WOOL COATS: GOING FOR THE CYCLE
Byline: Arthur Friedman
NEW YORK — It’s one thing to have a champion season. It’s another to repeat the performance, and that’s just what wool coat makers aim to do.
Coming off a big comeback fall/winter season, coat vendors here feel they’re just at the beginning of a strong wool coat cycle. Coat company executives feel women are replenishing their old coats with fresh looks, particularly short to three-quarter-length jackets that go great with pants and an overall casual lifestyle.
Based on initial bookings, manufacturers are planning gains of 10 to 30 percent for the upcoming season. The prevailing theme for fall is short peacoats, stadiums and car coats, in plaids and solids, often trimmed in fake fur, sherpa, corduroy or shearling.
Coat houses that specialize in precious fibers such as cashmere, camel hair and alpaca report robust bookings. This sector is being propelled by the overall boom in luxury goods, in which women are willing to make an investment for lasting value.
At Herman Kay, overall bookings are up 30 percent to date over last year, said Jack Kay, chairman of the multidivision firm. This company’s projected volume for 1997 is $42 million, according to Richard Kay, who is co-president with his brother, Barry.
Richard Kay said this includes a projected volume of $6 million for the new licensed Halston coat line, quadruple the sales the company forecast when the deal was announced in November.
“The retail reaction and commitment to Halston has been incredible,” Richard Kay said. “With wool coats wholesaling at $100 to $125 and the marketing support and concurrent product introductions the line is getting, retailers realize what great potential and value the line offers.”
Some early bestsellers for Halston include a knee-length wool “walker” with fake Alaskan seal fur trim, a hooded wool and cashmere reefer and a short peacoat with fake fur trim.
In the year-old Jason Kole junior coat line, active outerwear bodies are transformed into sporty wools. Key styles are a group of zip-front short trenches trimmed in fake fur, velvet or sherpa, and a selection of short plaids mixed with corduroy, berber or fleece. Jason Kole is on track to hit $3 million in sales this year.
At Herman Kay’s signature moderate-price line, which should generate sales of some $23 million in 1997, casual looks prevail. Top numbers are short wools mixed with corduroy, berber and fleece, as well as three-quarter-length barn jackets and stadiums.
Rounding out Herman Kay’s cadre of labels is the licensed Albert Nipon bridge-price line of precious fiber coats, which Richard Kay said was “the surprise shining star” for his firm last season. The division is projecting $4 million in sales this year. Herman Kay also produces private label wools under its Karen Fashions unit, which is planning $8 million in business for the upcoming season.
Herman Kay makes most of its wool coats at its company-owned facility in the Dominican Republic, with some domestic production.
Ted Goldsmith, a principal in Bromley Corp., which makes and markets the licensed Anne Klein II and Evan-Picone coat lines and its own proprietary signature line, said the good news for wool has just begun.
“Trends and markets go in cycles, and I think the good wool business should last a minimum of three years,” Goldsmith said. “Women are trading in their long wool coats and are buying short coats to wear with pants.”
Goldsmith feels short lengths will rule again this season, with “no slowdown in the peacoat explosion.” Bromley’s labels are all turning to a more shaped silhouette this year, Goldsmith noted, and touches like bust darts are returning.
Fabrics have been given more body and bulk, which Goldsmith said women want for warmth and luxuriousness. This is true in basic wool melton and in precious fibers like camel hair and cashmere.
“It was a terrific season for us, and our Calvin Klein line was sensational,” said Gerald Solomon, president of Fairbrooke Enterprises, which holds the Calvin Klein and Perry Ellis coat licenses. “And we’re off to a fast start this year. After last season’s strong coat year, stores are planning early and strong.”
Now, Fairbrooke has added another designer name; last week it signed a licensing deal to make a signature and secondary line for Isaac Mizrahi. The signature line will feature dressy wools and shearlings, and the Isaac label will consist of more sporty wools and active outerwear.
Solomon said he’s getting solid early bookings in his firm’s Drizzle and Perry Ellis collections. The firm also makes coats under its Fairbrooke label.
Rick Insley, vice president of merchandising at Woolrich, said last year’s upbeat market caught the company and retailers by surprise. He said by Thanksgiving, stores were looking for reorders and Woolrich could not deliver.
“So this year, we’ve beefed up our projections, and bookings are 15 percent ahead of last year,” said Insley, who projected a 20 percent gain, once the season is done. “We’ve gone back to our archives and have resurrected some plaids from the early 1900s. By adding some pile trim and printed linings, we’ve given the jackets a modern twist and they’ve been selling strongly.”
Woolrich has gotten good reaction from pattern-weave outdoor-motif short wools, and stadium-length coats in fine-denier fabrics that resemble high-priced boiled wool.
“Casual is no longer a trend, it’s a lifestyle, and it’s always been the signature at New England Mackintosh,” said John Winters, president of the division of Biscayne Apparel. “Last season, after a five- or six-year drought, short wool business came on strong. We’ve expanded our mix of short wools from about half of the line to about 75 percent.”
Some early bestsellers are a hooded melton knee-length duffel coat, a short tweed barn jacket and a lime car coat.
Lou Levy & Sons continues to produce basic wools in its Donnybrook divisions in Russia and Ukraine, and plans to make several hundred units this year. Based on the strength of wool coats last season, the company is reintroducing Braefair wools, after dropping the label three years ago.
“We’re way ahead of last year, and we’re planning a 25 to 30 percent increase in 1997,” Neil Haimm said. “We’re in a good wool cycle now, and in Donnybrook, we’re sticking with classic wool coats in short and long lengths. We’ve developed a good chain store and moderate department store business, and that’s what they expect from us.”
Peacoats and wraps are the top silhouettes; camel, brown and teal augment the basic black business.
The Braefair line is better-priced and will feature some precious fiber blends and embroideries. Haimm projects a volume of $5 million for fall, based on early commitments from retailers. The coats will be produced in Eastern Europe and through Caribbean 807 sourcing.
Steve Blatt, principal of Searle Blatt Ltd., said the good wool cycle has at least another year in it. Precious fibers such as camel hair and cashmere were powerful last year, and signs are that will continue unabated.
“Peacoats have been great the last three years and were unbelievable last year, and based on what I’m seeing, peacoats have another year left in them,” Blatt said. “Unlike last year, the stores have come in early to place their orders. We’ve yet to sell a lot of long coats, but I’m pushing it because I think it’s right.”
Blatt said some specialty stores that hadn’t previously carried wool coats are adding the category next season.
Montreal-based Hilary Radley is off to a fast start with advance orders for fall, said Greg Howell, general merchandise manager of the division of American Utex, based here. Howell said stores have made some earlier-than-usual commitments, thanks to strong fall and spring business.
Howell said Radley is introducing a “buy now, wear now” merchandising scheme this fall to achieve better sell-throughs. The plan is to ship only short, lighter-weight coats in July and August, and long, heavier-weight styles for September and October.
In wool, this means unlined boiled wool short and three-quarter-length coats in the early delivery, and longer, lined boiled wools, wool and cashmere blends, alpaca and angora for the later shipment.