By  on May 7, 2007

NEW YORK — Narciso Rodriguez has finally found himself a new partner, and it is none other than Liz Claiborne Inc.

Claiborne and Rodriguez will announce today that they have entered into a partnership, with the $4.99 billion apparel giant buying a 50 percent ownership in the designer's name and trademarks. They will create a new company to build the Narciso Rodriguez brand globally, with the designer serving as the creative director.

It was widely known in fashion circles that Rodriguez was looking for investors to build his business worldwide, and this could be the deal to help him realize his goals. It remained unclear at press time what the deal means for Rodriguez's manufacturing arrangement with Aeffe SpA, although it is possible that relationship could end. Rodriguez's unhappiness with the Aeffe relationship has been one of fashion's worst kept secrets, and Aeffe made no mention of the designer in its earnings report last month.

"Narciso's strong following and high recognition level position his business well for considerable organic growth," William L. McComb, chief executive officer of Claiborne, said in a statement. "In addition to the expansion of the existing collection business, we feel there are abundant brand extension opportunities in nonapparel and licensing categories, as well as increased international distribution. Further, we see potential in the direct-to-consumer channel on a worldwide basis."

Rodriguez said in the statement: "Collaborating with Liz Claiborne will enable me to focus on my work and all of its possibilities. Bill McComb and his team have a clear understanding of my vision and are committed to help me realize my dream."

McComb and Rodriguez were unavailable for additional comment on Sunday.

After studying at the Parsons School of Design, the Cuban-American designer started his career at Anne Klein, under Donna Karan, and later worked at Calvin Klein, Cerruti and Loewe. He became a household name after creating the bias-cut pearl silk crepe wedding gown for his friend Carolyn Bessette Kennedy. He launched his own namesake business in 1997. Rodriguez won the CFDA Womenswear Designer of the Year award in 2002 and 2003. He is best known for clean lines and figure-hugging dresses favored by Jessica Seinfeld, Sarah Jessica Parker, Salma Hayek and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. He added men's wear in 2005. Rodriguez's collections are sold at specialty stores such as Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Barneys New York and Bergdorf Goodman. He also has a fragrance line in a licensing deal with Beauté Prestige International.Despite the accolades, Rodriguez has always struggled to build critical mass globally. The designer hired former Giorgio Armani executive Roberto Pesaro as president and ceo of his company last year, but the executive left in less than 10 months. The Narciso Rodriguez flagship in Milan shut its doors around February amid recurring speculation of the designer's strained relationship with Aeffe. ElixirAdvisors represented the designer in the Claiborne deal.

This is the first major apparel deal for Claiborne under McComb. Rodriguez is at a higher price tier than other Claiborne divisions, which include Kate Spade, Juicy Couture, Ellen Tracy, Dana Buchman and Sigrid Olsen.

"Unlike acquisitions of fully scaled businesses, here we are affiliating with one of the world's finest designers to organically build a broad business in a growing and profitable category that we do not currently operate in — the luxury designer segment — that is sold in productive and partnership-oriented upscale retailers," McComb said in the statement. "The chance to work with Narciso to significantly grow his business while retaining his unique vision of timeless elegance was right in line with our commitment to outstanding designers and design excellence. We were compelled to seize on this opportunity now."

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