COAT VENDORS THRILLED BY THE CHILL

Byline: Leonard McCants / Julee Greenberg

NEW YORK — They finally caught a break from the weather, and now outerwear firms are trying to figure out how to repeat their best performance in years.
For several years since the snowy winter of ’96, coat makers have bemoaned climactic conditions like El Nino, La Nina and global warming, as warmer-than-usual fall and winter temperatures in the key Northeast, Midwest and Northwest regions put consumers in an outerwear-buying stupor.
This year, the weather in these areas has been much cooler and snowier, and shoppers responded with brisk buying across price and style categories.
“It was a record-breaking year,” said Donald Levy, president of the Levy Group. “In fact, it was the best year in our 60 years of business.”
Ira Ganger, president of Amerex Group, echoed this: “I don’t think there’s anyone who didn’t have a good year.”
With several consecutive seasons of warm winters they would rather forget, coat vendors have been forced to make outerwear that is fashionable as well as functional to pique consumer interest.
In an effort to capitalize on the success of this season and reduce their dependence on the weather, outerwear makers have been focusing on more transitional fabrics like microfibers, reversible fleece, sherpa and leather. At the same time, they’re moving away from polyester fiber-filled or down-filled garments.
Meanwhile, the success is leading vendors to increase advertising spending, investing in new production and sourcing centers, while furthering industry consolidation through acquisitions and mergers.
For London Fog, which expects to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the first quarter, the focus is on repositioning the brand for a more fashionable customer, said Paul Shriber, president.
To that end, London Fog introduced microfiber variants of their classic trenches and raincoats and redesigned them with a more tailored shape.
The industry as a whole has been concentrating on fashionable styles in recent seasons to entice consumers, which Donald Levy, president of the Levy Group, said will “propel the business in 2001.” If the weather cooperates, he added, “you have a double-win situation.”
Driving the Levy Group for next fall will be fleece bonded to sherpa, wet silks, down-filled jackets and leather.
Moreover, the company, which produces Liz Claiborne Coats under license, its own Donnybrooke and Braetan labels and private label outerwear, has increased its investments in sourcing over the last three years by opening production offices in the Ukraine, China and Korea.
Levy will also increase its co-operative advertising with Liz Claiborne and is in negotiations to expand its portfolio of national brands.
At Harve Benard, 2001 will bring a move away from wool and wool blend coats to luxury fabrics like alpaca and cashmere.
“We’re moving away from basics and taking it to the next level, which is more cutting-edge fashions, more precious fibers, new trims and hooded jackets,” said Morty Holtzman, principal at Harve Benard with his brother, Benard.
The company is also focusing on tweeds and Holtzman reports that bookings for fall 2001 are “at 40 percent” so far.
“It’s been the best coat year in the last 10 years,” he said.
It’s about time that the weather cooperated with the industry, said Amerex’s Ganger.
“We’re entitled to one good year after 10 years,” he said.
The maker of Jones New York active outerwear and rainwear, 1 Madison, Amerex and Static has begun to shift its focus to third-quarter coats when the weather is warmer than the usually colder fourth-quarter months.
That move is intended to make the vendor less susceptible to weather variations during December through February.
To that end, they are inching away from down and poly-filled jackets in favor of suede to sherpa and corduroy to sherpa looks.
One major winner of the season was the leather business. North Beach Leather, the San Francisco-based manufacturer and retailer, reported “double-digit gains” for fall 2000, according to Mary Frier, director of merchandising and production, on the back of the strong performance of their core basics.
For next year, those styles will continue, but will evolve with new colors and trims.
“We look at why a certain product worked, but change some detail so it becomes new and fresh,” Frier said.
They plan to continue with fur-trimmed jackets and introduce longer coats and variations on brown, which was a strong seller this season, in colors like chestnut, caramel and honey.
While some economists are predicting a cooling of the economy later this year, Michael Hoban, principal, remains bullish on 2001.
“I don’t follow that kind of thinking,” he said. “We just keep plowing ahead, and we’re up 25 percent for fall 2001 already.”
With a successful fall season behind them, Todd Yates, vice president of sales and product design at Woolrich, said the company has several programs in the works in order to ensure a repeat season.
“We have reworked the fit for women,” he said, explaining that the company has moved away from the boxy fit and into a more tailored, active fit and added more color.
Yates said, to date, fall 2001 bookings are more than double last year.
Also happy about the current success of the outerwear business are Barry and Richard Kay, co-presidents at Herman Kay Bromley, which makes licensed lines for Anne Klein, Anne Klein 2 and Albert Nipon, plus outerwear under the Jason Cole and Bromley labels.
“Fall 2000 was just excellent,” Barry Kay said. “It was literally the best coat season in five years.”
The Kays expect next year to record strong bookings, as well.
“Buyers seem to be more receptive to outerwear than they were,” Richard Kay said.
In order to see continuing success in the future, Barry Kay said, “We must put out new fashions, new styling and carry the product out early to see how the customer reacts.”
Jeanette Nostra, president of G-III, which holds the outerwear license for such brands as Cole-Haan, Kenneth Cole and Nine West, said she is optimistic about the seasons ahead coming off of a successful fall 2000 season, with extraordinarily positive showings in the wool and leather categories.
“Outerwear withstood all the problems at retail this season,” she said. “And I think it’s because we are not giving the consumer the same thing year after year. We are adding more color, more twists, more fashion.”
G-III has already begun to expand by acquiring the licenses for Jones New York and JNY women’s wool outerwear under a three-year contract signed last week. The company has also agreed to purchase other assets from Gloria Gay Coats, which formerly held the Jones licenses.
“The acquisition of Jones New York and JNY outerwear will expand and enhance G-III’s product offering,” she said.
Overall, Nostra said she is pleased with fourth-quarter results and expects it to continue. She also knows that even though the weather was on outerwear’s side last season, she can’t expect it to happen again.
“I don’t think that we can pray for weather to be on our side,” she added. “We have to prepare for whatever is ahead.”

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