CHICAGO -- Hartmarx Corp. narrowed its loss by nearly one-half in the first quarter ended Feb. 28, to $720,000 from $1.2 million a year ago.

The tailored clothing giant said it was helped by a "renewed interest in traditional clothing," a strong response to its new Tommy Hilfiger lines, and extensive downsizing efforts.

Hartmarx's International Women's Apparel unit was the only operating unit to report a loss in the first quarter, the company said. However, the loss was in line with expectations.

The unit includes the brands MM by Krizia, Austin Reed, Suburbans and Escadrille. The company declined to disclose the amount of the loss, but Wallace L. Rueckel, chief financial officer, in a telephone interview noted that International Women's Apparel "is a small business competing in a tough market."

Rueckel said IWA has launched new brands that Hartmarx expects will perform well when the women's apparel market improves.

The company said further that sales increased in Barrie Pace Ltd., the women's careerwear catalog that is separate from IWA.

Overall, Hartmarx's net sales in the quarter eased 4.8 percent to $177.9 million from $186.9 million.

The company said sales from continuing operations rose $5.1 million. Continuing operations excluded the effect of the disposition of non-core uniform business in 1993, the closing of 53 underperforming Kuppenheimer store locations, and reduced sales to HSSI, its former specialty store unit.

Sales to HSSI were reduced to $7.3 million in the latest quarter from $13.2 million a year earlier.

"The repositioning of Hartmarx as a manufacturer and marketer of career and sports apparel has restored profitability, substantially reduced debt and expenses and has enabled the company to successfully complete a total debt refinancing," said Elbert O. Hand, chairman and chief executive officer, in a statement.

"The reduction of our debt remains top priority," added Hand. At the end of March, the company's debt was $26 million lower than 1993 levels and $99 million below 1992 levels.

Hand said that improved operating results and cash flow helped the company to complete the sale of $100 million of public subordinated notes in March and a $15.5 million industrial development bond refunding in December 1993. Hartmarx also completed a new $175 million three-year revolving credit facility effective last month."Our outlook for 1994 is positive and if the strength in the tailored clothing market persists, we expect to achieve an improvement in earnings before interest, depreciation, taxes, and the extraordinary item compared to 1993," Hand said.

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