Is Climate Change Making the Big Winter Coat Obsolete?

In Fashion

Veilance’s creative director Taka Kasuga says he prefers the term “global weirding” to “global warming.” Climate change is creating weather systems that are unpredictable, causing chillier temperatures in Vancouver, where Kasuga lives—but weather across Europe and Asia so friendly that Kasuga packed only a carry-on for a recent three-week trip that spanned Paris, Berlin, and Tokyo. Kasuga is the creative director of one of menswear’s most tech-forward, future-looking outerwear brands, so it’s not a surprise that this weirdness has been top of mind for him: it affects what he designs, the types of coats he’s thinking about, and the materials Veilance seems to beam in from space. Kasuga isn’t alone in his quest, either. Dramatic changes to the climate means that making and selling a winter coat requires more thought than ever from retailers and designers.

Because, without a doubt, global temperatures are rising: 2019 was the second-hottest year ever recorded (2016 tops that list), and the ‘10s are the warmest decade ever. Headlines detailing how this place–Alaska—and that—the U.K.—are experiencing higher-than-ever temperatures are increasingly commonplace. And on a practical level, freakishly warm temperatures mean that many of us no longer get those single-temp days requiring us to really start dressing, turning instead to lighter jackets in early January when we would typically be bundled up. After another springy day in the beginning of January spent wearing an unusually light outer layer, I wondered: is our warmer weather killing the winter coat industry? Or are those most invested in its success at least girding for its potential collapse? The answer is perhaps surprising. The winter coat industry is doing just fine.

The explanation is extraordinarily simple: when it gets cold—and it still does, if not as frequently and intensely—people buy coats. “If the cold snaps on a Friday, you have a phenomenal weekend selling outerwear,” says Sam Lobban, the vice president of designer ready-to-wear at Nordstrom. “The first big cold snap of the winter is always, if I’m honest, a massive relief for the retail world.” The biggest difference is in coat-buying habits, Lobban says. Now, retailers like Nordstrom are adaptable enough that winter coats no longer sit out when customers don’t want them in the early twinkles of winter. Now, September-through-November is set up to sell mid-layer pieces, and when the cold finally whooshes in in December, January, and February, the big coats hit the floor. Lobban compares it to a store pushing its umbrellas to the entrance when it starts to rain. But even with the shift, the net effect is the same: temperatures may be climbing, but in the world of retail, winter is coming. “We had a really good year this year selling coats,” Lobban says.

More holistic results show that Nordstrom isn’t the only one selling coats despite climate change. Global coat sales are steadily growing, according to figures provided by Euromonitor: in 2015, retailers sold $100.4 billion worth of coats, and by 2018, sales were up to $107.8 billion. That number jumped again last year to $110.7 billion. (Sales just in the U.S. stuck around the $20 to $21 billion range over that same span.) But why are coat sales sustaining in the face of rising temperatures?

Part of growing (or at least unchanged sales) comes down to brands designing more carefully. “The old great days of really cold winters are gone,” Andrea Cané, the creative director of coat-brand Woolrich, says a little wistfully. “Adapting to changing environments is now the standard to developing garments in our industry.” Over the decades, Woolrich was the coat maker of record for “lumberjacks” and “Alaskan pipeline workers,” says Cané. Now, it makes coats for, say, creative directors who need a coat to pop down to the bodega for more mango-flavored Juul pods. Woolrich has just the thing: new parkas coming out of the brand’s design studio emphasize breathability and lightweight materials. Lobban adds that all the brands Nordstrom stocks are pivoting to making coats with “multiple different end uses”—meaning a heavy jacket only useful for battling arctic colds won’t cut it anymore.

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