Byline: Leonard McCants

NEW YORK — The weather outside may be frightful, but outerwear merchants are delighted.

After three disappointing seasons of warmer-than-average temperatures, this fall and early winter has seen a return of cold and snowy weather throughout most of the country, and outerwear retailers are warmed by the predictions of a fierce season ahead.

Just last year, a National Academy of Sciences panel deemed global warming “undoubtedly real” and reported that temperatures have increased 0.45 to 0.72 degrees over the last 20 years, a rate substantially greater than in the past century. That was last year.

This fall-winter season, areas like New England, the Northern Plains and the Great Lakes states are digging out from several feet of snow already, Arkansas and Oklahoma suffered through as much as three inches of ice last week and the Northeast has been fighting more than a week of below-freezing readings and sub-zero wind chills.

While overall holiday sales were disappointing, outerwear has been a bright spot.

“This is one of our strongest categories this season,” said Judy Collinson, executive vice president and general merchandise manager at Barneys New York.

“Our coat business is running double-digit increases over plan,” said Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president and fashion director of Bloomingdale’s.

While novelty and fashion-focused items sold well at the beginning of the season, it’s the functional coats that are performing now.

This is the case at Neiman Marcus, where longer coats have experienced an upswing in sales, said Terry Thornton, associate divisional merchandise manager for coats and furs.

“Overall, it’s a modest growth,” he said. “We’re a little bit off the plan, but it’s not anything that I’m panicked or nervous about. And December and January are still two huge months,” yet to be reported.

Leather was the “best news” for the season, he said, with short cropped jackets selling best and fur-trimmed items among the top looks.

Guiliana Teso’s cloth coats sold well in the Northeast, Thornton said. Other best-selling labels in the nonleather categories include Max Mara, Cinzia Rocca, Searle and Calvin Klein.

Novelty and coats with “interesting” fabrics were among the bestsellers at Bloomingdale’s, Ruttenstein said. Cinzia Rocca’s baby llama, baby alpaca, tweed and cashmere coats were bestsellers, he said, in addition to shearling toppers from Donna Karan Collection.

“There’s been a nice cold spell,” he added. “Earlier in the season, [consumers] were buying fashion, but now they are buying for function.”

Rabbit fur coats were an overall strong performer this season, he said. Also, sweater coats from Hilary Radley and leather from Andrew Marc sold well.

“We’re pleased with customer response to the outerwear category,” said Maureen O’Connell, Nordstrom’s mainstream and bridge coat buyer. “We’ve made a real effort to be in stock on key classic items, as well as stay on top of a few trendier looks.”

Best-selling resources include Hilary Radley, Ellen Tracy, Fleurette, Carol Cohen, Blue Duck shearlings and St. John in the bridge category, and Bernardo, Kristen Blake, Gallery and Marvin Richards in the mainstream area, O’Connell said.

The response has been to clean, classic lines and simple silhouettes, she noted, in fabrics such as cashmere, suede, leather and shearling.

Leather and shearling were also hot, especially colored looks and versions in a combination of leather and knits, Collinson said. She cited as key vendors Jil Sander and the Barneys private label.

Burberry also “excelled” with leather coats in red, brown and taupe, she said, noting: “It was partly how we bought the line from them. It just had an amazing performance.”

At Scoop, “shearling has been fabulous for us,” said Stefani Greenfield, a co-owner.

Versions by Joseph in light colors, Michael Kors in black and camel and their private label in brown, camel and black sold well. Leather jackets and blazers by Chaiken, in particular, were hot items.

“Whatever outerwear I put on the floor sells out,” she said. “But I run a tight outerwear business.”

At the Michigan-based Jacobson Stores, the weather is playing an important role for coats this winter.

“I don’t think [the coat season] is over yet,” said Chris Gorton, director of public relations and special events. “It’s freezing here so we’re having a great business.”

Bestsellers include Fleurette, Hilary Radley and Max Mara for their camel hair, cashmere and luxury fibers.

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