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Warming Trend: White Jeans Year Round

By Teri Agins (The Wall Street Journal) - August 30, 2007

Labor Day is upon us, and Maury Rogoff has no intention of putting away her white jeans. It has been years since the New York marketing consultant went through the seasonal ritual of switching her closet around. “I’m in total seasonal denial,” she says. “I only cave in when it really gets cold in January and February,” she says. “I resist tights and hose all winter long.”

One of the most surprising effects of climate changes can be found in your closet: With the exception of heavy winter coats and flimsy sundresses, there aren’t a lot of truly seasonal clothes in many people’s wardrobes anymore.

The move toward seasonless dressing is largely an effect of climate change. In most places in the Northern Hemisphere, the weather is getting warmer, and winters are shorter and less extreme, according to the Center for Climate Systems Research at Columbia University in New York. Radley Horton, a climatologist at the center says 11 of the Earth’s 12 warmest years since 1890 occurred after 1996. But in recent years, he says, “there are less extreme differentials between seasons,” he says. The result: Spring is starting earlier by a week to 10 days, and fall is starting about a week later.

At the same time, people spend so much time indoors and in cars that their lives are essentially climate-controlled. There’s less of a need for bulky sweaters and tweedy woolens. The casual movement of recent years has also helped drive the trend, as jeans, a year-round fashion item that can be dressed up or down, have emerged as the workhorses in most people’s wardrobes. Turning a spring look into a fall outfit is as simple as layering on a sweater or heavier jacket.

Yet here lies a big disconnect with fashion — a multibillion-dollar industry designed around frequent inventory turnover, planned obsolescence, and a major seasonal change-up twice a year. While many retailers have introduced more versatile, transitional clothes into their mix, the high-fashion designers are the locomotives that push the big trends. And for the most part, they are wedded to the traditional system that began with the Paris couture houses in the early 20th century.

Crazy weather and global warming are growing concerns to apparel makers as they must market fashions across the U.S. and abroad where climates are varied. Last month, Liz Claiborne Inc. invited Mr. Horton, the climatologist, to an informal discussion with 30 executives, where the talk ranged from fabrics to the timing of seasonal markdowns and retail deliveries.

The thick September fashion magazines are now weighing in with fall themes centered on the return of tailored, grown-up dressing in the form of suits and knitted jackets. Touted as this fall’s must-have accessory: elbow-length leather gloves — thoroughly impractical but arresting in glossy advertising for Etienne Aigner and Anne Klein at Barneys New York. Another (literally) hot trend for fall is collars made from feathers.

High-fashion designers and the innovative fabric mills who supply them think creatively — and they aren’t worried about the weather. High fashion, of course, is to some extent about eye candy and fantasy — and major brands such as Gucci, Prada and Louis Vuitton can afford to be cavalier in placing creativity over comfort in their apparel lines, since they mostly make their money on accessories like handbags and shoes, not clothes.

But even if high fashion remains wedded to the seasons, many consumers have found their way to year-round wardrobes. This month, Ms. Rogoff, the New Yorker, bought a Tory Burch navy suede dress with cap sleeves, “which is my nod to winter.” She won’t be buying tweeds or flannels, as she sticks with her year-round wardrobe of sleeveless knit dresses, mock turtleneck tops and cropped pants in thin woolen fabrics. She also wears tall suede boots, without hose. When it gets really cold, she shifts more into trousers and layers on leather jackets.

A growing number of clothing designers and retailers are delivering year-round clothing that customers like Ms. Rogoff can wear. Tory Burch uses lightweight wools and knits in her January deliveries that can span through late spring. Another is Giorgio Armani, whose business is largely apparel, rather than accessories. For years, he has been in the forefront of seasonless, lightweight dressing, using microfiber and rayon and other blends. It’s little wonder that many executive women have long sworn by Armani’s clothes, which they can wear year-round and in the Sunbelt.

But the real innovators of seasonless dressing are the mainstream clothing lines, including Theory, J. Crew and Eileen Fisher. The popular 10-year-old Theory label is centered on sportswear separates in stretch fabrics that are favorites of working women. “Modern customers don’t need heavy flannels and wools,” says Andrew Rosen, Theory’s CEO and co-founder. He estimates that only 20% of Theory’s clothing can be worn only in cold weather.

For most of its line, Theory uses lighter-weight fabrics, especially one called “Taylor,” a blend that comes in stretch cotton or stretch lightweight wool, which can be worn all year. In turning out seasonal looks, color comes more into play than fabrics. “The weights of the fabrics aren’t as dramatically different as they used to be,” Mr. Rosen says.

One factor that could fuel the use of lighter fabrics: He notes that much of the retail growth in recent years has been in warmer climates such as Houston, Miami, Las Vegas and Phoenix.

Companies that depend on fast fashion — producing collections meant to be delivered and marketed quickly and worn immediately — are particularly interested in getting the weather right. J.C. Penney Co. is shifting to 12 retail deliveries a year, from four, in order to fill its 1,048 stores with fashions that “they need month to month, instead of season to season,” says a J.C. Penney spokeswoman.

As warmer weather everywhere has become more of an issue, some companies are even using climate consultants. Target says it uses weather-related intelligence in planning its collections. One immediate change: Starting in January, Target will begin selling swimwear year-round nationwide. (J.C. Penney also carries swimwear and coats year-round on its jcpenney.com Web site.)

Kohl’s is paying so much attention to the weather that it is said to be working with a meteorological consultant on matters such as scheduling seasonal markdowns, according to people familiar with the situation. A Kohl’s spokeswoman declined to comment.