Byline: Arthur Friedman

NEW YORK — It was another slam-dunk season for outerwear.
Following five years that were lean and mean, the category registered its second sizzling fall/winter in succession — and it did it in stores ranging from Bergdorf’s to Sears.
From luxurious cashmere coats to moderate-priced microfiber anoraks, it was an across-the-board sweep that retailers were talking about last week. The average gain at most stores was 10 percent, with improved margins over last year.
The reasons for the surge varied. They included:
Cold temperatures that inspired buying, without the massive snowstorms that keep people home.
The tax-abatement period in New York State, where sales tax on most clothing and footwear under $500 was not charged for one week in January.
The general boom in luxury goods that extended to luxe coats. If there were any disappointments, they came in leather coats and rainwear, both of which turned in spotty performances.
New colors and silhouettes in woolen coats and the continued strength of active outerwear.
“It was a super outerwear season,” said Monroe Milstein, president of Burlington Coat Factory. “It’s been incredible all the way through the season, and I don’t know when it’s going to stop. In New York State, the tax-abatement week held in January helped stores tremendously.
“There was a big resurgence in wools, both long and short, after two tough years. Active outerwear continued its strong performance, and rainwear came back strong. The weather helped this year, with enough cold spells to spur business, without the major snowstorms of last year that made it tough to shop.”
Joseph Boitano, senior vice president and general merchandise manager at Bergdorf Goodman, said: “We had a very successful and profitable outerwear season driven by luxury. We had an incredible performance from fur-trim cashmeres and a good performance from shearling.”
Boitano said precious fiber coats were primarily long, sweeping silhouettes, with brown augmenting the traditional black. He cited Calvin Klein Coats as a top label in cashmere.
Linda Maynard, vice president and general merchandise manager at Jacobson Stores, said the outerwear season started off with a bang, slowed in the middle, and finished strong in December and January. Maynard said Jacobson’s overall outerwear business saw high single-digit gains.
“Long wools were a pleasant surprise,” she said. “The customer looked in her closet and saw her old wool coat and said it was time to buy a new one.”
Leading the way were classic reefers and full swings, notably from Steve, Searle Studio, Calvin Klein Coats and Anne Klein II Coats.
“Camel hair coats were strong all season, particularly from Fleurette of California, and there was a late demand for cashmere for December gift-giving,” Maynard said. “We also sold our share of peacoats and three-quarter swings.”
Active outerwear scored a 15-percent gain over the previous season. Top labels were Bromley, Gallery and Andrew Marc.
“The big surprise was rainwear, where we were 20 percent over plan,” Maynard said. “Microfibers and wool gabardine were both very strong, particularly from Jones New York.”
Leathers were somewhat disappointing, Maynard said, noting “We didn’t make our figures for the year.” The problem was a slow start that didn’t get going until December, when Jacobson’s had a “very strong finish.” Top sellers included better lambskins in long silhouettes, with fake or real fur trim, and short blousons.
Polar Fleece outerwear and fake furs were also off plan, Maynard noted.
Neiman Marcus was “substantially ahead” of last year in outerwear, said Ralph Romberg, vice president and divisional merchandise manager for outerwear.
“It started early, there was an unfortunate blip in early December that was felt all over apparel, and it finished very strong,” Romberg said.
Top-performing categories for Neiman’s were precious fiber coats, particularly cashmere and camel hair in long, slightly fitted silhouettes, and the store’s designer-label wool coat department. Skiwear jackets also showed increased popularity, Romberg said, in hot colors and color-block combinations.
“The ski merchandise has a look that women like wearing around the suburbs,” Romberg said. “I think TV has a huge influence on this sort of styling. People want to look like the athletes they see. They’re also functional and fun, and that’s what’s needed in fashion.”
Fitting that same bill were fake furs, especially in animal prints, Romberg noted.
On the down side, rainwear remains difficult, Romberg said, with the category recording flat figures this year. There was some good action in microfibers with fake-fur lining, but Romberg said, “In general there’s a need for more fashion. The rainwear market has got to give women a reason to want to buy. That’s why active outerwear has had a good run and why wools have seen renewed interest.”
“The season was incredible for us,” said a spokeswoman for Sears, Roebuck & Co. She said outerwear had “strong double-digit growth” through December. “Outerwear as an overall category did tremendously well, with leather one of the key areas.”
Lavelle Olexa, senior vice president for fashion merchandising at Lord & Taylor, said it was a strong season for all coat categories, particularly active outerwear.
“We did well in untrimmed and fur-trimmed anoraks and blousons,” Olexa said. “Color had a major impact with brights and pastels, and we expect that to continue for spring outerwear as well. We had a great season from Larry Levine and Bromley.”
Olexa noted that microfiber rainwear and precious fiber blends were also top sellers.
Jeff Larkin, all-weather coat buyer for Carson Pirie Scott & Co., also said outerwear as a whole had a “very good season.”
The top category was fur-trimmed microfiber jackets, with Thermoloft or Thinsulate linings, from resources such as Bromley, Forecaster and New England Mackintosh. There was also good action in full-length microfiber and silk insulated coats, which were housed in rainwear departments during the fourth quarter for the first time.
Better leathers also scored well in branded and private label blousons and anoraks, as well as fur-trimmed styles.
Most retailers were hesitant to say whether they feel the momentum will continue into next year. They know how dependent the business is on weather patterns and are wary of making predictions.
What many of them are able to agree on, however, is that things are a whole lot better now than they were just a couple of years ago.
As Burlington Coat’s Milstein put it: “Coat business is back where it should be.”