Pressure Cooker

Tough times apparently call for drastic measures. Faced with more than a year of disappointing earnings reports, three of the biggest U.S. public apparel conglomerates are redefining the role of the wholesaler.

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WWD Year In Fashion issue 2007/12/11
All this is an attempt to turn the company around by investing in "power brands" Juicy Couture, Lucky Brand Jeans, Kate Spade and Mexx, while divesting the traditional wholesale business that has been dogging Claiborne, with three straight quarters of 65 percent earnings declines in 2007.

The year's pivotal moment came July 11, when McComb hosted "Investor Day" to share his vision of growing the company's power brands, particularly their retail sides, and putting on review 16 partnered brands: Ellen Tracy, Dana Buchman, Sigrid Olsen, Prana, Enyce, Laundry by Design, C&C California, Mac & Jac, Kensie, Emma James, Tapemeasure, J.H. Collectibles, Stamp 10 (for Kohl's), Tint (for J.C. Penney), Intuition (for Dillard's) and First Issue (for Sears).

"This is a company that has revolutionized the industry before, and we look forward to doing it again," McComb said at the conference. "Our growth has slowed and our returns have stalled, indicating we have reached another turning point. We overplayed the acquisition playbook, but it proved a successful strategy that delivered four gems that will lead growth."

Claiborne broke the selling process into phases and completed "Phase I" in September, when it sealed the fate of its seven moderate brands: selling Emma James, Tapemeasure, JH Collectibles and Intuitions to Li & Fung USA, a subsidiary of Li & Fung Ltd.; folding Stamp 10 and Tint into its Axcess and Liz & Co. lines, and shuttering First Issue. The firm is now in "Phase II" and has formally accepted bids for the remaining nine brands, according to sources. McComb predicts the sales process will be finalized by the end of the first quarter of next year.

One brand the company is sticking with is its flagship Liz Claiborne, despite the troubles the label has faced in the past year. After the group partnered with J.C. Penney on Liz & Co., an exclusive diffusion line, Macy's dropped Liz Claiborne in many of its doors and shrunk the collection's real estate in others. Volume for the core brand continues to slide, though exclusive lines such as Liz & Co. are countering some of the losses for the $1.5 billion Liz Claiborne brand family. And, while it's selling some, it is also buying. In May, Claiborne bought 50 percent of Narciso Rodriguez for $12 million.
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