NEW YORK -- As Liz Claiborne Inc. struggles to win back the enthusiasm of its customers, the $2.2 billion apparel giant is facing a rapidly rising hurdle: Jones Apparel Group.

Jones, which built its business on Jones New York career wear, has shifted into high gear in the battle for a bigger piece of the better-price sportswear market, both casual and career.

Observers note that Jones is taking direct aim at its chief rival, Claiborne, the country's largest women's apparel manufacturer and four times as big as Jones.

Last November, Jones, based in Bristol, Pa., acquired the beleaguered but long-established Evan-Picone trademark, spruced it up, and launched a career sportswear line under the label for fall, with casual sportswear and dress lines to follow.

For spring 1994, Jones introduced a casual sportswear line under the less expensive Rena Rowan for Saville brand. At the same time, the company is whipping up an aggressive pricing strategy to push its casual sportswear lines -- Jones New York Sport, which consists primarily of knitted garments, and Jones & Co., which features washed and relaxed woven products -- into more retail doors. In 1992, the company introduced Jones Wear, a line of moderate-price traditional career sportswear, which is being sold at 260 J.C. Penney doors.

While the sportswear industry has been in a rut for the past two years, Jones has experienced hefty sales and earnings increases. In 1993, Jones posted a 20 percent jump in earnings, to $49.7 million, and a 24 percent sales increase, to $541.1 million. In comparison, Liz Claiborne's earnings last year skidded 42 percent, to $126.9 million, while sales edged ahead only 0.5 percent, to $2.2 billion.

"The reason for our success even in this difficult market is simple -- we've paid attention to our product, and we've been consistent," said Andrew Grossman, president of Jones Apparel, adding that he's aiming to build the company to $1 billion in sales in three years. "We haven't been all over the place in sourcing, and there hasn't been any huge fluctuation in pricing."

Analysts also attribute Jones's stellar performance in recent seasons to gaining market share from J.H. Collectibles, another big name in career sportswear, and Evan-Picone, under its former ownership at Crystal Brands. Now, they say it is profiting from the woes of Liz Claiborne, whose core $1.2 billion sportswear business, consisting of Collection, LizSport and LizWear, has seen some rough times over the past year.

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