WARM WINTERS FUEL CREATIVITY

Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK — Praying for snow just doesn’t cut it anymore.
After one of the worst seasons ever this past fall and winter, coat firms are looking for ways to renew interest in their beleaguered category, which has been plagued by changing weather patterns that have brought calmer weather to key regions, such as the Northeast and Midwest, in the last decade or so.
Consumer disinterest in outerwear, created by the warmest year ever recorded in the U.S., the unsteady economy and the ongoing war against terrorism led to a 14 percent decline in 2001 women’s outerwear sales at $4.3 billion compared to 2000 sales, according to market research firm NPD Group.
So, outerwear vendors are planning the third and fourth quarters with a variety of strategies, including:
Updating advertising.
Freshening up their collections with more youthful styles.
Keying into items like shearling coats that bucked the trend and performed well last year.
Yes, still hoping for snow in November.
But typifying the attitude heading into fall is London Fog Industries, which is taking a conservative approach. Sales are expected to be flat compared to last year, with stores holding out on fourth-quarter commitments, waiting to see if the economic and weather patterns turn around, said Paul Shriber, president of wholesale operations.
To try to rev up business, London Fog will launch a national advertising campaign in the September and October issues of women’s magazines, and will run them through the holiday season. The company shot the campaign overseas, in locations it will not yet disclose, and is spending “significantly more” than it has in the past two years, Shriber said. Images from the ad campaign will also appear on hang tags. London Fog hopes the new marketing efforts will help to attract more customers in the 30 to 40 age range.
Now in its 80th year, London Fog is looking to build on its reputation for being innovative. The brand is considering introducing women’s outerwear made of Gore-Tex and 3M Thinsulate, as it did last fall for men, Shriber said.
Herman Kay’s executive vice president, Ted Goldsmith, said the firm is planning a slight uptick in sales, provided there is a “decent break in the weather.”
Last fall, many customers held off on buying a coat and then passed altogether when the thermometer rarely dropped below freezing. Goldsmith said store management is not assuming the weather will be colder and is demanding that manufacturers give their consumers an enticement to buy.
Given that, Herman Kay is going after a broader audience beyond baby boomers with textured or printed suedes that appeal to women as young as 25 in its Jason Kole, Anne Klein and Bromley lines. The company also produces wool coats under the Anne Klein New York, London Fog and Herman Kay labels. Another objective is to offer new items — instead of rehashing last year’s line — geared for customers who previously bought more mature and conservative merchandise, Goldsmith said.
“The industry had a difficult year, but we didn’t get killed,” he said. “We did better than expected, given the conditions. We were cautious in our planning and made some adjustments along the way.”
But Goldsmith is not banking on the flood of coats shown on designer runways to drum up outerwear sales.
“I don’t feel the runways have a major effect,” he said. “We sell to the vast population of America. It’s not like years ago when the fashion industry established the trends. Now the trends come from the streets.”
Despite the category’s woes, there are some new players joining the scene this year, including established brands Lee and Dana Buchman, and newcomers Tryst and Pasha & Jo.
In its ongoing effort to try to make consumers think of Lee as more of a lifestyle brand, the VF Corp. brand is rounding out its offerings through a three-year outerwear license with Comint Apparel Group. The collection of leathers, distressed skins, cloth and denim coats will ship to Sears, J.C. Penny, Kohl’s and other midtier stores in July. The 100-piece line will retail from $60 to $150.
“Everyone wants some piece of outerwear to go with their denim,” said Liz Horner, director of advertising. “It’s a great extension to our brand.”
Extending their relationship, Liz Claiborne Inc. has signed a licensing deal with the Levy Group to produce a collection of coats carrying the Dana Buchman label. The line is being unveiled next week at the Levy Group’s showroom.
Levy already produces Liz Claiborne Coats under license, as well as outerwear for the firm’s Elisabeth large-size line.
Joni Wilkins, vice president of the new labels Tryst, Pasha & Jo, and more established ones French Coat and Ramosport, said, “Everyone is looking for something new and fresh. There’s been a sea of black leather out there for the past three years.”
Tryst and Pasha & Jo are expected to ring up $4 million in first-season wholesale volume once they bow in Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s and other specialty stores this fall, Wilkins said. Both lines are being shown at the Ramosport showroom at 214 West 39th Street in New York.
Tryst is shearling-driven with wholesale prices ranging from $750 to $1,175. A long-hair denim shearling with toscana fur at $840 and a leather motorcycle jacket that reverses to denim at $250 are two key fall items, Wilkins said.
Leathers and suedes are the focus in the Pasha & Jo line, which wholesales between $155 and $340. Pleated jackets with tie waists and suede jackets with contrast top stitching are among the offerings.
Buyers are looking for coats to distinguish their stores from competitors, but they must be “appealing and salable” items, she said. “My Bloomingdale’s buyer told me that when I told her I was launching these two lines, she rolled her eyes and thought to herself, ‘Gosh, another shearling line.”‘
But Wilkins said, after seeing both lines, Bloomingdale’s committed to orders. The retailer confirmed its plans.
Shearling is also a focus for Cole-Haan, which launched outerwear last fall and is produced under license by G-III Apparel Group. The company is serving up a host of styles, including a lightweight full-length shearling, a reversible three-quarter-length shearling coat and a short shearling jacket. Fall bookings in the “couple hundred” doors that carry Cole-Haan outerwear are 50 percent ahead of last fall, said Matt Rubel, chairman and chief executive officer.
A full-length cashmere wrap coat with fox trim is one of the season’s big sellers, according to Gordon Thompson, executive vice president and creative director. During a presentation last week of the brand’s fall coats, accessories and footwear, Thompson said, “We want people to know that we’re not just a shoe company any more.”

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