balance of fashion and basics. "Rose Marie Bravo once told me when she was at Saks, ‘It’s a balance.’" Solomon said. "It’s neither all of one or another. You have to measure what the consumer wears."The company is forcing firms to "push ourselves" to be more innovative in terms of design, quality and price in relation to value, Solomon said. "This is driven from consumers’ expectations."

Their savviness is due in part to advancements and accessibility of other markets, including Palm Pilots, cars, downloadable music and entertainment, he said.

"That’s exposed consumers to a higher level of product design," Solomon said. "That’s made us put more demand on ourselves."

The Levy Group is another major player that takes a multitiered approach to outerwear. In addition to the licensed Liz Claiborne, Dana Buchman and Esprit coats, the company also make the house brands Braetan and Donnybrook outerwear, as well as Wildlife sportswear and licensed Bonjour jeans.

Outerwear, however, is outselling sportswear, and generated $160 million in wholesale volume last year, said Donald Levy, president. Being diversified allows the company "to play to all different markets," from department stores to discounters, he said.

In the coming year, the company will send designers to scout Europe six times a year — twice as frequently as last year, Levy said. "What differentiates us is fashion," Levy said. "This is not a commodity business."

Given overall tepid sales at retail and consumer concern about the economy and war, The Levy Group is not banking on 2003 to be an outstanding year. Keeping inventories lean is essential in a "dangerous environment," he said.

Weatherproof Garment Co. is shifting toward a more contemporary look. To depict that, the company is trying to sign up a major film star or TV personality for its first women’s advertising campaign, which will break this fall. The company will spend about $4 million on the outdoor and print ads, said Fredric Stollmack, president and chief executive officer.

"We believe the best way to move product is to market it," he said.

Having made women’s coats for three years, Weatherproof now aims "to offer customers garments with a little more edge like faux shearlings and denim," Stollmack said. Three-quarters of the brand’s business is sparked by "younger styling," he added.So, there is more of an effort to design St. Moritz-inspired skiwear reminiscent of the Forties and other soft, lightweight jackets. This year’s sales are expected to double to $12 million, Stollmack said. As interest in the brand increases, the company is getting more requests for private label outerwear, which is currently a $2.5 million business.

One priority is to develop more signature items to generate heavy orders. Weatherproof employees are also doing more line reviews to try to focus on a few key items in the 110-style line. He also noted that consumers in all price ranges are more concerned about the price in relation to the quality and workmanship of a garment.

Herman Kay Bromley is looking into adding another label to its brand portfolio, which already includes licensed lines Anne Klein New York, AK by Anne Klein, London Fog wool outerwear and Albert Nipon, as well as its own Bromley and Herman Kay outerwear. This year, the company’s $118 million annual sales are expected to increase by 5 or 6 percent, said Barry Kay, who is also co-president. Interest in contemporary looks like those offered under the two Anne Klein lines, and London Fog’s brand recognition have helped to boost sales, he said.

To help designers stay on top of trends, they will be checking out more stores in major cities in Europe and in the U.S. West Coast visits help them tune into youthful styles and East Coast visits tend to be more beneficial for the contemporary and misses’ markets, Kay said.

"Right now, the world is tough," he said. "We need to be product-right all the time. We’re happy where we are, but five years ago we did $40 million, and in this environment, we must continue to grow."

For 2003, London Fog is trying to build its $100 million women’s business by "a low-double-digit increase," introducing its Manhattan collection this fall, said Paul Shriber, president of wholesale operations.

Closer fitting than traditional outerwear, the collection is designed to appeal to urbanites. Retail prices will range from $99 to $129 for outerwear, and $119 to $159 for rainwear.

Shriber said, "This is a change in direction for us. Our brand was built on cottons and now microfibers are becoming more important."This fall, the brand will build on its "lively, spirited" ad campaign from last year, which showed models in different aspirational locales. Updating the collection and its image has helped the company to open more doors in existing department store accounts, he said.

Instead of continuing "to make normal coats" as they have year after year, Harvé Benard is serving up more lifestyle-oriented looks. That means more short looks, such as down-filled corduroy jackets, satin jackets and hooded silk and rayon velvet styles, said Benard Holtzman, president and ceo. The objective is to accommodate women in their 30s, 40s and 50s who get dressed casually each morning and stay that way all day.

"People are not wearing head-to-toe matching outfits," he said. "I don’t want coats to be sold for shelter. A coat should be sold because a woman loves it immediately, not to replace a worn-out coat."

With its new look, Harvé Benard wanted to "perk up" coat departments and get placement in sportswear departments, Holtzman said.

"I have not seen this kind of interest in 10 years," he said. "Last year, 80 percent of our business was wool coats. Today, 30 percent of the business is wool coats. This is absolutely being driven by direction. I don’t want this to have anything to do with the weather."

Free Country is taking a more lifestyle approach and plans to sign licenses for hats, gloves and jeans within the next month or two. This year’s women’s outerwear sales are expected to climb to $15 million, compared with $11 million a year ago, said Ira Schwartz, president. Women’s sales account for about 25 percent of the company’s volume.

In November, Free Country began running commercials nationally and launching a print ad campaign. The TV spots wrap up this month. Developed by David Sirieix, the campaign was a $1 million investment for Free Country and helped retailers recognize the brand’s commitment and put the name in the mind of consumers, Schwartz said.

"The market is taking us more seriously," he said. "It has also helped to change the face of our profile. People have to see your investment in your brand before they can invest in your brand on their part."Last fall, Randi Seiff joined Free Country as merchandise manager and has been working to polish the brand’s image with new hang tags, labels, embroidery and patches. Free Country also produces Free Tech, a more affordable and less athletic line.

"As a company, we always need to work on branding and image-making," Schwartz said. "We need to make sure the hang tags work, as well as the product. Everything has to be just so. That’s what we have to try to achieve."

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