CAUGHT IN A CLIMATIC CONUNDRUM

Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK — Practicality will be the big push for coat makers this spring — in styling and planning.
Hammered by this fall’s dismal business — brought on by the cool economy and unseasonably warm temperatures — vendors are hopeful that some volume will be made up in the late Christmas rush and throughout the January clearance sales.
However, a season of big profits is all but lost. So, all outerwear executives can do is react to the times and plan business down and play up versatile styles — detachable linings and multifunctional, lightweight fabrics — starting with the spring collections.
But even if the economy starts to turn around by the second quarter, coat makers know the season only accounts for 10 to 15 percent of annual sales. It’s the fall-winter business that troubles coat makers most, as climactic conditions continue to impact their business.
Adding to vendor worries, sportswear firms and catalog houses such as L.L. Bean, Eddie Bauer and Lands’ End continue to go after market share in the category with lightweight jackets for their brand-conscious shoppers.
Ted Goldsmith, executive vice president of Herman Kay Bromley, said: “When you compare this year to last year, which was nirvana, it’s like going from the North Pole to the South Pole. Everyone is being very conservative and watching the business from week to week.”
Herman Kay, the maker of the proprietary Herman Kay, Bromley and Jason Kole lines, and the licensed Anne Klein, Anne Klein 2 and Albert Nipon labels, has seen stellar sell-through on select early spring styles. However, the company has refrained from producing more of those items for fear that retailers would still be bogged down with winter goods in the early part of the year, Goldsmith said.
“Stores are in liquidation mode,” he said. “They’re not aggressively planning and spending. Even if we do some business, it will be residual. Stores don’t lend themselves for a healthy spring business or the opportunity for business. Right now, they would rather pass on [reorder] business than carry too much.”
During these trying times, it is essential to examine what consumers are buying and how much they spend, and then be “ever mindful” of that with future designs, said Jeanette Nostra, president of G-III Apparel Group. Shoppers are favoring practical, comfortable clothes and shying away from luxury items, she said.
G-III, which makes Cole-Haan, Jones New York wool coats, Kenneth Cole, Nine West and Sienna Studio outerwear, plans to go ahead with spring advertising, since “difficult times are the time to be aggressive to drive bookings,” Nostra said. Each brand is also heavy on practical elements like zip-out linings and Thinsulate.
Department stores, in particular, have been hit hard by this fall’s sluggish sales and, in many cases, have scaled back spring orders. While no tier is doing great, specialty stores are doing OK and mass market and mid-tier stores are faring the best, Nostra said. Given that, flat sales for spring is “as good as it’s going to get,” she said.
For the first time in five years, Woolrich is getting into spring outerwear as part of its plan to maintain retail floor space on a year-round basis. The 10-piece collection consists of reversible jackets, microfleece items and rainwear.
After emerging from Chapter 11 earlier this year, which enabled it to shed most of its troublesome retail division, London Fall Industries plans for 10 percent gains for spring and is back into advertising with a younger image. LFI’s Pacific Trail unit acquired Moonstone outerwear and Roffe skiwear from the Gerry Group in August.
Lederle Eberhardt, senior merchandise manager for Woolrich, said: “We’re not doing this to increase business. As an outerwear manufacturer, we wanted to give validity to our brand and we didn’t want to lose our fall floor space.”
Ira Schwartz, chief executive officer of Free Country, said when the thermometer reads 60 degrees in December, coat departments are not prime destinations for shoppers, he added.
Free Country will continue to focus on transitional styles such as microsuede coats, fleece-bonded sherpa and active outerwear with zippered linings. The latter is a strong point in spring business, especially nylon or polyester styles with colorblocking, Schwartz said.
Bernard Holtzman, president and head designer for Harve Benard, said the trick to outerwear is to focus on innovation, especially since coats are one of the last things that retailers haven’t effectively tackled with their private label programs.
Despite plans to finish this year 17 percent ahead of last year, Holtzman said spring sales should be flat, due to excess inventories stores will have. Devoting 40 percent of his fall collection to lightweight options and working with specialty stores have helped sales. Department stores, on the other hand, have been forced to mark down heavily.
For his brand, he’s counting on 40-inch raincoats and nontraditional, sporty style coats to drive spring business. That diversity is why retailers have not tried to rework their spring orders with the brand, he said.
Donald Levy, president of The Levy Group, described business as better than anticipated given the economic conditions. Fall sell-through rates have been around 10 percent per week, five percentage points shy of the average minimum, he said. The firm produces the licensed Liz Claiborne Coats, Dana Buchman and Esprit outerwear lines, as well as its own Donnybrook and Braetan coat collections.
“Business is not good, but it’s not a disaster either. It’s an item-driven business,” Levy said. “Once the weather turns, it should pick up.”
To shorten lead times by several weeks, the Levy Group is doing more sourcing from China and Vietnam to be closer to its manufacturing in Korea. The company used to handle a lot of production from the Ukraine, but still does some there.
Like several others, Donna Karan Coats, a division of Fairbrooke Enterprises, is dealing with buyers who are planning spring business to be flat.
The brand is pushing Teflon-finished bistretch coats with notch collars or deep V-necks and sleek black raincoats, said Lauren Davidoff, assistant account executive. Interest in trench coats, leather jackets and luxury styles has fallen off, but white is still hot, she said.
The spring collection is “slimmed down” to simplify buying decisions for shoppers and buyers. Davidoff said: “We need the consumer to say, ‘I need this coat,’ instead of, ‘I can get by with what I have.”‘
European lines have made headway in the U.S. in recent years and continue to sharpen their approach.
For the first time, Cinzia Rocca, an Italian label, will be running a spring print campaign in the U.S. to remind customers that the brand can be found through the year, said Jennifer Duca, director of sales.
Romasport, also is trying to increase its presence in the U.S. The company has opened a 2,000-square-foot showroom at 214 West 39th Street to showcase its sporty, colorful spring line. Spring sales are expected to account for 40 percent of annual sales — well above its usual rate of 10 or 15 percent, said Joni Wilkins, vice president.
On the whole, Romasport is planning sales to reach $4 million to $5 million next year, a 30 percent gain, Wilkins said.

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