By  on January 12, 1994

SHENANDOAH, Ga. -- Using tough measures that fit the times, Bleyle Inc., a women's sportswear firm known for its traditional wool separates for an over-50 audience, has moved into the black for the first time in three years.

New owners and management have not only streamlined the operation, they are also looking to expand the label's appeal to a younger customer.

The company -- formerly known as Bleyle of America -- was purchased in April by the owners of Fashion Star Inc., a Carrollton, Ga.-based maker of bank and airline uniforms with annual sales of $8.5 million. It was acquired from Achim Walz, the owner of Bleyle in Europe, a 105-year-old apparel company based in Sindelfingen, Germany. The European firm set up the U.S. unit here, about 45 miles south of Atlanta, in 1978.

Sales of the U.S. operation reached $35 million in 1990, but dropped to $19 million in 1992.

"The company was in trouble," said Michael Young, president of Fashion Star, and now also president of Bleyle. "We're trying to turn it around, first by cutting out excess."

The new owners have sliced expenses in half, by closing the New York showroom, laying off 12 upper management employees, reducing excess inventory and restructuring fabric purchasing. Two of Bleyle's six retail outlets have been closed, with the remaining stores becoming Fashion Direct outlet stores operated by Fashion Star. Outlet sales have been reduced from 30 percent to 10 percent of total volume.

Production was cut from 320,000 units in 1992 to 280,000 for 1993, mostly through the reduction of off-price sales. Inventory is now cut to order and delivery period, rather than total style number.

The company has shown a pretax profit of around 7 percent of net sales each month since June. Sales for 1993 totaled about $17 million.

"We've established a specialized niche with the older customer -- one who tends to have money to spend, but has often been ignored," said new designer Melanie Young. By incorporating new fabrics and softer silhouettes, Young wants to gradually move Bleyle in a younger direction, as well as satisfy the varying needs of its existing customer base.

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