SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA COMFORT : It'll be cold soon. No, really. Time to bundle up and get cozy. . .

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Forget your coat? That won't be likely if you're sporting one of this season's long shearling overcoats or other memorable outerwear.

Designers have created all kinds of unforgettable coats for the coming big chill. There are coats of many colors, materials and shapes--short or long, full or fitted, belted or loose.

Many styles flow like never before. There are sweeping A-line swing coats that move with the body. Some coats are inspired by the 1940s; they come fitted to the waist and flare all the way to the ankles.

There are little car coats that tie around the middle and reach to the thigh and long, three-button coats made of soft, cushy wool and cashmere blends.

To bring out the beast in people, there are coats covered in fake fur. Others are made of genuine leather and animal skins, the oldest materials known to man for keeping warm.

Designers from Calvin Klein to Dolce & Gabbana have developed a sheep mentality regarding coats, using shearling on collars, cuffs or the entire garment. Calvin Klein indulged heavily in the woolly stuff, creating a long coat entirely covered in dark brown shearling ($2,150 at Barneys New York in Costa Mesa).

People began buying up shearling coats as early as August, says Don Witkowski, vice president and divisional merchandise manager of men's clothing at Barneys New York in New York City.

"Shearling's been selling well, even in Southern California, because it's lightweight. It's uncanny the way it's taken off," Witkowski says.

For those who feel sheepish in shearling, Barneys has coats in leather, suede and soft wovens that remind one of wool blankets.

"They're fun with jeans and sweaters or over a sport coat," Witkowski says.

Dolce & Gabbana created a short, loose coat out of a heavy charcoal-colored ribbed knit that feels as comfortable as an old sweater but has a lot more style ($885). Another relaxed style is Barneys' loose-fitting jacket of wool plaid in earthy shades of ecru and gray ($445) and a soft, three-button coat in buttery black suede ($695). All are available at Barneys in South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa.

Among Emporio Armani's fashion-forward coats this season are wool-cashmere swing coats, faux fur car coats and long princess coats with banded collars and fitted bodices that flare at the bottom.

"What makes them unique is we take classic styles and make them in non-traditional fabrics," says Courtney Chamine, spokeswoman for Emporio Armani in New York City.

Shearling appears on everything from bomber jackets to long overcoats. One men's collarless overcoat is covered in tan-colored shearling ($730), available at the Emporio Armani boutique in South Coast Plaza.

'It's really fun and youthful," Chamine says. "There's a twist to it."

Classic coat styles also get a wilder look thanks to fake fur. There's a car coat for women that's covered in plush fake chinchilla ($790).

"It can be worn with a great wool sweater and velvet skirt. It's meant to be playful," Chamine says.

How to work a fake chinchilla coat or shearling overcoat into the wardrobe? Chamine says the key is to mix materials. For instance, she recommends wearing a pair of suede or cashmere gloves and a velvet beret with the chinchilla car coat.

"It's taking a lot of different elements and putting them together into a chic outfit," she says.

In contrast to the luxurious fakes, Western wear designers are creating ranch-style coats out of authentic natural materials. They're using genuine skins as well as finds such as arrowheads and turquoise beads to create jackets with character, according to Ted Greve, buyer and general manager of Out of Santa Fe in Fashion Island Newport Beach.

"They're going back to their roots," Greve says. Many make their jackets by hand out of goat-, calf- and deerskin. Some coats have hand-crafted details such as fringe, braiding and whip-stitching. Hand-braided leather trim adorns a black leather jacket by Ren Ellis ($655), while long fringe decorates a wheat-colored pigskin jacket by Patricia Wolf ($595).

Designer/artist Robert Bowley of Santa Fe hand-paints his jackets with pictures of Indians, horses and other Western motifs. One of his deerskin jackets has a mountain lion painted on the back ($1,850).

Dusters, rugged-looking, canvas overcoats, are another favorite with people who prefer natural, back-to-basics cover-ups. Dusters were originally designed for riding a horse (hence the split up the back), but they've proved popular with city slickers. They're available at Out of Santa Fe for about $150 to $250.

"People are moving away from processed, synthesized looks," Greve says.

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