Byline: Julee Greenberg

NEW YORK — For the first time in several years, retailers aren’t complaining about the weather’s impact on outerwear.
After bemoaning unseasonably warm fall seasons that curtailed early coat sales since 1997, which followed the snowy winter of 1996, the momentum that began in early September has continued for a variety of outerwear styles, stores reported last week.
With crisp autumn days inspiring purchases, retailers said they are experiencing their best fall season in quite a while for outerwear and are hoping the stellar sales will continue through the fourth quarter.
“As it cools off outside, consumers are beginning to think if they have the right coat,” said Terry Thornton, associate divisional merchandise manager for furs and coats at Neiman Marcus.
While leather is still strong across the board, Thornton said he has seen a major pick up in the sales of other fabrics in the past few weeks. He said that anything with a fur trim is doing exceptionally well, along with fine cashmeres and wools.
“In the beginning of the season was when women were buying the novelty items,” Thornton pointed out. “Now they are buying items which are more of a necessity.”
While almost all outerwear in the store is doing well, Thornton said rainwear business has been soft. For Jacobson’s, on the other hand, rainwear is selling well.
“One surprising trend for us this season is rainwear,” said Christine Gorton, Jacobson Stores director of public relations and special events. “Since we are in such a temperate season, rainwear meets all needs.”
Also selling well at Jacobson’s are trendy leathers and fake fur items.
“Our Burberry coats are doing well, since they speak to that brand-minded customer,” said Gorton, mentioning that she expects that to continue throughout the gift-giving season.
Gorton said this season the store has seen a much better coat business than seasons past. She said that this is primarily due to the fact that designers have provided so much merchandise that is fresh-looking special and luxurious.
Liz Tippens, Saks Fifth Avenue’s vice president and divisional merchandise manager, also said outerwear sales are much better than recent fall season.
“We are definitely trending to plan,” she said. “Leather continues to be extremely strong.”
Tippens said she sees clean, button-front styles moving fast with some of the popular designs being from Ellen Tracy, Andrew Marc and Calvin Klein.
This season’s strong outerwear sales have also reflected in Eddie Bauer’s business.
“The nature of outerwear has really evolved,” said Michael Alexin, senior vice president of design and development at Eddie Bauer. “It’s not just for warmth anymore. It has really become an outfit completer.”
Alexin said he sees trendy, “street” looks selling in the outerwear category, with the days of the big goose-down parkas being over. He said leather is hot for the second year in a row, with the skins being more casual and fun.
“Our three strong sellers are the car coat, shorter jacket and the trench,” he said.
In traditional Eddie Bauer style, Alexin said that while mild colors in outerwear are selling well, there are no wildly bright colors in the Eddie Bauer collection.
“Our soft blue is working very well,” he said, noting that earth tones are the most popular. “Because outerwear is an investment, color seems to be not so important.”
Color may not be important to Eddie Bauer, but it is to The Doneger Group, the New York buying office, which is seeing a lot of movement in bright colored outerwear.
“The whole color spectrum has exploded,” said Gary Fritschi, divisional merchandise manager of ladies’ outerwear and suits. “Color has tripled in importance.”
Fritschi said outerwear sales are “great” so far this year, with luxury looks leading the pack. Fake and real fur trim items are moving well, along with leather, and wool with leather trim.
“All fur is up in sales dramatically,” he said, noting the importance of rabbit, fox and mink. “But really, there are very few items that are poor. We are seeing a much stronger sales growth from across the board.”
Judy Collinson, Barneys New York’s executive vice president and general merchandise manager, agreed that “the outerwear category is very strong.”
Collinson said key areas have been leather and leather-knit combination items. She also said that fur, tweeds, wools and shearlings to the knee are important. Camel has been the biggest selling color in outerwear, so far.
With this huge surge in the trend toward leather, Wilson’s Leather is seeing a dramatic increase in sales.
“Business is just fabulous,” said Joel Waller, chief executive officer at Wilson’s. “Leather really took off last year and it’s been doing increasingly well since.”
Waller said the chain was planning for a strong increase in sales, which are up about 11 percent season-to-date.
Monroe Milstein, chairman, chief executive officer and president of Burlington Coat Factory, told WWD in January that the 1999-2000 season was “disappointing.” This year, he is talking in quite different words.
“October sales have been super, off the charts,” he said, adding that he has seen some weeks where sales went up by more than 100 percent. “Coats picked up in all areas overall with leathers and downs leading.”
Milstein pointed out that since outerwear sales are up this early in the season, he expects these numbers to continue as the weather gets colder.
Since this fall is so far above past seasons, all retailers mentioned a bright outlook for the rest of the fourth quarter.
“Things are looking good for a strong holiday,” Barneys’ Collinson said. “We are still reordering.”

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