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Q&A With Jones Apparel Group

On a recent afternoon, Wesley Card, CEO and president of Jones Apparel Group Inc., bumped into Rachel Roy, the newest addition to the company’s portfolio.

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An ad from the Vintage America campaign

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NEW YORK — On a recent afternoon, Wesley Card, CEO and president of Jones Apparel Group Inc., bumped into Rachel Roy, the newest addition to the company’s designer portfolio, outside Jones’ midtown Manhattan offices.

She asked to snap his photo and later posted it on her Twitter feed. Comments from Rachel Roy fans quickly came pouring in: “He looks so nice!” “He looks fun!” — not the usual descriptions for the CEO of a $3.62 billion firm.

Card’s intimate relationship with his company’s key players has been critical during a year when Jones has navigated unprecedented economic challenges.

“We really [have been] focused on getting the house in order and getting the core brands running well,” Card said in a recent interview. “The economy is still tough, and it’s a tough period to operate in, but we’re still doing as well as we can — and better than others. We’re well positioned for when the recovery really starts to take hold.”

Along with his right-hand man, Andrew Cohen, CEO of footwear, accessories and retail at Jones, Card has revamped the company’s footwear portfolio brand by brand, with a focus on value and design in each of its flagship labels, from Nine West to Easy Spirit. And with most shoes ranging from $69 to $89, said Card, “our brands are in the sweet spot for today’s economy.”

Meanwhile, as other companies have scaled back on new initiatives, Jones continues to invest in growth, this year launching Rachel Rachel Roy, an exclusive contemporary brand at Macy’s; a Vintage America collection within its Nine West brand; and the Shoe Woo retail concept, which offers a multibrand approach to footwear shopping.

In the last few weeks, in particular, footwear has been a bright spot for the firm, thanks to brisk boot sales.

“We can’t keep boots in stock,” Card said at last week’s Women’s Wear Daily CEO Summit. “[Shoppers] are buying boots like there’s no tomorrow. When consumers see an item they really want, [they’re buying it].”

Still, like most this year, the firm has had to make tough choices and has worked to aggressively cut costs, from scaling back marketing to shutting down stores. By the end of 2010, Jones will have closed 265 locations.

“They’ve put everything under a microscope,” said retail analyst Jennifer Black, president of Jennifer Black Associates. “They’re trying to use their dollars wisely, and, I think, succeeding.”

Last month, Jones reported that third-quarter net income rose 11 percent to $30.4 million, or 36 cents a share. And, excluding certain items, earnings per share came in well ahead of analysts’ estimates at 46 cents, versus 34 cents the prior year. Reflecting a broader industry trend, the firm’s revenues have taken a hit this year and were down 11 percent for the third quarter.

Heading into holiday, Card is optimistic that slim inventories will help the company — and other industry players — end the year on a bright note.

“This holiday season I’m not so focused on the [sales] comps, but the profits on those comps are going to be much better,” Card said. “There will be less inventory, less clearance.”

Card and Cohen recently sat down with Footwear News for an exclusive interview about their strategy heading into 2010.

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