By  on March 5, 2009

Stacks of boxes loaded with sportswear from overseas arrive daily at Sharon Young, one of the few veteran Dallas apparel companies to emerge stronger from the industry’s contraction over the last 15 years.

“It’s amazing how much stuff comes in here every day,” marveled Ed Vierling, chairman and chief executive, during a tour of the company’s 40,000 square-foot warehouse and headquarters on the northeast edge of the city. “You can see we’re crowded.”

While other fashion firms are slimming to survive the economic and retail downturn, Sharon Young is growing. This month, it will spread to another 10,000 feet of warehouse space to support sales expected to eclipse $30 million for the fiscal year beginning in April.

Three years ago, when Vierling bought a stake in the company with business partner and sales manager Sam Klapholz, sales were $7 million and the firm was struggling. But they got it on track by moving production to China and India to cut costs and improving computer and processing systems for greater efficiency.

“Right now it is such a dangerous environment, we are just putting our heads down and keeping going,” said Vierling, who worked for decades at Jerell and Haggar Clothing Co. before investing in Sharon Young, whose founder continues to design her namesake label. “It’s going great right now.”

The company markets to a broad range of women over age 30 who like embellished sportswear and pay $60 to $220 for novelty jackets and coordinates. Besides a mushrooming private label business with Coldwater Creek, most of the firms growth has been through acquisitions. The company snapped up City Girl by Nancy Bolen in August 2006, reviving the dormant label with Bolen as partner and designer, mining its trove of graphic artwork and axing unprofitable divisions.

Last fall, when Sharon Young purchased Jerell LLC and its Multiples sportswear line from Haggar, Vierling bought back the 50-year-old company he and Jerry Frankel had sold to Haggar in 1999. Though Vierling continued to manage it under Haggar with Klapholz, they and other Jerell veterans were dismissed in February 2006 after private equity firms took over Haggar. Within days, Vierling and Klapholz were hunting for turnaround prospects, and in May 2006 they invested in Young.

“We’ve been able to get in touch with companies that are struggling and feed into our core strengths,” Vierling said. “We always worked through economic downturns, and we knew we wanted Jerell back here. We brought in the designer, John Bourgeois, as a partner, and brought 14 people over from Haggar. We got the cream.”

Vierling has high hopes for continued growth of Multiples, an item-driven line that retails for less than $100. It is sold to Dillard’s, Nordstrom and Von Maur, the Army and Air Force Exchange Service and about 800 specialty stores. Multiples offers fashion flair at a price, such as a plush acrylic fur swing jacket with a balloon sleeve, unlined jackets with bound seams and silk blend sweaters with buckle details.

“I want customers to have the look of a better garment, and we’re constantly fine-tuning it,” noted Bourgeois. “I look at sales every morning to see how the customer is voting. She likes color, prints and embellishment. I try to make sure every top or jacket goes with a lot of things — with jeans, with black pants. We’re building a wardrobe. The beauty of Multiples is that each item is designed to stand on its own.”

Vierling attributes part of the firm’s success to the fact that the designers of each of the three divisions are partners in their respective brands.

“When you have an ownership position in something you think differently,” he reflected. “It’s yours. I always tell my staff, treat it like it’s your own money and you’ll make the right decision.”

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