‘BLUE COLLAR’ LOOKS WORKING HARD TO LIFT OUTERWEAR DOLDRUMS
Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg
NEW YORK — A new proletarian chic is stimulating growth in an otherwise bleak outerwear market.
The Blue Collar jacket — inspired by firefighters, farmers, park rangers, lumberjacks and others — is an extension of the casual/active movement in outerwear, a trend that virtually kept the category alive this fall/winter.
High tech fabrics and insulators, usually reserved for performance activewear, are a strong selling point in this latest fusion of workwear and fashion.
While mainstream outerwear generally experienced a flat-to-subpar performance this season — mostly due to unseasonably warm weather in November, December and January — active outerwear with a rugged, casual twist boasted double-digit percentage gains for many merchants and vendors.
The workwear-as-outerwear trend surfaced more than two years ago in the form of barn jackets and policemen’s jackets.
Manufacturers and retailers say the category has staying power because it offers a combination of versatility, durability, warmth and value. Part of the category’s growth is also coming from women purchasing men’s coats.
Catalog houses have been particularly successful in marketing this type of outerwear.
Rugged, casual outerwear has been a bestseller at Lands’ End, the Dodgeville, Wis.-based mail-order firm, for the last four years, according to Jeff Werner, outerwear product manager.
A stonewashed canvas field coat at $69.50, a wool-lined mountain parka at $79.50, and a Thinsulate-lined parka at $119 were all top sellers this season.
While most retailers experienced a tough outerwear year, Lands’ End’s women’s outerwear sales increased by 30 percent, said Werner, even though it had only planned for the “typical Lands’ End conservative increase.”
“We’ve offered classic rugged outerwear for years, and now it’s in vogue,” he said.
Jackets with detachable hoods, large cargo pockets, water-repellent Teflon finishes and removable wool liners are hot commodities, he said.
L.L. Bean, a Portland, Maine-based retailer and mail-order house, introduced its rugged cotton canvas field coat in 1927, but the item remains a staple, said Pat Robles, product manager for women’s apparel.
One current version of the field coat features nylon and Thinsulate sleeves and a removable wool liner, retailing for $115. Other bestsellers include a washed cotton canvas duster coat with a removable wool liner at $125, a Primaloft polyester microfiber down-filled anorak with an interior zip pocket at $139, and a Supplex nylon anorak with Thinsulate lining at $79, she said.
“People are simplifying their lives by going back to basics. The children of baby boomers are older and an outdoor family lifestyle has re-emerged,” Robles said. “From an economic standpoint, a lot of people are still skittish. They want value and function.”
After posting “significant increases” for outerwear this past season, L.L. Bean expects continued gains through next fall, fueled by new looks such as a dry-wax cotton barn coat and a wool plaid jacket, she said.
At J. Crew, down-filled ski jackets and men’s outerwear are bestsellers among women, said Scott Fornby, vice president of women’s design. J. Crew’s four-in-one jacket for men at $228 — which can be worn as a complete parka, outer shell alone, zip-out jacket or vest — is one of the company’s key items for women. Light-weight down coats and multi-function styles make up the strongest area of outerwear, he said.
“First and foremost, these looks are very functional,” he said. “They’re easier to move in, and are not as cumbersome as a wool coat.”
At The J. Peterman Co., a Lexington, Ky.-based mail order and retail firm, a long duster coat that was such a hit with women influenced the company to introduce women’s outerwear in 1990, said Russ Gaitskill, senior vice president of merchandising. The company uses this coat as its signature style on labels and ads.
Last year, the company’s “owner’s manual” catalog was sent to one million consumers six times a year. Fall outerwear sales in 1994 were flat compared to the previous year, but holiday outerwear sales were 5 percent ahead of the same selling period in 1993, he said.
“Outerwear isn’t taken in and out of our book based on the whims of fashion,” he said. “It’s not the standard Seventh Avenue business.”
Outerwear accounts for 7 percent of the company’s annual sales, Gaitskill said. Circulation increased by 10 percent last year and is expected to exceed that this year, he added.
Annual sales at Patagonia should reach $137 million — a $15 million gain — for the year ending April 30, according to a company spokesman.
In the past three years, Patagonia’s outerwear business has increased significantly, he said. Since most coats are available in unisex styles, the spokesman said it’s difficult to determine women’s sales.
A lightweight polyester water-resistant pullover jacket at $130, a zipper-front jacket with layers of nylon, Gortex and tricot at $325, and a thigh-length insulated parka at $300 are popular among women, he said.
Rugged workwear sales at Woolrich increased by 20 percent in 1994 and they expect to match that gain this year, said Richard Insley, vice president of merchandising.
Woolrich has not experienced such a sales surge in rugged workwear looks in at least 15 years, he said.
“We’re not doing many things different from a product standpoint,” he said. “This is bigger than it’s ever been. It’s more about lifestyle changes than fashion.”
A zip-front goose-down parka — a bestseller from 10 years ago — should regain that status for fall 1995, said Insley, adding that “parkas are real strong, especially in urban areas.”
A wool plaid lumberjack jacket with a sherpa pile lining at $105, and a cotton and nylon shell parka with a wool lining at $105 are other bestsellers. New looks such as a cotton canvas work jacket with a button-out wool lining at $125 and a cotton canvas jean jacket also with a button-out wool lining at $135, should be top performers at retail, he said.
“Activewear has gone south a bit,” Insley said. “But a lot of retailers are looking for apparel to complement all the hiking boots and rugged looks they’re selling.”
This fall, Columbia Sportswear Company will introduce snowboard outerwear called Convert Board Apparel. Last year, a similar line for men generated $7 million in sales, according to a company spokeswoman.
A few versions of Columbia’s three-jackets-in-one — featuring detachable parts — will be available in the snowboard line and are expected to be top performers at retail, she said. Roomy enough for layering, styles are available in Rhino Skin II, a nylon canvas with a water-repellent finish, and Cyber Hyde, a high-tenacity nylon with a water-repellent finish.
Tri-Equity Trading, which manufactures firefighter-inspired outerwear under its Fire Company 16 label, expects U.S. sales to hit $500,000 this year — doubling 1994 volume, said Eddie Yousefzai, chief executive officer.
Lined with Thinsulate and buckled with authentic steel closures, the water-repellent garments have been bestsellers in Europe for seven years, he said. Fire Company 16 began distributing its outerwear here two years ago.
The 13-piece collection, which wholesales for $115 to $220, is sold at stores such as Henri Bendel and Saks Fifth Avenue.
“Our coats are functional in cold weather, practical and durable, and that’s a new concept,” Yousefzai said. “In Europe, anything made in the USA is big. I didn’t think the business would take off like that here, but it did.”
In an effort to expand the product’s appeal, polyester microfiber, leather, rayon satin and more vinyl styles will be added to the line next year, he said.
Having doubled its fall outerwear offerings since last year, Trail Designs is planning for a 35 percent increase, according to Richard Holcombe, president of Amerex Outdoors, its parent company.
Wholesaling for $20 for a canvas vest to $52.50 for a down-filled parka, Holcombe said Trail Designs has catered to sports specialty stores since its inception two years ago, but now the company is receiving a growing number of inquiries from department stores.
Sales at Van Buren Inc., a Sun Valley, Calif.-based sportswear and outerwear manufacturer, increased by 5 percent when the company introduced outerwear last fall, said Maggy Barry, designer.
Looks such as a fitted firefighter jacket with metallic stripes at $160 and a cropped cotton, nylon and Lycra spandex jacket with a detachable backpack and pockets at $140 were key items.
“The coats have a workwear feel but it doesn’t look like men’s construction wear,” she said. “We give them function but not with the casual vibe. Pockets make it very functional.”