By  on January 18, 2006

NEW YORK — Sue Patneaude is waving goodbye to retail after almost four decades at Nordstrom.

Effective March 1, Nordstrom Inc.'s executive vice president of women's designer apparel is retiring and handing over the baton to national merchandise manager of designer apparel Jennifer Wheeler.

Patneaude, 59, is credited for launching the designer apparel business at Nordstrom and building it into one of its top-selling categories. She also launched the Via C departments in 2000, which focus on emerging fashion talent, and played a key role in creating the concept for the new designer category that Nordstrom is launching online next month.

Wheeler joined the retailer's Bellevue, Wash., unit as a saleswoman in 1983 and became the collectors department manager at the Hillsdale, Calif., store in 1986. Four months later, she took up a similar post at the downtown Seattle store. She became a collectors buyer in 1988 and, 11 years later, was promoted to national European designer sportswear buyer. She has been in her current role since 2000, working in tandem with Patneaude.

"This is a very addictive business — it's almost impossible to leave it when you love it," Patneaude told WWD on Tuesday. "I decided at some point that I wanted to do something else. The business is strong and the team is experienced. If not now, then when?"

In 1992, Patneaude left Nordstrom to spend more time with her family, but returned a year later.

When Patneaude joined the retailer in 1968 as a saleswoman, it was a two-unit operation largely associated with footwear, which is where it had its origins. Nordstrom now counts 98 stores with a strong presence in designer sportswear, offering collections such as Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, Marc Jacobs and Dolce & Gabbana. Patneaude also is credited with turning Nordstrom onto Jeffrey, the two-unit specialty store it purchased last year.

"She essentially invented the designer division," said Pete Nordstrom, president of full-line stores. "We were always considered an underdog and she has really had to persevere. There wasn't a roadmap — she had to invent it. She has been sensational in how she has represented the company and forged relationships."In 1970, Patneaude was on Nordstrom's first buying trip to Europe, and in 1973, she became buyer for the collectors department, which she practically had to invent from scratch. In 1981, she was promoted to merchandise manager in designer apparel and, in 1985, to vice president, corporate merchandise manager for designer apparel and bridge. Since 1997, she has been overseeing the store's collectors and couture departments as vice president of women's designer apparel. She was named executive vice president in 2003.

"My goal was to create an even playing field for our company in the designer business," Patneaude said. "Sometimes that was challenging because we were new to that business, and because others were more established. My greatest satisfaction is that today, the market and customers consider us a top designer player."

Patneaude also launched Nordstrom's special-occasion and Savvy departments in the Eighties and, in 2000, channeled her passion for emerging talents into Via C, Nordstrom's department for up-and-comers such as Tracy Reese, Matthew Williamson, Catherine Malandrino and Tory Burch. "We are always trying to find people that are fresh and not overdistributed…people we can grow with," she said.

Patneaude is full of stories and anecdotes, and her favorite memory is of a fashion show the store once organized for ready-to-wear designer Victor Costa, who was also a tenor and came down the runway belting out an operatic tune. "I have always said, 'If you're bored in retail, you are in the wrong business,'" she said.

Patneaude has shown equal support to both European designers such as Missoni — the first Italian label she brought in —and American designers.

Donna Karan said, "She is always very supportive, and passionate about what she does. She introduced me to so many different people when we first launched the collection."

Didier Grumbach, president of the Chambre Syndicale, said, "She is all enthusiasm and pure energy. She will be missed…. Nordstrom has always been faithful to its suppliers and this is very much Sue's attitude."

During her retirement, Patneaude hopes to spend more time with her parents; her 22-year-old daughter, Danielle, and her 16-year-old Dalmatian, Princess Dotterina Angel Bear. She will remain in Seattle and hopes to devote some time to charity. "I have never had that luxury," she said. "I'd love to do something with animals and the homeless. But on March 1, I am going for a two-hour walk for some fresh air."

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