By  on April 11, 2007

Forget the ebb and flow of consumer confidence or Wall Street undulations. It's the mercury rising at the wrong time of year that really makes retailers sweat.

After last season's record high temperatures and resulting rash of coat markdowns and returns to vendors, merchants are skittish and have planned fall-winter coat orders conservatively, up a couple of points at most. However, they're bundling up on fashion coats over basics, which means shorter lengths, lighter weights, bigger collars, details, trenches and innovative technical fabrics that breathe. They're also taking other new tacks to enliven the selling floor as they seek to insulate their outerwear departments from the impact of weather.

"I've seen the coat market and it's never looked better," said Jane Elfers, president and chief executive officer of Lord & Taylor. "The manufacturers have infused their assortments with so much fashion."

She raved about vintage looks from Marella by MaxMara and George Simonton's coats with fur trims and bolder collars. She also cited trenchcoats, with softer metallic fabrics, and flatter, lighter puffers as key trends.

With coats all over the runways in New York and Milan, "the real opportunity is in novelty outerwear," said Joseph Boitano, senior vice president and general merchandise manager of women's and children's at Saks Fifth Avenue. "Today, what really makes a person buy a new outerwear piece is fashion that is new and fits into their lifestyle. The traditional classic long coat is not such an important part of a lot of people's lives."

Boitano said Saks had a good coat season, with sales strongest in the third quarter and late second quarter. Key brands were Burberry, particularly the classic raincoats and newer fur-trimmed coats, and Mackage and Searle. The fourth quarter was kept "very controlled and liquid."

"We can't depend on weather. Coats really have to be like any ready-to-wear business," Boitano said. "They must be driven by fashion."

Saks has been positioning some outerwear within congruent departments, including some younger contemporary outerwear in the contemporary department. The move is an experiment to see if it could also be a merchandising strategy for designer and petite areas.

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