COATS FINALLY COME ALIVE

Byline: Arthur Friedman

NEW YORK — The outerwear season is turning out better than expected, and vendors are looking for an even brighter picture in 1996.
Makers report that after a slow start, outerwear sales kicked into high gear in the fourth quarter — something that didn’t happen last year — and they’re expecting to finish the season on the plus side. If the Northeast, Midwest and Northwest — the key regions for outerwear — have at least a normal winter, wholesalers are eyeing a boom in 1996.
A surprising development, executives noted, is that more purchasing is being done at higher price points, which may indicate that consumer price pressures are easing. This bodes well for big-ticket investment items like coats, which have been stung by the consumer’s heavy emphasis on price the past year or so.
Here’s the consensus on how the key outerwear categories have performed this year:
* Wools have been the big winner — from short, casual looks to long, dressy styles — in moderate to designer.
* Active outerwear continues to have strong appeal, especially new looks in microfibers and nylons.
* Shearlings, suedes and fleece are getting more attention as rugged, casual alternatives.
* Leather has been OK, but highly promotional.
* Rainwear shows some signs of life, but still remains difficult.
Morris Goldfarb, chairman of G-III Apparel Group, said this year has been a transitional one for his firm — better than last year’s dismal performance, but not as good as he thinks it will be next year. He said the firm’s J.L. Colebrook and Siena Studio lines have been top performers.
“We’ve controlled our inventories better, and we’re pleased with our private label development,” Goldfarb said. “The department store business has been the highlight of the season, while off-price has been problematic.”
Goldfarb said G-III is revamping its sales approach to focus more on product development and merchandising with stores. A bright spot, Goldfarb said, was that stores invested in quality this year, with the average price up about 30 percent from last year.
G-III hopes to get a big reaction to its latest outerwear venture, Polar Bear, which was unveiled last week. The line has been marketed in Europe since 1989. It is produced by Berg House, a division of Coats Viyella, which is headquartered in London. Berg House is based in Amsterdam.
G-III will have exclusive distribution rights for Polar Bear in the U.S. and will launch the line this month for next fall. Goldfarb said the agreement with Berg House includes all of its labels, which G-III plans to market here in the next few years. The line will wholesale for under $100.
Designers Gef Vanes and Co Schuurman use Italian fleece as the base for the active outerwear, combining it with nylon and polyurethane. Styles include insulated vests and pullovers, zip-front pantcoats, reversible styles and stadium jackets, adorned with the Polar Bear name and image.
Gerald Solomon, president of Fairbrooke Enterprises, which makes the licensed Calvin Klein and Perry Ellis coat lines and the Drizzle rainwear collection, said this season has gone surprisingly well after a tough 1994.
“Our Calvin Klein business has been outstanding in short peacoats and long, classic coats,” Solomon said. “The Perry Ellis outerwear has been strong, and we’ve done a nice business in Drizzle with pile liners. We’ve had consistent business since August and have gotten a lot of reorders.”
Solomon said a good omen is that stores are selling outerwear that’s priced “well above their normal merchandise level.”
“With that, it’s still hard to make any money because margins are still being squeezed,” Solomon said. “However, if we finish strong, it should provide some good momentum for next year.”
Steve Blatt, president of Searle, said that after a slow start, business came on strong in November. However, the next few weeks will be key in determining the season’s overall performance.
Cashmere and wool blend coats with fur trim have been selling well, Blatt said, as have shearlings and pig suedes, which are often called fake shearlings. He agreed that higher-ticket, better-quality coats have been out-performing lower-priced styles.
“Wool coats have been strong all year across the board — long and short, casual and dressy,” Blatt said. “I’m feeling a lot better than last year. The stores have a lot cleaner inventory situation than last year. If January and February are good and cold with a little snow, there should be good momentum for next year.”
The Donnybrook division of Lou Levy & Sons Fashions had another good year with its wool coat import program from the Ukraine, said Neil Haimm, president of the division.
He said early-season worries turned into smiles in November, when business picked up dramatically.
“It’s amazing, but we fell right into a groove, and the last six weeks have been sensational,” Haimm said. “We’ve depleted leftover inventory and are slightly ahead with current merchandise.”
Donnybrook’s Ukraine coats have sold in a variety of styles, including short and long looks with fake fur trim.
Josh Lipman, president of Cuddlecoat, which makes the licensed Christian Dior coat collection as well as its own label, said the cold weather in November made the company look “real smart.”
“We had a record November and December looks promising,” he added.
While a promotional atmosphere still prevails in stores, Lipman said it has been no worse than last year, and there has been a fair amount of value-oriented purchasing, where high-quality merchandise sells at or near its original price.
Leading the way for Dior have been precious fiber and better wool coats, which have scored in classic long reefers and trenches and trendy short coats with animal print trims.
Lipman said an “enormous boost” came from the Dior coat shop in Bloomingdale’s flagship here. It is part of the store’s move to segment its coat lines into soft shops for specific labels, which are now on the second floor of the 59th Street store. The coat department had been on the third floor.
Ted Goldsmith, principal of Bromley Coats, said momentum in active outerwear has been “incredible,” and the category has yet to peak.
“We keep renewing it with new fabrics, like moss microfiber, and different colors for each delivery, and it keeps selling,” he said, “even on warm-weather days.”
Goldsmith said business this year has been “off the charts,” crediting casual lifestyle and dress-down days at offices. He added that as with other areas of ready-to-wear, commodities are soft, and special effects, like brass buttons, real fur and fake fur animal prints, are important.
He said he is planning significant increases for active outerwear and rainwear, while wool is planned even.
New polyester microfibers that have “the feel of old Ultrasuede, but at a price for more volume,” are moving well, and velvet was “a magic word” for 1995. In his licensed Anne Klein business, precious fibers such as cashmere were strong sellers and should continue.
Bromley produces the Anne Klein, Anne Klein II and Evan-Picone lines under license and a signature Bromley collection. After the end of this year, it is dropping its J.G. Hook license, which it held for about 12 years, Goldsmith said.
“We were going in two different directions,” he explained. “Hook was going more moderate, while we were going more upscale. So we are building our remaining lines.”
At Woolrich, checkouts have been strong on a new line of fleece and pile jackets and coats, while wool has been much better than expected, said Al Zindel, executive vice president.
Zindel agreed that a slow start had the company worried, but the November surge cleaned out old inventories for retailers.
“Since we produce the fabrics ourselves, we’ve been able to fill a lot of reorders,” he said. “We’ve been previewing next fall with some of our major accounts, and they tell us they’ve been burned by private label and are looking to do more branded business. We also do a lot of business with sporting goods stores, and they’re having a good season. So, we’re very positive about next year.”

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