Topping Off Their Collections

NEW YORK — For four sportswear and ready-to-wear designers, outerwear has become a way to round out their collections and boost sales.<br><br>Like the women for whom they design, Michelle Smith, Rebecca Taylor, Nanette Lepore and Maria Marda...

NEW YORK — For four sportswear and ready-to-wear designers, outerwear has become a way to round out their collections and boost sales.

This story first appeared in the September 24, 2002 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Like the women for whom they design, Michelle Smith, Rebecca Taylor, Nanette Lepore and Maria Marda Facchinelli aren’t likely to make a special trip to a coat department in search of a winter jacket. That fall ritual is passé with time-starved working women in their 20s and 30s who are more inclined to buy something more stylish than the often cookie-cutter selection in department stores or discounters, the quartet sounded.

“You don’t see a lot of young designers making coats,” said Smith, who designs the Milly label. “In the past, that was more of a department store thing.”

Allison Krowitz, merchandise manager for ready-to-wear and outerwear at Henri Bendel, said designers like Taylor and Lepore help fill a need by providing “younger, more fashiony items,” instead of the standard long black balmacaan or toggle coat.

The retailer also sells outerwear from Kors by Michael Kors and Trina Turk. Bendel’s merchandises outerwear within its sportswear collections. That’s a bonus with label-conscious shoppers, Krowitz said.

“These people have customers that buy their lines every year because they know their fashion sense and want a coat from them,” she said.

For many sportswear collections, outerwear can bring in 5 to 15 percent of annual sales, and has taken market share from the troubled core of the outerwear sector in the past decade or so. With outerwear not the main product, sportswear firms don’t get as caught up in the need to generate volume or cut prices at the earliest instance, as is the case in the big coat departments.

“These are not seen as purchases to last a lifetime,” Taylor said. “There’s demand for them, but what’s key is price point. I want women to buy a coat every season to make a coat wardrobe.”

The East Coast’s shifting weather patterns in recent years have also opened the door for the sportswear labels. Fall outerwear sales are way ahead of last fall for Taylor, who has widened her selections with different weights and seen increased demand.

“It’s not as cold as it used to be and that affords you the opportunity to wear different things,” she said.

After dabbling in outerwear for several seasons, Bloomingdale’s requested a few “basic styles with a twist” last fall. So, she developed a dozen styles for this fall. Her aim is to create items that are “plain enough to wear with multiple things, but they have special details,” she said.

Smith offers Italian wool coats with unusual surface treatments, such as circles that make a zigzag pattern. Oversized buttons and leather trim with a retro feel are among the finishing touches she uses on peacoats, blazers and carcoats. She has sold out of outerwear — 800 units in total — to about 100 accounts, with a belted glen plaid trench a big hit, she said.

Fond of updated classics, Smith was so inspired by Audrey Hepburn’s cropped après ski jacket in “Charade,” that she developed a ski collection for fall. Ski jackets wholesale for $88, with other outerwear ranging from $166 for a blazer to $244 for a long coat.

By keeping production here, Smith likes to keep a tight lid on quality. This fall, outerwear sales will account for $130,000 in sales, representing about 10 percent of her overall volume.

Customers at Wish, a specialty store in Boston, are spending between $500 for a leather-trimmed wool Milly coat to $718 for Taylor’s tweed long coat.

“The coat business is fabulous and I see it becoming more important,” said co-owner Kelley Frey. “People seem to be buying multiple coats. If you’re going to brave the winter, at least you can look cute.”

Lepore agreed that more women are looking for playful, lighter-weight coats that can be worn with a variety of looks. She said she was inspired to get back into coats, after seeing a woman in jeans wearing one of her brocade coats — something she had envisioned to be worn with a dress. As a designer, “we get into this thing where everything is merchandised,” she said. “I decided we have to do things are really cute that can be mixed up.”

For fall, Lepore increased her outerwear offerings by 5 percent.

“It’s definitely a growing part of my business and not something I’m going to walk away from next year,” she said. “There’s a more lady-like feel to coats. More people are looking for a pretty coat to wear over jeans.”

During Friday’s runway show at Bryant Park, the designer’s flirty jackets, like a striped swing peacoat and a satiny brocade coat, were crowd-pleasers. Like other sportswear designers, Lepore said she considers outerwear to be part of her collection, instead of breaking it out as a separate category.

Women are more willing to be experimental with their outerwear than their sportswear, said Maria Marta Facchinelli, an Argentine designer who showed at GenArt’s show Saturday.

“You might not be able to be so dramatic inside, but you can be outside with your coat,” she said. “It’s an easy way to play with your image.”

After testing outerwear within her collection last fall, Facchinelli introduced more gothic and Victorian styles made of suede, leather, alpaca and other handmade knits this fall. She said she likes the contrast of casual, everyday garments with a more dramatic coat.

“It’s what people see easily when they look at you,” she said.