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NEW BREED OF SPORT COATS CRUISING INTO WARDROBES

SHARE NEW BREED OF SPORT COATS CRUISING INTO WARDROBES

Weatherman Willard Scott, Kramer of "Seinfeld" and the stereotypical used-car salesman: What do the three have in common?

Loud, obnoxious, in-your-face sport coats.After being muscled aside by the power suits of the '80s, sport coats are back - but not, thankfully, the Scott-Kramer-salesman variety.

When describing the latest incarnation of this versatile, informal jacket, clothing experts use words like "elegant," "gentrified," "lofty" and "fashionable." (Not adjectives usually linked to Scott, Kramer, et al.)

The new sport coat is the one worn by such icons of style as menswear designers Ralph Lauren (heather-gray tweed with blue jeans), Bob Mackie (muted checks with dark dress pants) and Tommy Hilfiger (navy blue twill with khaki chinos).

Sport coats, which can range in price from about $100 to more than $1,000, are taking off because of the new casualness in the way men are dressing, said Erin Gaff-ney, spokeswoman for the giant Hartmarx Corp., manufacturer of the Hart Schaffner & Marx, Austin Reed and KM by Krizia lines.

"From three years ago, our sport coat sales have gone up 50 percent overall," Gaffney said.

At J.C. Penney stores, sport coat sales have jumped more than 25 percent since last October, said Joe Sapienza, director and vice president of merchandise development.

"This reflects a growing trend toward more latitude in dress codes in the business world. The suit and tie are no longer mandatory. A sport coat offers flexibility and a more comfortable fit," Sapienza said.

"These are not staid, traditional sport coats," he added. "The consumer is reacting to the variety of new fabrics, patterns and colors. The dominant trend is a country look. Our best seller is by Hunt Club - a tweedy jacket in browns and greens with suede elbow patches."

Sport coat business is also brisk at Lands' End, a mail-order company. "We've been talking about more casual dress for the office for a couple of years - now it's a reality," said spokesman Joe Sirianni.

As a result, Lands' End has seen "significant growth" in sport coats over the past three years - including a jump in sales of about 28 percent in the past year, said Franz Weiglein, another spokesman.

For Jack Herschlag, executive director of the National Association of Men's Sportswear Buyers, the ultimate proof of the sport coat's newfound popularity is this:

"A few years ago, The Gap was not in the sport coat business. Now it's heavily into it," Herschlag said.

John Schwarz, a pharmaceuticals salesman from Casselberry, Fla., is sold on sport coats. "I like the versatility. They can be dressed down with a denim shirt and pair of khakis. But they're also appropriate for business with dress pants and a dress shirt and tie. You can't really dress a suit down," Schwarz said.

"They're more practical from the cost perspective and the comfort perspective. I can see I'm going to be buying more sport coats and fewer suits from now on."

Orlando clothiers say a well-constructed sport coat in a good quality fabric probably will cost at least $250.

The traditional sport coat, according to Fairchild's Dictionary of Fashion, is "a man's tailored, hip-length coat, usually of wool tweed, worn with a shirt and tie or turtleneck shirt but with non-matching trousers, for daytime wear in place of a business suit."

Many sport coats still fit this definition. However, according to Herschlag, "We've broken through the mental barrier that sport coats belong only to tailored clothing."