Once upon a time, buying a new winter coat often meant getting caught between the proverbial "rock and a hard place."
The Rock: looking stylish. Sure, a leather bomber jacket oozes panache, but what happens when the mercury plummets below 40 degrees? Let's face it: A thin, waist-length garment simply doesn't do a great job at keeping out the cold.
The Hard Place: staying warm. True, a thick, bulky goose-down coat outfitted with a fur-lined hood lets you laugh at the cold. But for most business and social wear, the Nanook-of-the-North look just doesn't cut it.
Frustrating? You bet. As one New York fashion expert put it, "People who spend money on clothes are tired of looking good while freezing their rear ends off."
But take heart: Those were the bad old days. In 1992, buying a winter coat no longer means making the hard choice between style and function.
The trend this year is toward the best of both worlds -- a blend of the sensible and the aesthetic that not only looks good and keeps you toasty, but extends your wardrobe's range.
How was this minor miracle achieved? While traditional outerwear manufacturers aren't abandoning the classic overcoat, they are borrowing shapes, features and space-age materials found in active outdoor clothing.
And that's good news for anyone in the market for a new coat.
"What we're starting to see is a phenomenon called crossover dressing," says Brenda Drake, product development and design director for the specialty-fabric division of Milliken Mills in New York. "Manufacturers are taking features from skiing, shooting and backpacking outerwear and incorporating them into their everyday wardrobe."
The result, she says, is a winter coat that can fill several fashion niches.
The new trend actually got under way a few seasons ago when European and American designers such as Calvin Klein starting coming out with high fashion twists on the anorak -- a slimmer, upscale variation on the basic three-quarter-length, hooded pullover coat favored by mountain climbers.
Ms. Drake explains why the designer anorak is an innovative combination of warmth and style. "It's a very functional and aesthetic design that uses a high-tech, yet practical, fabric with a luxurious touch -- a microfiber." Microfibers are super-thin strands of nylon tightly woven into a durable, wind-resistant and extremely soft material.
And by adding space-age insulation such as Thinsulate -- a synthetic material that is said to provide almost twice the warmth of down -- manufacturers can create slimmer, warmer winter coats. And that, outerwear fashion experts say, increases a garment's versatility.
"There's a practicality in the new outerwear," says Helen Wagner, a spokeswoman for 3M, which developed Thinsulate in 1978. "It means a very sporty look can work for business dress, and business dress can work for social occasions."
Of course, multipurpose only goes so far: No one, for example, is suggesting that this new breed of winter coats should be worn at the North Pole. Yet many of this year's garments come with a wide array of snazzy features you'd expect to find on expedition wear.
"A lot of the details you'll find on fashion outerwear this year are what you associate with the real McCoy," says Don Vavala, an account manager at W. L. Gore and Associates in Elkton. The company manufactures Gore-Tex, a waterproof, breathable shell material frequently used in expedition clothing.
"Look for features such as double storm flaps on front zippers, inside waterproof pockets for keeping billfolds dry and 'pit zips' -- zippers mounted in the armpit area for ventilation."
While space-age materials are increasingly popular in fashion outerwear, that doesn't mean tried-but-true materials such as leather are passe.
For example, Timberland, famous for rugged leather footwear, has made a foray into the leather outerwear business -- but with a twist. The New Hampshire-based company's new line of classically styled field coats, bombers and wharf coats is made of leather that's fully waterproof and stain-resistant. Again, the operative word is versatility.
Colors, too, reflect the new down-to-earth practicality of this year's winter outerwear. In 1992, you'll find more subdued shades, especially when compared to the bright colors that predominated over the last few years.
"Neons are dead," Mr. Vavala declares, adding that most manufacturers are stressing rich, soft, earth-tones.
And prices? With consumers more value-conscious than ever, manufacturers are attempting to hold the line on costs, Mr. Vavala says. "Customers want a good garment that takes the place of several coats, or one that lasts many years. So we're not seeing dramatic price cuts or increases in the industry."
Retailers, confirming the trend toward functional, yet stylish, outerwear, report a strong demand for parkas and anoraks.