NEW YORK -- The sweater coat is back and it could turn out to be next season's big hit.
And there are plenty of reasons why.
Giorgio Armani starred sweater coats in his Milan show a few weeks ago. And this week Joseph Abboud, Alexander Julian, Carrick Anderson and Nathan Pincus will do exactly the same during the rush of the New York shows.
Everybody agrees the sweater coat had to happen again because it builds on sport coats -- the single hottest category in the market.
But the designers aren't creating sweater coats as 'just another sport coat.' They've gone to the root of the matter and came up with a wardrobe alternative for the guy who wants something to replace a leather blouson or sweater.
With a sweater coat, he adds to his FridayWear for work. And this is what the tailored clothing market is coming to. Alexander Julian says it all with: 'The sweater coat does not negate the pinstripe suit.'
He insists it actually reinforces the role of dressy suits for business or the social circuit. But when it comes to the many times when the rules are relaxed, sweater coats are the answer again. They look like standard sport coats, but they feel like sweaters.
And this is what Armani and the American designers had in mind when they chose lofty, textured wovens with the knitlike textures for sweater coats. They all took it a step further by stripping down the construction and adding the inside support and shoulder padding only when necessary.
Julian points out, 'There are a lot of fabrics that want a minimal of construction. And in tailored clothing this sportswear attitude in fabrics has helped loosen up our clothing mentality to accept soft-constructed tailored coats.'
And this time around, the designers didn't forget the variety of weaves, weights and patterns that were mostly missing when sweater coats first appeared about four years ago.
In fact, Tommy Hilfiger, whose clothing label debuts for fall at Hart Schaffner & Marx, calls sweater coats 'separate, patterned blazers and they're eye-popping. We're running English country tweeds, tartan plaids and small herringbones that will be worn as casual pieces with corduroys or dress-up slacks just as easily.'
And this is the core of the new double-exposure thinking for sweater coats that's all over the designer clothing market.
According to Joseph Abboud, sweater coats will be a major part of his J.O.E. sportswear, and Joseph Abboud label and couture clothing presentations.
He's using sweater-inspired fabrics and, as he points out, his sweater coats do not have a chest piece but do have a fully constructed shoulder. 'We've even going to the point where the same jacket appears in our J.O.E. sportswear collection with different fabrics. These jackets are made to wear with jeans or flannels.'
Do sweater coats automatically mean country? No way.
Abboud argues, 'Country is a cliche from the past. Today the mood is for soft, textured fabrics and a more relaxed fit and a coat that's not full of the usual trappings, like suede elbow patches, pocket flaps, etc.
'Country was a formula for old clothing. We need to do more modern, exciting interpretations.'
More on sweater coats as the swing item of the season from Hilfiger. 'The message for my fall sportswear is British Isles and this is a departure for me. The sportswear is becoming very country-like and I'm using Harris Tweeds, for example, in blazers. And they're also a part of the clothing collection.
'In clothing, we're using a very similar construction, but it's more on the lines of clothing. However, the fabrics are similar. We've really gone into British Isles sportswear in a major way and all of the sweaters and sportswear components complement everything we're doing in clothing in the browns, moss and earthier-color tweeds.'
Discussing the reasoning behind his sweater coats, Julian relates, 'It seems to me there's a simultaneous approach when making soft jackets that can be worn for dressy sportswear all the way up to an alternative to dress clothing. It's something we've tried to push for years and it's finally happening.
'Even with our Pietrafesa tailored division [moderate-priced clothing], we have a soft, unconstructed coat that will be a high percentage of our sport coat sales.'
Explaining that the styling of the soft jacket 'is on our side and up to us,' he feels the designers 'can go as far as the consumers will allow. I'm very much heartened by the number of retailers who are for this kind of dressing. They're on the front lines and it's up to them to convince the consumer that this is an important direction.'
Julian points out there are construction and fabric differences. 'Calling all sweater coats unconstructed is not the fight way to look at them. It's like comparing a beautifully crafted automobile with a beautifully crafted racing bike. One will give a lot of mileage in a conventional way. The other is a great, sleek way of enjoying your sport.
'And we all know people who fide racing bikes to work. They'll both get you there but in different ways.'
As a designer, he qualifies, 'whenever you're putting less structure into a sweater coat, it requires a consumer with a better build and attitude to wear the garment.
'The most obvious difference between a sport coat and sweater coat is the amount of interlining used. As for the fabrics, they're drapier in the sweater coats and sportier. For example, we used a wool/viscose crepe and textured washed wools, plus velvet and corduroy.'
He reports the modeling is different, too. 'Why compete with yourself?. The most popular look in the sweater coats will be a high-roll four-button model with hacking patch pockets and self elbow patches. And the majority of the sweater coats are patterns or a tweed with a self pattern.'
As for the merchandising aspect, Julian notes that in his Colours line 'the soft-constructed jackets are part of our overall look in sportswear as well as tailored vests. We'll show the jackets with sport shirts, knits, vests and either jeans or soft pants.
'In regular clothing, the sweater coats are also being shown as an addition to the sport coat line. They'll also keep the prices affordable because they have less construction. It costs less to build the coat and this is reflected in the price.'
As for the major difference between sweater coats and sport coats, Garrick Anderson comments, 'For years the sport coat was made like a suit coat. Now we're making it with a different attitude, construction and fabrics in the GA by Garrick Anderson line.
'Like everybody else, we're getting softer as far as the look, and one major thing has happened. The coat is now a lot like a sweater. In our case, from the inside out, nothing has been taken out, but many things have changed.
'The canvas that we have to produce the silhouette is now used solely to support the fabric. We're creating the coat as we do in the women's business and actually giving the garment drape.'
As he explains it, with the new construction the coat has 'drape, a flow or fluidity to the fabric. And in this way, it's a lot like the sweater. There's barely any padding in the shoulder and a very, very soft chest piece.'
Anderson is using the same traditional-sounding fabrics like shetlands or lambswools from England and Italy, but they're much softer and lighter-weight.
'The whole process has changed. The yarns are spun almost like sweater yarns and the weaving and finishing are also different. We end up with a textured, very soft fabric that befits the models.'
Another major believer in sweater coats is Nathan Pincus, president, Nigel's Drape Clothing, who reports, 'Our Soft area is all about sweater coats without the traditional linings or padding in the shoulder.
'And we're doing five different styles: a four-button, lapelled, open patch pocket coat; a belted safari with epaulets; a soft Norfolk coat in corduroys and velvets; a 3/4-length carcoat that could be worn as a sport coat or a dressier barn jacket, and finally, a cinch-waist zip-front jacket with a detachable hood.'
He adds that the sweater coats put Pincus Bros.-- Maxwell, the parent company, into outerwear with three sporty models and two classic models.
'Last season,' he continues, 'we did a four-ply knitted cashmere sweater jacket that was in the truest sense a sweater. This year we're doing wovens with the look of knits in addition to a fibbed knitted cashmere. The wovens include chenille, boucle and other soft-surface-interest fabrics.
'In addition to the sweater coat, we're also doing a woven button-front big shirt with quilted suede elbow patches and a corduroy undercollar in very rustic wools and a knit cashmere.'
Like other designers, Pincus describes merchandising the sweater coat as a 'gray area. No one knows how to buy it, but everybody agrees these items should not go into the clothing department. They're putting it in either sportswear or in a new soft clothing area.'
Bill Kaiserman really puts the double-exposure theory to work for sport coats and states, 'I'm treating sport coats in my clothing collection in a very structured way -- very Savile Row. That means longer coats with shape and very dressy. I have three-button single-breasteds and an eight-button, two-to-button double-breasted.'
He adds that he's using a similar model in his sportswear collection 'and it's treated in a more casual way. The coat is much longer at about 33 inches. I've done one with a full belt and another with a Norfolk treatment. But they're soft and less constructed.'
These are his versions of the sweater coats and the fabrics do overlap with his clothing. The sportier versions includes solids with a cashmere finish, wool crepes and corduroys 'that can swing both ways.
'Colors are reasonably the same, too. I start with black and the main differences are in sportswear. The colors are solids and stronger grays, browns and neutrals. In clothing I added patterns and textures.'
Nick Hilton, meanwhile, is thinking soft in his R&B collection which he calls the 'vanguard part of my line. This is where I have the greatest fashion content. There's a long 32-inch jacket with a very round, contoured shoulder and a fitted silhouette with a very narrow lapel.
'I'm doing it in suits and sport coats and in very textured fabrics. The whole thing is the fabrics. They're soft, textured and lofty but not heavy.
'There are a lot of country looks in twists, herringbones and stripes in wools. Then I have a silk/wool with the same country outdoorsy feel but with a luxury hand.'
Also joining the move to sweater coats is Alan Flusser, reporting, 'The newest model in my Coppley line has a soft shoulder and it's very lightly constructed. It basically feels like a sweater.
'I'm doing a single-breasted in two- and three-buttons and a double-breasted. They're being done in high-twist crepe weaves with patterns that look like English countryside -- herringbones, district checks and plaids. The color story revolves around brown, which I think is the major color direction.
Discussing the construction of his new soft coats, Flusser notes that the make is used in his suits as well. 'The shoulder is sloped, slightly narrower with very little sleevehead. The important point is, the coat still has a certain amount of structure and doesn't 'collapse' like a sweater that doesn't have any support.'
Which is the major difference between sportswear and the new wave of sweater coats that simply look and act like sportswear.