By  on December 13, 2006

Mark Breitbard, senior vice president and general manager of the Ruehl division at Abercrombie & Fitch, is joining Levi Strauss & Co. to head up retailing, WWD has learned.

Levi's, with revenues of $4.1 billion, has an opportunity to expand in retailing. There are only 65 company-owned stores in nine countries, according to the firm.

Levi's this year has been hurt by Wal-Mart's decision to devote more apparel space to private label brands and reduce its Levi's inventory, retail consolidation, a sluggish European retail environment and a sales dip in Japan.

For the three months ended Aug. 27, the San Francisco-based denim manufacturer reported that earnings climbed 28.8 percent to $49.3 million, compared with $38.2 million in the year-ago period. Much of the increase was attributed to a $29 million gain stemming from the planned closure of a distribution center in Little Rock, Ark.

Breitbard, considered an entrepreneurial, creative merchant more than a retail operator, has been with two-year-old Ruehl since March 2005, serving as the division's top executive and reporting to Mike Jeffries, chairman and chief executive officer of parent Abercrombie & Fitch and the driving force behind Ruehl.

Breitbard informed A&F of his decision to take a new job on Tuesday and will remain with the company for a week or so, in an amicable parting, said people close to the situation who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"He's leaving on good terms," said a source.

Breitbard's title at Levi's is believed to be president, in an appointment that portends a big push into retailing. Levi's recently opened a 3,500-square-foot store in Manhattan at 25 West 14th Street that shows a more refined approach to specialty retailing.

Levi Strauss officials were not available for comment Tuesday.

Ruehl is on target to be profitable by the end of fiscal 2007, the source said. The assortment is geared to appeal to women and men ages 22 to 30 and has been moving in a more casual direction and achieving stronger consumer response as a result. Same-store sales are up 17 percent, year-to-date, and there have been a few high-profile openings this month, including Westfield Topanga in California and Aventura Mall in Florida. A unit in Roosevelt Field shopping center in Garden City, N.Y., is to open around February. Other openings were in the West­field San Francisco Centre and Dallas Galleria. A total of 14 Ruehl stores are operating.A&F probably won't rush to find a successor to Breitbard, considering that the top Ruehl merchants responsible for major classifications, such as denim, knit tops and outerwear, have been reporting to Jeffries, who maintains a hands-on style.

Before joining Ruehl, Breit­bard was in merchandising at GapKids, babyGap and Banana Republic. His background includes running a start-up juice business in Europe called Fresh Europe. For a year at Gap, he was the personal assistant to then-ceo Mickey Drexler, who is currently chairman and ceo of J. Crew Group. Breitbard was involved in a range of activities for Drexler, from organizational and strategic issues to writing speech copy.

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