Byline: Arthur Friedman, New York / Rusty Williamson, Dallas / Teena Hammond, Los Angeles

NEW YORK — It’s early, but so far, so good for fall outerwear.
Setting the pace in the initial selling period are luxury fabric coats such as cashmere, camel hair and better wools, often trimmed with fur, according to a national check of stores.
Outerwear seems strong across the board, said retailers, citing good selling of casual leathers, wools and active outerwear, as well. Executives point out the bulk of the outerwear business will come in the fourth quarter, when the overall economy and weather patterns are always determining factors in the category’s performance.
“We’re liking the whole coat market this year and feel confident that the trends will continue to build through the cold weather,” said Beverly Rice, senior vice president of fashion and merchandising strategy at Jacobson Stores, Jackson, Mich.
“I take my hat off to the coat market,” said Rice. “They’ve sharpened their pencils and created great looks. Outerwear started selling early in 90-degree temperatures, and we’re nicely ahead of last year.”
Rice said the selling has been led by precious-fiber coats such as cashmere, alpaca and camel hair in “classical updated silhouettes.” Key resources in the category have been Searle and Fleurette.
“Another area that’s really caught on, even in the hot weather, is fur-trim wool coats in fox and mink,” Rice said. “We’ve also had good selling on faux fur coats, particularly light colors like snow leopard.”
Rice said Jacobson’s fall book that was mailed to consumers Sept. 4 has generated strong reaction to coats. She’s looking for leather outerwear to hit its stride in coming weeks, notably jackets and fingertip-length coats in casual, sporty bodies.
Active outerwear such as parkas with fake fur trim and pastel ski jackets have been up to snuff, and Rice feels this category will gain strength throughout the fourth quarter.
An early indication in leather is evidenced by good action in the category from designer sportswear collections such as Donna Karan and Lauren by Ralph Lauren, Rice added. This is also true in two Los Angeles boutiques, where outerwear from designer collections has been scoring well.
The demand for novelty outerwear is pushing early fall sales at the Shauna Stein boutique in Los Angeles. Fake fur has done especially well, said Shauna Stein, who owns the boutique and another one in Las Vegas. Top labels include Roberto Cavelli, Dolce & Gabbana and Future Ozbek.
The store received four of Dolce & Gabbana’s leopard fake fur coats and sold them in three days. Cavelli’s knee-length suede coat also sold quickly, along with his long knit coat with Mongolian lamb trim.
“Those are the types of emotional purchases that are bought very early,” Stein said. “They aren’t bought because someone is cold.”
Traffic is having luck with early fall outerwear sales. Fur trims are big at the Los Angeles boutique, and a Jean Colona three-quarter-length vinyl coat with a fake Mongolian lamb trim is selling out, said Carl Dias, women’s buyer. Another big label is Sui by Anna Sui.
“All her coats have done very well, like her long purple maxicoat with faux fur trim on the collar and cuffs,” Dias said.
Back in the mainstream, Monroe Milstein, president and chief executive officer at Burlington Coat Factory here, said sales are outpacing last year’s. He said business started churning the last week of August and has continued unabated.
Leading the way have been wool peacoats, active outerwear and leather, which has done better than expected, he noted.
“If the weather doesn’t turn too warm, the momentum should continue,” Milstein said. “The high-end fashion coats have been strong early on, while the more basic, less expensive coats usually get hot a little later.”
Gottschalks is posting strong sales in London Fog and Pacific Trail jackets, said Danny Greenberg, the retailer’s divisional merchandise manager.
London Fog’s fleece jacket, which retails for $69.99, comes in a box and is seeing “extremely strong early sell-throughs,” Greenberg said. The line’s zip-out activewear jackets are also popular, he said.
Outerwear sales are up 20 percent at the Fresno, Calif.-based chain, and are expected to stay strong throughout the fourth quarter, he said. Leather sales, meanwhile, have been sluggish, although the chain is expecting sales in the category to pick up in time for holiday gift giving.
An early winner has been Gallery rainwear, which is already on reorder after only six weeks in stock. The coats are in fabrics such as microfiber and come in novelty silhouettes, Greenberg said.
At Lord & Taylor here, the season generally has “gotten off to a slow start,” particularly for leathers and active looks, said Lavelle Olexa, senior vice president for fashion merchandising.
But some areas are showing strength, notably casual, lightweight items such as berber and polyester fleece jackets and wool peacoats and barn jackets, said Olexa, citing Gallery, Forecaster, Larry Levine and Jones New York as top labels. Luxury looks have been performing well, Olexa said, noting strong sales during an in-store event by Searle on Sept. 20.
Looking at the fourth quarter, Olexa expects good action from knee-length coats, which are being carried along by the pants craze, and camel coats — both the color and the camel hair fabric.
At Carson Pirie Scott & Co., Milwaukee, belted wool coats in long and short styles are early fall bestsellers, said Claudette Wollner, wool coat buyer. Top vendors include Forecaster of Boston and Jones New York.
“Short is important because you can get more looks for the dollar,” she said. “Pants or skirts will go with the short styles. In long versions, classic updated styling is important. The coats are a little more fitted than in the past.”
More casual coats such as barn jackets and hooded duffels are also top sellers, said Wollner, citing vendors such as Halston Coats and Bromley. Carson’s wool coat category is ahead by double digits against a year ago.
Neiman Marcus in Dallas has had strong action in casual outerwear, leather, wool and fur-trimmed coats, according to Ralph Romberg, vice president and divisional merchandise manager for coats and furs.
“Texture is also selling well — things with a bit of a rougher edge,” said Romberg, noting overall strength in Neiman’s coat business.

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