Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK — Shopping might not be the activity of choice in the current political and economical climate, but buying a new fall coat still seems to be one of life’s necessities.
Following the Columbus Day weekend — the traditional kickoff to the coat season and the sales promotions that go with it — stores from Saks Fifth Avenue to J.C. Penney reported solid action in outerwear departments, although not matching last year’s levels. The merchants noted that women are rationalizing their coat purchases as investment pieces, although many snapped up novelty looks, as well.
Signaling some return to normalcy since the Sept. 11 attacks and ongoing terrorist threats, there were even some trends emerging among concerned consumers. Retailers said they’ve been seeing strong sales of quilted jackets, coats with fur or leather trim, and versatile, shorter-length styles.
Perhaps the early performance comes from outerwear’s perception as a commodity that needs periodic replacement, not an indulgence, and represents a right of passage into the fall-winter season, executives noted.
As Joan Kaner, senior vice president and fashion director for Neiman Marcus, said: “People do not feel guilty about buying outerwear because it’s a necessity. It’s a guilt-free purchase.”
Kaner said coat sales at Neiman Marcus have been fashion-driven.
“None of it is basic, basic,” said Kaner, adding that Cinzia Rocca’s reversible alpaca and chopped alpaca coats are popular. “Anything Burberry” including its rain poncho and quilted jackets are also in demand, she said.
Neiman’s ad insert in this month’s edition of In Style has also spurred business, Kaner said.
Saks Fifth Avenue is reeling with shoppers in search of novelty items, such as quilting, hoods, fur trim and removable items. The biggest trend so far is quilted coats in mid-thigh lengths from Burberry and Hilary Radley, and similar longer styles are expected to become more important as the temperature dips, said Jaqui Lividini, senior vice president of fashion merchandising. The fact that these styles are warm and lightweight makes them more appealing to consumers, she said.
“At one time, you would buy one good wool coat. People have moved away from that,” she said. “They have a whole wardrobe of coats — one for the weekend, one to wear with skirts, one to wear with pants. That bodes well for the whole season.”
Sales of shearling coats continue to be strong, with black, brown and camels being the best-selling colors. Hooded shearlings are also a major seller, Lividini said. Other fall hits for Saks include a Tahari tweed coat with leather trim and removable fur collar, Cinzia Rocca’s alpaca and wool coats, Fleurette’s cashmere coats, especially those with fur trim, and two-tone coats from a variety of vendors.
“Novelty — that’s what’s performing — toggles, closures, hoods,” Lividini said. “Times have affected sales, but business continues to get stronger. So that’s a good thing.”
At Searle stores, French coat brand Moncler is “the shining star” this fall, and two styles, a fitted and quilted above-the-knee coat at $395 and a hooded Chevron quilted jacket at $400 are leading the charge, said David Lazar, director of retail.
He noted that 70 percent of the 300 people who signed a waiting list for the above-the-knee item have purchased it this year, and that style has been reordered four times in the past five weeks.
Investing about $75,000 to have a color insert in a weekday edition of the New York Times earlier this month gave Moncler sales “a kick in the pants,” Lazar said. Searle is Moncler’s largest worldwide account. The insert featured a dozen styles and was placed in 150,000 subscribers’ papers.
Searle plans to hold its second Moncler trunk show Saturday [Oct. 20] at its 58th Street store in New York. Another was staged over the Columbus Day weekend at Searle’s East 84th Street store, which was recently expanded to 3,650 sq. feet. In January, Searle will open a 4,000-sq.-foot unit at 1296 Third Avenue.
“The fall business has been challenging, but the past two weeks have been quite good. But we’re aggressively going after the business,” said Lazar, adding that early fall merchandise was marked down by about 30 percent a week ago.
Marsha Posner, owner of JP Associates, a New York-based buying office, said she is still receiving requests for shearling styles, fur-trimmed coats and leathers. Consumers started buying shearling before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and are continuing to do so.
“Anything unusual is doing very well. People want something different in an underplayed way. They don’t want to be way out there,” she said. “A fur coat might seem like too much now, but they will wear fur trim or shearling.”
Posner’s clients are also favoring outerwear from sportswear makers like Etro’s paisley coats and Rizal’s shearlings. Ghost’s shearlings are popular at Hartly’s in Westwood, N.J., and at Jamie’s in Nashville, Posner added.
At Sears, Roebuck & Co., the outerwear business seems to be more “wear-now” than last fall, according to Diane Paccione, vice president and general merchandise manager for ready-to-wear. Shoppers favor lightweight jackets, such as reversible nylon and fleece styles. Other standouts are Braetan’s short, zip-front wool jacket; a Giacca wool, zip-front duffle wool coat, and a SM2 nylon down bubble jacket with blanket fleece lining.
Paccione said this fall’s coat sales are slightly down compared with last fall.
“However, we are up against a very strong performance last year,” she said. “Price does not seem to be a deterrent if the product is right. Heavyweight and wool have had strong, regular-price sales performance.”
L.L. Bean is seeing a lot of interest in quilted and down jackets, which sell for $89 to $139. The retailer also offers a variety of cashmere or wool blend coats, including peacoats at $159 and longer coats at $199.
Customers started ordering fall coats early this year, due partially to the Farmers’ Almanac prediction of an early winter, a spokeswoman said. L.L. Bean is selling lots of classics — a field jacket with Primaloft lining at $129, down parkas at $89 and quilted jackets with fleece linings at $139, she noted.
At Penney’s, short wool coats are this fall’s fashion statement, especially styles with fake fur, leather and suede. Pacific Trail is a newcomer to the retailer’s lineup and Columbia Sportswear and Crazy Horse continue to be strong, according to Tami Wolfe, divisional vice president and merchandise manager for women’s outerwear.
“Customers have let us know they love our assortment, so we’re building from that strength,” Wolfe said. “We’re also focused on delivering hot new trends we believe our customers will find more exciting than ever.”