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."

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