NEW YORK -- Crystal Brands said a strengthening of its costume jewelry business helped cut the company's operating loss in the first quarter ended April 2 to $2.1 million from $3.8 million a year ago.

The firm, operating in Chapter 11 since Jan. 21, also cited a stabilizing of its Izod operations, consisting of men's and women's sportswear.

After interest expense and professional fees, the net loss was $7.1 million in the most recent quarter. Last year, interest charges and a charge due to an accounting change put the net loss at $24.2 million.

The company also attributed better results in the quarter to improvements in gross margin, to 32.6 percent from 26.4 percent last year, and in selling, general and administrative expenses, dropping to $31.9 million from $33.8 million a year ago.

Sales in the period, reflecting the absence of the discontinued Lacoste merchandise and Izod youth wear as well as lower sales of women's sportswear, dropped 19.5 percent to $91.5 million from $113.7 million a year ago. Last fall, the company sold its Evan-Picone women's sportswear business to Jones Apparel Group.

A breakout of figures by business segments for the first quarter shows that the jewelry group -- which consists of the Trifari, Monet and Marvella brands -- had an operating profit of $829,000 on sales of $35.3 million. The firm did not make available comparable figures from a year ago.

As reported, Crystal Brands, along with filing Chapter 11, put its jewelry business on the block. However, in an interview last month, Crystal Brands' chairman and chief executive officer Charles J. Campbell said the firm would consider a sale only if "we were to realize full value for the business." He wouldn't say what that value is.

Among the company's other businesses, golf and tennis wear for men and women showed $618,000 operating profit on sales of $9.5 million in the quarter; Izod women's wear had operating profit of $92,000 on sales of $3.7 million; retail outlet business lost $2.5 million from operations on $15.6 million in sales, and operating income from royalties came to $1.4 million. The Gant men's wear business had operating profit of $618,000 on sales of $16.1 million in the quarter, and Izod men's wear had a loss of $156,000 on revenues of $12.5 million.According to Campbell, Crystal Brands will post an operating profit in 1994, but expenses related to the Chapter 11 will result in a net loss for the year.

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