OUT OF HIBERNATION: SPRING OUTERWEAR MAKING A COMEBACK
Byline: Leonard McCants
New York — The jacket is back, the suit is back and now the spring jacket is back.
Coat executives from the vendor and merchant ranks are reporting a resurgence in spring outerwear this season after years of little interest from consumers and little space in stores.
Part of the downswing was the influx in the Eighties and Nineties of sportswear used as outerwear.
And with warmer weather, shoppers had little interest in spring jackets.
Now, women are looking to incorporate coats into their wardrobes as fashion pieces and to dress for specific seasons, so several key items — denim jackets, trenchcoats and leather shirt jackets, for example — have developed into volume sellers in coat departments.
The upturn in sales comes at a critical time for the outerwear industry, which has suffered three painful years of lackluster sales due to warmer-than-normal temperatures and a promotional retail environment.
Leather continues to be the strongest category, according to stores, and vendors noted that increases in their spring business have proven to be phenomenal, even reminiscent of the Eighties, when spring leather business — mostly from bomber jackets — sometimes rivaled overall fall outerwear sales.
Manufacturers and designers are also cutting jackets into leaner and modern silhouettes, and using bright, seasonal colors to create fashion products for stores, as basic outerwear styles tend not to fare as well during the spring selling season as they do in the fall.
“Designers are putting a lot more energy into coats,” said Judy Collinson, general merchandise manager for women’s at Barneys New York.
Barneys has been putting more coats on its floors as designers have increased the offerings, Collinson noted. Lightweight coats in luxury fabrics are becoming increasingly important, as customers are looking to replace traditional suit jackets or sport coats with outerwear pieces coordinated with their sportswear, she said.
“We talked a lot about the fact that it’s not a jacket and pants or a jacket and a skirt,” Collinson said. “It’s a coat and pants or coat and skirt. It completes what you’re wearing and it’s somewhat protective.”
Best-selling items are a knee-length, double-faced cashmere coat by Jil Sander, Burberry trenchcoats and a ponyskin coat by Marni that “came in this spring and sold out within a week,” she said.
For Jeffrey Kalinsky, owner of Jeffrey New York and stores in Atlanta, buying and selling outerwear is not just practical and economically expedient, it’s a passion unaffected by the whims of fashion.
“I’m a coat freak,” he admitted. “Always have been, professionally and personally.”
“Our customer is buying outerwear 12 months out of the year because she is a professional and needs outerwear while she travels,” Kalinsky said. “A lot of my customers from the South travel to the North where it’s cool enough to throw on a double-faced cashmere jacket.”
He noted Jil Sander’s raincoats and leather outerwear in shades of red and blue were strong, as were Pucci parkas and leathers by Marni.
The trenchcoat, in a rainbow of colors and in snake and python fabrics, “is driving the business” for spring outerwear, said Stacey Kaye, Henri Bendel’s merchandise manager.
“Business has been stronger because, more and more, we’re keying into the fashion items as opposed to ones that just keep you dry,” Kaye said.
Best-selling trenchcoats include a version by Calvin Klein in tan and white, red denim trenches by Cynthia Steffe and a blue version by DKNY, as well as a natural python coat in turquoise and pink by Henri Bendel’s private label.
“I’m not doing any promotions,” she said. “Hopefully, I won’t have to because business has been good.”
One of the strongest categories is denim jackets, which have moved out of rebel territory and into the office as women match them with slim pants and a wool sweater or with a floral dress and mules.
“Denim jackets are flying out of the door,” added Stefani Greenfield, co-owner of Scoop, a five-unit specialty store chain based here. “I can say that with confidence. I can’t imagine anyone packing for a trip in the spring and summer and not throwing in a jean jacket.”
Key versions are those from Earl Jeans, Levi’s, Theory and vintage Wrangler. Greenfield said classic Macintosh coats were selling well, noting one made of sailcloth by Kors — the secondary line from Michael Kors — had sold particularly well.
Those items have contributed to a 65 percent sell-through in four to six weeks for the denim jackets and a 50 percent sell-through for the Macintoshes, she said.
At Lord & Taylor, trenchcoats continue to be bestsellers for spring, in addition to leather, which is “another strong early category that we’ll see growing through the season,” said Lavelle Olexa, senior vice president of fashion merchandising.
Key versions of the trench are single-breasted varieties in black and light blue from Gallery and leather coats in short blazer styles by Anne Klein, Nine West and Jones New York.
“Stores are telling us that they are reporting 5 to 10 percent above plan and some people even more than that,” said Robin Teramo, a marketing specialist for The Doneger Group buying office. “People haven’t bought outerwear for a long time, and now all of a sudden it’s on a major upturn.”
Key looks that contributed to the increased business, she said, were walking coats in silk twills and stretch gabardine, nylon jackets with reversible fleece and leather pieces in real or fake hides.
“By all means, it is a fashion trend, because spring leather just didn’t sell before,” she said.
Another factor is the decision by retailers and manufacturers to present outerwear that the consumer can wear as soon as she buys it instead of waiting for months for the weather to change.
“We’re trying to take our business in that direction — from rack to back, so that people want to buy something and wear it right away, which is why the leather jacket is perfect for right now,” Teramo added. “You don’t want to wear your big winter jacket in the spring.”
But many manufacturers, energized by recent increases in spring business, still were cautious, saying the selling season only represents a small portion of their total revenue.
“Any resurgence in spring is not going to be that significant for the coat business,” said Ira Ganger, president of Amerex Group, Inc., who noted that the spring outerwear segment represented about 15 to 20 percent of sales.
At Herman Kay Bromley, one of the largest outerwear vendors, the strong season was evidenced by strong demand for spring looks beyond basic raincoats, according to Daniel Fodiman, vice president of Albert Nipon, a licensed division of the company.
The company introduced short hooded zip-front jackets in coated cotton and polyurethane-backed nylon in its Anne Klein and Anne Klein 2 divisions, he said, noting that leather looks sold particularly well. Those areas helped the company post a 35 percent increase over last spring’s business.
“Spring leathers are strong, which added a nice end to the business,” he said. “It’s pretty exciting to have spring merchandise go in, sell and not have any inventory left.”
An increase in spring outerwear business may also be attributed to several other factors, Amerex’s Ganger said, noting that a cool spring on the East Coast had been an important help.
Key looks from the Amerex stable include neutral colored microfiber coats in short and stadium lengths by moderate-priced lines Misty Harbor and Mulberry Street, a paper-finish cotton jacket from its better-priced Jones New York line, and coats in new fabrics like stretch polyester gabardine for the popular-price CS signature label.
The positive spring outerwear market helped Amerex expand the business for the season, Ganger said.
“We planned it 10 percent up over the year before and we basically sold out,” he said. “We did plan, which is a 10 percent growth factor. But we need to take it to the next level for spring 2001, while being careful not to overbuy.”
The company, he added, was planning a 15 to 20 percent increase in sales for spring 2001.
Executives at Harve Benard, a better-price suit and outerwear vendor, said sales for spring outerwear were the best they had seen in decades.
“Our overall spring business is remarkably good,” said Bernard Holtzman, president and chief designer of Harve Benard Ltd. “It’s been a record-breaking spring for us, and we’ve been in business for 32 years.”
But one of the concerns facing Harve Benard, and the industry in general, is timing merchandise to sell before department stores start to switch outerwear departments to swimwear.
“Coat departments have to convert to swimwear in March or April,” Holtzman said, noting that deadline cuts into the selling time for his spring merchandise.
Nevertheless, several pieces are performing well for spring, including lightweight flannel jackets, red and yellow nylon packable coats and sporty looks with polyurethane backing.
While there are signs that the spring selling season has been picking up, some vendors are not optimistic about its potential. Fairbrooke Enterprises, which makes licensed outerwear for Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, DKNY, Isaac Mizrahi and Perry Ellis and its proprietary Drizzle label, has not noticed much difference in spring business, said company executives.
“I’ve gotten some healthy reorders as of late,” said Jaimee Marshall, a Fairbrooke marketing consultant. “I guess business is picking up for us, just a little bit later.”
The key looks that are selling are a “Columbo”-style balmaccan in dusty pink nylon with a sheen from Drizzle, as well as denim pieces, short trenchcoats and belted or wrapped coats from Drizzle, DKNY and Calvin Klein.
For leather resources, spring business has returned to the significant position it had in the early Eighties, the peak of the leather business, according to several makers.
“We’ve been pleasantly surprised by the response to leather in spring,” said Jeanette Nostra, president of G-III Apparel Group. “There is a demand for it, and that is evidenced by the fact that we are doing a nice business for spring.”
One of the hottest-selling items is a black, unlined leather shirt by its Siena division. Also selling are fitted leather jackets with double zippers.
“Leather has been nothing short of sensational,” added Richard Madris, executive vice president of Winlet Fashions, which holds the license for Ellen Tracy and Guess leather lines at the bridge and contemporary levels, respectively.
Key looks for spring were the scuba silhouette, shirt jackets and A-line jackets, all in a variety of colors, including light blue and beige. Madris said his 2000 sales were up by 20 percent.