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Rock the coat: Winter outerwear scales to new stylistic heights

A model wears a Hermes military jacket while on scene in the Canadian Badlands.

Wilkosz + Way for The Globe and Mail/wilkosz + way The Globe and Mail

Most people can be divided into two camps when it comes to buying coats: those who shop when the first deliveries hit stores in August and those who hold off until the temperature dips low enough to remind them that winter is inevitable. And then there are those who resist buying a new coat altogether, clinging to their serviceable old toppers season after season.

In previous years, holdouts could be forgiven for sticking to their favourites, as exciting coat offerings have often been slim. Not so this season: The wealth of current winter-coat options – unusually fashionable for a largely unglamorous category – may even tempt that last group to splurge on a new anorak or two. Indeed, the idea of owning more than one coat is gaining currency, turning outerwear into stand-alone statement makers.

"I definitely think that a coat wardrobe is key; we champion a coat for every occasion," Flare magazine's fashion director, Elizabeth Cabral, enthuses. "You can't just have one that does it all."

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And why would you want to? This season, distinctive fabrications like wool woven with metallic fibres or sumptuous alpaca, more directional shapes (including sloped shoulders, maxi lengths and cocooning bodies), novelty details such as fur (real or faux) and unconventional shades such as mandarin orange and deep turquoise are taking the coat beyond the utilitarian.

For their part, designers are increasingly producing distinctive coat styles rather than a varied range, whether it's Alexander Wang's poncho/cape hybrids, Givenchy's satiny leopard-print varsity jackets, Gucci's seventies-evoking maxi-coats, the draped capes at Lanvin, Celine's men's-wear-inspired styles or Stella McCartney's austere knee-length car coats. The trend, if that word is applicable any more, posits coats as occasion-specific showstoppers.

MaxMara, the Italian fashion label celebrating its 60th anniversary through 2011 with a travelling exhibition called 60 Years of Coats, has embraced this notion for years, as the infinite design variations on display in the show (many of which inform today's popular styles) vividly bring into focus.

Suzanne Timmins, fashion director at The Bay, cites the varsity jacket as an example of the new outerwear. "People once scoffed, but now it looks chic. I think it has to do with its silhouette, the dropped shoulder. You start to think Balenciaga. It makes sense to the eye."

Timmins also notes that brands are positioning coats more prominently within collections while also increasing their offerings. "The whole coat thing has been happening in a really strong way for four years now," she says. "There's no doubt it's a huge part of the assortment in [fashion]showrooms, whether designer or contemporary."

For the second year now, The Bay has reintroduced its Top Ten Coats program, showcasing a range of military, duffle and down-filled styles (none cost more than $279.99) in stores and online. Despite such efforts, "there are [elements]that will usually not be translated directly from the runway in time – a certain colour, for example. But most often, when we're working on our coat programs, we can catch a look," Timmins notes, adding that stores are still receiving fresh inventory.

To those still mentally filing coats under "utility," doubting the impact of outerwear, Flare's Cabral cautions: "[A coat]is the first thing people see you in; you could walk around the city and never take it off. The right coat over a basic outfit can translate into a high-fashion look."

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Eran Elfassy and Elisa Dahan, co-founders and designers of Canadian label Mackage, which launched in 1999, maintain that coats have now claimed a position alongside bags and shoes as far as wardrobe priorities go. "People see your coat for a longer time than what's underneath," Dahan says. Consequently, "people are putting more dollars into their coats," Elfassy says. "It's an important part of the outfit."

On the subject of what's worn beneath, the coat's new showiness goes hand in hand with a throwing out of the old coat rules: For example, a dress no longer demands a formal coat, while anoraks don't always have to be paired with sportswear. Mixing instead of matching is the vogue. Don a parka with a sequin dress or create cool textural contrasts.

"It's always about the unexpected; that's what sets your look apart," Cabral says. "There's always a little irony and push-and-pull. Also, I'm a huge proponent of seasonless and eventless dressing; don't save the fancy for fancy occasions. Pull out that showstopper coat and put a daytime twist on it."

Amid all this enthusiasm for coats, there is the risk, of course, of accumulating too many. Timmins, for one, is in the midst of organizing a clothing sale for her friends and family, including coats from Costume National and Ann Demeulemeester among the half dozen she hopes will find a new home.

For the record, she belongs in the early-bird camp, having already purchased an inky blue Ungaro pea coat for this winter. "I keep buying new ones even though there's nothing wrong with my others. I could change my coat each day of the week. For us Canadians, the winter can be so depressing. Changing your coat can add vibrancy; it can lift your mood."

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