Score one more for business casual.
Because of dress-down everyday, everywhere, the topcoat industry has morphed into a new total coat business that designer Joseph Abboud simply calls 'overwear.' This is for the many who snapped up something casual, comfortable and warm this fall to wear over a sport coat or sweater for work. They made shortie coats a smash.
Naturally, everybody wants a piece of the action. Wool dress coat specialists are doing their versions of short outerwear, rainwear and leather. At the same time, outerwear and rainwear companies are both into short, dressy wools, technos and leathers, and the early blast of cold weather made them all hot performers at retail.
And this is where the biggest changes are happening.
Kent Gushner, vice-president, tailored clothing, Boyds, Philadelphia, says, 'Today the line between outerwear and overcoats has blurred because of the dress-down movement. Obviously the guy who wore a suit to work bought the dressier wool overcoat; today he's buying sportswear because he needs an outerwear-type coat. Whether it's wool, nylon, techno, shearling or leather, they're all fighting each other. It's no longer an exclusive wool business.
'What used to be four or five classifications is now one with subsets and they're all performing well.'
But he points out that this has produced major changes in the marketplace with a much smaller number of specialists and more collection lines out of Europe now making coats. The retailer claims this has changed buying patterns 'and the new mentality is that the average store is selling the names in the coats, so companies like Zegna, Canali, Hugo Boss and Burberry are all benefiting.'
Stephen Saft, CEO, Jacob Siegel & Co., a survivor in a tough dress coat market with the license for such designers as Lauren by Ralph Lauren, Jones New York and Bill Blass, among many, reports reorder business in the past two weeks has been 'spectacular after a good season. But the business is very different. Short coats, from 34 to 42 inches, are very strong and they're now 40 percent of our business. But the big surprise has been long 46- and 47-inch coats -- they're much stronger than we expected.'
Siegel, like other key makers, is no longer putting all its bucks into traditional wools. The company is doing water-repellent versions for all-weather coats and included is a reversible in wool to bonded polyester microfiber.
Picking up on the length story, Ian Selig, president, Mario Valente, which manufactures Burberry wool coats, says, 'There's no such thing as a coat company any longer. We have to provide a collection from blousons all the way down to 49-inch coats. Actually, it took several years for the original giaccone, or 36-inch Italian carcoat, to take off in this country. Now it's the casual model, while the 44-inch is the dressy coat.
'In fact, 40- to 44-inch coats are replacing the longer, 49-inch dressy coat. Shorter lengths are about 65 percent of our business.'
He also contends that the fabric assortment is just as broad and adds, 'We're not just in wools, but we now offer cottons, leathers, technos and Teflon finishes for all-weather coats. As far as our business, 36- to 40-inch wools are still our best items, and next year wool will be stronger than ever because stores haven't bought wools for the last year three years.
'Everybody went into this fall very cautiously and now they're buying as needed. We expect them to end this season clean.'
More on the state of the business from Carlo Quintiliani, president, Cardinal USA, who says reorders followed the cold weather East, starting in the Rocky Mountain states, then hitting the Midwest and finally the East Coast. 'What's happening is that the short coat has become a steady business. Both the 38- to 45-inch lengths were 60 percent of our initial bookings and the shorter length itself was a third of the business. It will end up at about a quarter of the season.'
He expects a repeat next season in a much broader range of fabrics to include more luxury as well as techno fabrics.
'It takes a little cold weather and the coat business is flying,' says an enthusiastic Joe Gordon, corporate senior vice-president, George Weintraub & Son. 'For a manufacturer like us with three different businesses -- suits, sport coats and topcoats, the mix we now have will help make up the shortfall we're finding in suits.'
Noting that 100 percent cashmere is 'on fire' in short and long coats, he says, 'We're not selling the wools we sold five years ago. There are many new blends, also techno fabrics, like bonded polyester microfibers, microfiber suedes, etc. These fabrics have put us into the outerwear business and we're also into leathers and suedes. We're in the total coat business and this includes raincoats.'
Robert Vignola, executive vice-president, wholesale, Burberry USA, says, 'Because of the new slimmer silhouette and shorter lengths, rainwear is now sportswear, especially in techno fabrics. The biggest development for us next fall will be the great expansion of our leathers and suedes as part of our growing made-in-ltaly London sportswear collection.'
Meanwhile, raincoat specialist Harvey Arfa, president of Gruner & Co., says the definition of his company has changed dramatically. 'Over the past year, short coats with more sporty details and special fashion features have gone through the roof. We once made two basic rainwear styles in one fabric and two colors.
'Today we have 35 fabrics ranging from cotton twill to high-tech bonded fabrics, wools and leathers. Our wool program has quadrupled and our new leather line looks very promising. And if this isn't enough, we add 15 new models every season to our DKNY line and the same number for Chaps.'
Barry Denn, chief creative director, Newport Harbor, says, 'Today you have to ask whether it's a topcoat, raincoat or outerwear. Rainwear has become outerwear and outerwear has become sportswear. That's where the market is. And to me, the fabric makes all the difference because there's a crossover. We have to provide a collection from blousons all the way down to 49-inch coats.
'And they're interchangeable. We're putting outerwear and topcoat fabrics into rainwear and vice versa. How about a rain blazer in water-repellent wool? Or a barn coat in a microfiber blend that's also a raincoat? Or a 40-inch Amaretta sueded bonded microfiber polyester topcoat?'
As far as Ralph DiBenedetto, executive vice-president, Crown Clothing, is concerned. 'Anything goes today when you're talking lengths, from 34-inch giaccones to cover a sport coat down to 45- and 48-inch coats. Now the 34-inch outerwear coat is sportswear and the 36-inch length in a water-repellent nylon is rainwear.'
Like many in the market, he feels the real challenge will be to give this growing mix of coats the right retail real estate. 'Does it belong in sportswear or in the clothing department? Most department stores are putting these coats between clothing and sportswear because clothing buyers are now treating them as a new all-inclusive classification that can stand on its own.'
Adds Saft at Jacob Siegel, 'For the most part, the tailored clothing buyer buys topcoats and rainwear, and then there's the combined sportswear and outerwear buyer. As the lines between the three get grayer, it will make sense for the store to have one buyer rather than several competing for the same customer.
'Ultimately, the goal is to make it easier for the customer and have all kinds of coats in one department.'