Early leather business puts shearlings way out in front
NEW YORK -- Except for maybe Alaska and parts of the country's mountain region, this fall has been exceptionally mild. That said, how does one explain the noteworthy sales of men's shearling jackets at retail?
Stores say they've been selling shearlings, which range in price from about $700 to $2,500, since August. And while many shearling jackets have become lighter in weight over the last couple of seasons, they're by no means a breezy coverup. So you've got cold-weather jackets selling briskly, though they go for more than most men's suits.
The reason, retailers say, is they're fashionable, and fashion always sells first. In the case of shearlings, though, the style is hanging on beyond the fad fashion stage, and stores are readying for a solid trend.
As Bigsby & Kruthers' Michael Karpik said, stores offered consumers a taste of shearling outerwear last year. And now the public is ready for it.
Other leather highlights so far this season include three-quarter-length jackets and rugged skin styles. And black leathers are really being given a run for their money, with browns and tans coming into their own.
Bigsby & Kruthers' fall leather season started off strong, even early in August, according to Karpik, president.
'You could argue that what prompted this is that we've always had a good shearling business because, here in Chicago, it gets frigid,' Karpik said. 'But this year our fashion customer really went for frosted shearling. That business is much stronger than ever. With shearling, customers have the luxury of skins, plus it's very functional. And I have to say the fashion statement is finally there.'
Karpik declined to name names, but he said his top-selling pieces are designer-driven. He said his Spanish skin shearlings retail from $850 to $1,400.
Regular leather business also is good at B&K, but Karpik said it hasn't reached the point where he would call it hot.
'It's still early for leathers, though. We've had mild weather here in Chicago,' he said. 'However, the strength of the shearlings shows there's a fashion-driven part to our business. The smooth-skin leather is doing good business, but the shining kid on the block is frosted shearling. Some retailers may have passed it up saying it wasn't right for their customer. But I'm saying thank God I have it.'
Shearlings that move fastest are of the fingertip length, not the bomber style. And black still outperforms all other colors, but Karpik said deep gray is doing well and chocolate brown's coming back.
The surge of shearling sales has put a spark back in the leather business, he said.
'Leathers are cyclical,' he explained. 'Six years ago the business was growing, then it was booming. And when it went to leather pants for men, you knew we were at the end of the cycle and you had to get out of it. Now it's a good cycle for it. But, unless something dramatic happens, the resurgence of sport coats with textured fibers takes away from the outerwear business. So the resurgence of nice shearling is good for business; it's something fresh and new.'
Saks Fifth Avenue stores are experiencing good sales of their fashion pieces, according to Wayne Meichner, senior vice-president, general merchandise manager of men's apparel. But general leather outerwear is moving at a slower pace.
'Shearlings and three-quarter-lengths are selling well,' he reported. 'All the styles that you hear about and those that are really being touted are happening. But the general category business is nowhere up to speed compared to last year.'
Meichner wasn't overly concerned about that, though.
'That changes as soon as the weather turns cooler,' he said. 'We've had 70-degree temperatures.'
Saks is offering its customers a wider array of leather this year in a variety of colors and styles.
'We try to take it more to the fashion end,' Meichner said. 'People don't come to us for basics. When they come to Saks, they're looking for fashion pieces. So we'll leave the commodity business for other people.'
The best-selling styles so far are jackets that offer rugged looks in terms of distressed leather, he said.
'A lot of our top sellers are private label but one jacket in our fall catalog by Andrew Marc was a sellout,' Meichner said. 'It's a shearling jacket that's phenomenal. Plus, Andrew Marc is major player at this level.'
At Paul Stuart, the men's leather business has been very strong despite warm New York weather in late October and early November, according to Jim Guerra, merchandise manager for furnishings.
'The season's off to a very good start,' Guerra said. 'The bulk of our sales have been in three-quarter-length jackets, although we are selling some blousons and full-length coats. Basically we're more into dressy, although not from the standpoint of wearing them with suitings; more in the line of nubuck leathers and shearlings.'
Average price points of the best-selling Paul Stuart leather coats fall around $1,000 for leathers and up to $1,500 to $2,500 for shearlings.
'We're substantially ahead of last season,' Guerra said, going on to explain why his leather category is so strong this season. 'I think we went after very fine quality skins and very sophisticated styling and it seems to be catching on. The reaction is, even though the customer won't wear it the day he bought it, because the weather has been warm, he's attracted to it because it's fairly unique. We paid a lot of attention to detail as far as linings and trim.'
The specialty store retailer is selling mostly brown/tan and olive leathers, Guerra said, adding that Paul Stuart doesn't really carry much black.
'I think we're in good shape for the rest of season and, from the reaction we've received so far, we have every reason to be optimistic,' he said.
At Philadelphia's Strawbridge & Clothier, sales of men's leather jackets are up 36 percent over last year for the first three months of the season, according to Tom Andalaro, outerwear buyer.
'We started out very well,' he said. 'August was excellent for leathers, September was very good and October was up. We had a lot more in early and we had a promotion in August and early September that we didn't have last year.'
Andalaro added that the increase was also probably due to Strawbridge's heavier leather inventory this season, plus its lower opening price point. Promotional lambskin jackets had opening prices of $225 to $295 and went on sale for 25 percent off.
Sales in leather slowed a bit at the end of October and the first week of November, but Andalaro said that was in line with what was happening across the board at retail.
Early on, the best-selling styles at Strawbridge's were jackets in bomber lengths. In the last few weeks, sales of three-quarter-length pieces also started to pick up, he said. Still, bombers are selling two-to-one over three-quarter-length jackets so far, he said.
The best-selling labels to date are Members Only, Perry Ellis and Collezione. And among Strawbridge's customers, black leathers make up 60 percent of sales while browns bring in 30 percent. The rest, Andalaro said, comes from sales of jackets in lighter shades like cognac and from buckskins.
In a switch from other retailers, Federated Department Stores has 'nothing going on' in men's leather at any of its store chains, according to a spokeswoman.
'There's no indication why,' the spokeswoman said. 'It could be that the weather is too cool for leather in some areas and too warm in others.'
Federated's department stores include A&S, Bloomingdale's and the soon-to-be-acquired Macy's.