NEW YORK — Retail sales might have been cool overall and weather might have been warmer than expected, but retailers said sweaters were hotter than ever this holiday season.

From long-coat styles to cropped looks, stores across the U.S. reported sweaters have been selling strongly the last couple of months — even being touted as the best-performing product of the period.

“The best category at retail has been sweaters,” said Kathy Bradley Riley, division merchandise manager for sportswear at The Doneger Group buying office here.

Reasons for these cozy numbers’ popularity seemed obvious, retailers said, as they make great gifts and also provide some warm, fuzzy comfort during these times of war and economic distress.

The types that are winning over consumers tend to feature some sort of newness in the form of novelty — whether it be decoration, fur trim, embellishment or a traditional holiday theme displayed in a new way.

“When customers have limited money to spend, they’re going to pick something that’s new and fresh rather than a staple,” said Robert Jezowski, executive vice president of women’s apparel at Macy’s East. “The customer is reacting to newness and we have to make sure that we have more novelty yarns, novelty body and much more broad, expansive color.”

From cashmere to chenille and turtlenecks to cardigans, sweaters have sold well at Macy’s stores, Jezowski said, citing Lauren by Ralph Lauren and Liz Claiborne Christmas motifs.

“We’ve got to make sure we buy more for-wear-now color,” he said. “If you walk in a mall, the stores that brought in a major December delivery look fresh and invigorating and the stores that didn’t, look stale.”

The best colors of the season were bright corals, blues and greens — much brighter than fall’s darker assortment, Jezowski added.

At Bloomingdale’s, Anne Keating, senior vice president of public relations, concurred that the sweater trend has been hot this season. Cashmere styles, jeweled and beaded numbers, twinsets and novelty sweaters with bears and dogs were among the top-performing styles, she said.

With the warmer-than-usual weather making a coat unnecessary, sweaters are the ideal outer piece, she noted. “It’s the perfect example of layering.”

Special sweater promotions offering additional percentages off also helped to generate business, she said.

A Kmart spokeswoman speculated that sweaters are enjoying their spot in the limelight now because times are scary, and people want to feel comfort.

“This is all a reflection this year of this nesting trend,” she said. “People want to stay home and dress up for the holidays and sweaters serve this purpose.”

Top-performing items at Kmart have included novelty sweaters featuring snowflakes and reindeer, retailing from $14 to $24, Jaclyn Smith shiny sweater sets, retailing for $24.99, and Kathy Ireland sweater coats, retailing for $26.99, she said.

In terms of gift-giving, sweaters and knit tops have been the popular box stuffers, said Scott Baskin, president of Mark Shale, which has eight stores spread over Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas, St. Louis and Kansas City, Mo.

“A black beaded pant with a beaded shell or sweater, these are the separates that have done well,” he noted.

Baskin said business has been better than expected, but the store went into the season with revised goals.

“We were preparing for a not-very- great season,” he said. “We’re down, but not by huge amounts — just a few percent.”

At Jacobson’s, novelty sweaters have performed well, in particular the ones by Michael Simon.

Buyer Rob Deno said: “Simon holiday sweaters have been selling well ever since they hit the salesfloor on Oct. 1. Simon has a lot of loyal collectors who go crazy for the new styles.”

Deno said the top sellers have included a beaded black cardigan with snowmen along the bottom, of which 70 percent sold in the Midwest, and a sweater with a manger motif. Both sweaters retailed for $190.

On the West Coast, holiday-theme sweaters, ranging from sets in traditional colors to knits and sweatshirts emblazoned with Frosty the Snowman, are reaching the registers at retailers.

“We are seeing fairly good action across the board in the sweater category,” said Jim Famalette, chief executive officer of Fresno, Calif.-based Gottschalks. “Novelties have been very good. We’re selling fleece as well — sweatshirts with a novelty look.”

Aside from novelty themes, there is a considerable amount of interest in stitches and yarn detailing, he added.

This is the third consecutive year for healthy sweater sales at Gottschalks, according to Famalette. The demand for sweaters has been so healthy that buyers are scrambling to get more merchandise in stores before the season ends.

“We think there’s still opportunity to sell a ton,” he said. “It’s one of the categories we are very heavily focused on. We are hopeful demand will continue to be strong.”

Frosty the Snowman also enjoyed some success with sweaters, as Mervyn’s penned an exclusive agreement with the consumer products division of Warner Bros. to sell Frosty goods. The rotund white character is scoring on sweaters, sweatshirts and T-shirts, according to a spokeswoman. “Frosty is our holiday mascot,” she said.

Like Gottschalks, Mervyn’s 264 stores reported strong sell-throughs on fleece novelty sweatshirts.

“People are hunkering down for the winter,” the spokeswoman said.

Meanwhile, Southwest retailers heated the holiday with novelty sweaters, from kitschy to cool, along with Americana themes.

“Patriotism is stronger in fashion than any time I can ever remember,” said Joanne Burnett, owner of the six-unit chain called Joanne’s, based in Houston.

Novelty-themed knit sweaters and cashmere tops are bestsellers from Angelica Val, Sigrid Olsen, Barry Bricken and Kay Celine, she said.

Other holiday hits are patriotic-themed tops from New Construction, Body Action Design and Glima, with styles ranging from T-shirts to long-sleeved knit sweaters. Sales are up about 2 percent compared to a year ago at Joanne’s, according to Burnett.

Another store that’s seeing success with sweaters is the Ruston, La.-based Lewis and Co., where novelty knits with Americana themes are top performers.

“Women are pairing the sweaters with denim pants and relaxed jackets,” said Mary Adams, a buyer at the store.

Still, novelty is nothing new — it’s simply the best way to differentiate your look, said veteran novelty-sweater designer Michael Simon. He contended that novelty is always in fashion — the techniques simply evolve.

“It looks like it’s big now, but in America it’s always been big,” said Simon, whose company does a little more than $30 million annually. “What we did in the Eighties doesn’t compare to what we do today. Right now, the idea is to show the workmanship and the detail.”

But Mike Dees, president of Marisa Christina, a 31-year-old knitwear company known for its sweaters with equestrian looks and themes of dogs, cats and florals, said the last time novelty looks enjoyed such popularity was in the Eighties.

Dees attributed this love for novelty looks to an embracing of what’s considered classic American fashion.

“If you look at the Ralph Laurens and Donna Karans of the world, there’s a real embracing of what we call American classics,” said Dees, whose company does about $40 million annually, with sweaters retailing from $88 to $138. “Right now, fashion is all about tradition. In bottoms, women are wearing tweeds that are reminiscent of the 1940s and trousers of glen plaid. So what has happened is, you’re seeing these great sweaters in traditional themes and they’re considered fashion again.” – Kristin Larson, with contributions from Kristin Young, Los Angeles and Rusty Williamson, Dallas

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