In the capricious world of fashion, where hemlines, fabrics and colors fall in and out of favor with breathtaking speed, designers and retailers have always relied on one constant — the orderly changing of the seasons.
But now it seems the seasons have become as fickle as fashion.
Two consecutive years of volatile weather — last November and this October were the warmest on record for the New York City area, a retail Mecca — have proved disastrous for companies that rely on predictable temperatures to sell cold-weather clothing like sweaters and coats.
So the $200 billion American apparel industry, which is filled with esoteric job titles like visual merchandiser and fabric assistant, is adding a more familiar one: weather forecaster.
Liz Claiborne, the apparel company, has hired a climatologist from Columbia University to predict weather for its designers to better time the shipments of seasonal garments to retailers.
The discount retailer Target has established a “climate team” to provide advice on what kind of apparel to sell throughout the year. More and more, the answer is lighter weight, “seasonless” fabrics.
And the manufacturer Weatherproof, which supplies coats to major department stores, has bought what amounts to a $10 million insurance policy against unusually warm weather, apparently a first in the clothing business.
Fredric Stollmack, the president of Weatherproof, said that unseasonable weather, once a widely mocked excuse for poor performance in the industry, is the new norm, forcing companies to make sweeping changes in how they manufacture and sell clothing.
“I have been in this industry for 40 years, and during that time, we always knew it got cold in December and stayed that way through January and February — and that was that,” he said. “Now, it’s a crap shoot.”
The scientific debate over global warming may not be entirely settled, but in the American clothing business, at least, it is over. The apparel maker Diesel ran magazine advertisements this year proclaiming that its cold-weather clothes — in one ad, a woman’s puffy coat and shorts — were “global warming ready.”
A host on HSN, formerly known as the Home Shopping Network, promoted a lightweight women’s poncho as ideal for this winter, “especially in the midst of global warming, when none of us are wearing heavy coats anymore.”
The reality, of course, is a bit more complicated. According to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, considered the most authoritative document on the topic, average temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere rose roughly 1.5 degrees from 1979 to 2005 — a shift that has not yet eliminated the need for heavy coats.
But the panel’s findings suggest that the length of seasons is changing, as clothing executives suspected. Over the last 50 years, the report found, the earlier onset of spring and later arrival of fall have shaved roughly two weeks from the year’s coldest period.
That change is starting to rewrite decades-old rules in the clothing industry, which says that it loses several billion dollars a year because of the unexpected swings in temperature.
Liz Claiborne, the clothing conglomerate behind brands like Juicy Couture and Lucky Brand Jeans, traditionally supplied department stores like Dillard’s with heavy coats and sweaters in August, assuming the onset of brisk weather would persuade consumers to buy them.
But with cold temperatures starting later in the year, the strategy is not working.
This summer, frustrated by unpredictable weather, the company turned to a climatologist at Columbia, Radley Horton, asking him to periodically consult with employees, as well as the retailers that buy its clothing, on coming weather trends.
With Mr. Horton’s input, the company prepared a report for Dillard’s predicting above-normal temperatures for August through September 2008. As a result, for those months, Liz Claiborne designers will favor fabrics like matt jersey and tropical-weight cashmere over chunky wool and thick cotton.
“With global warming and the unpredictability of temperatures, the goal is to create seasonless clothing,” said Anne Cashill, vice president for design and merchandising at Liz Claiborne.
Target set up its climate team in 2004 after observing unseasonable weather throughout the country, which could create a shortage of some merchandise (like light sweaters) and a glut of others (like heavy coats).
Members of the team, known inside the chain as climate merchants, study historical weather patterns and up-to-the-minute forecasts to advise colleagues on which products to buy and when to put them on the sales floor.
At their urging, Target’s plans for coats “have changed dramatically,” said Michael Alexin, vice president for apparel design and development at the chain.
“Retailers used to consider September the start of fall,” Mr. Alexin said. But Target now stocks lightweight jackets during that month, waiting until November to sell heavy coats. And even then, Target is avoiding the thickest fabrics. “We sell very, very little wool,” Mr. Alexin said.
For Weatherproof, forecasts and climatologists are not enough. The majority of the company’s business is done in November and December — and if the weather is unusually warm, as it was during those months last year, sales plunge. (The last several months were not much better, with August, September and October combined the warmest ever recorded for six states, according to Planalytics, a weather research firm.)
So in a closely watched experiment, Weatherproof signed a contract that guarantees it would be paid as much as $10 million if daily temperatures in New York City are warmer than the historical average for December, 37 degrees. The higher the temperature this month, the more money Weatherproof will be paid.
Weatherproof bought its coverage from a 1-year-old company called Storm Exchange, which also sells such contracts to oil and electricity companies.
David Riker, chief executive of Storm Exchange, said traditional forecasts can only tell clothing makers and stores so much. “If the weather was just getting warmer, it would be easy to plan for,” Mr. Riker said. “But global warming does just not mean warmer weather; it means more unpredictable weather.”
Last winter, for example, a warm December led shoppers to hold off on buying coats, so stores began marking down jacket prices and selling spring clothing early. But by January, temperatures dived.
Mr. Stollmack of Weatherproof said the $10 million weather protection, for which the company pays a significant fee, “is something we never hope to use, just like car insurance. But it’s there if you need it.”
“If the winter of 2006 was a fluke, and the fall of 2007 was a fluke, then great,” Mr. Stollmack added, standing amid racks of winter coats in the company’s Manhattan showroom.