By and  on January 7, 2008

Liz Claiborne Inc. is said to be close to a deal to sell the Ellen Tracy brand to a consortium led by Windsong Brands, a Westport, Conn.-based private equity firm.A source familiar with the talks said a deal is "close" to completion. Another financial source used the term "imminent" to describe the pending transaction.WWD reported on Nov. 1 that Windsong was among those said to be bidding for the brand.A source close to the talks said Windsong is coleading the consortium with the Radius Group, but declined to provide more information. Other investors in the consortium are a private investment group led by Barry Sternlicht and American Capital Strategies Ltd. The sources said the parties are in the latter stages of due diligence. It is believed the investment group and the apparel giant already have agreed on price, but the dollar figure could not be learned by press time.Executives at Claiborne and Windsong both declined comment. Sternlicht is chairman and chief executive officer of Starwood Capital Group, a real estate investment and private equity firm he formed in 1991. Starwood has headquarters in Greenwich, Conn. Sternlicht founded Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc. He also led the expansion of the W Hotels brand, as well as the St. Regis.American Capital is no stranger to fashion for Baby Boomers. It recently bought Appleseeds Brands, a private label apparel brand for women and men ages 55 and older.Ellen Tracy was bought by Claiborne in September 2002 for about $180 million, ending the brand's 53-year run as a private firm. Company founder Herbert Gallen continued to serve as chairman, and his wife, Linda Allard, remained as design director, until their retirement in 2003. Gallen passed away last September at age 92.In its heyday, Ellen Tracy was a powerhouse with annual volume of $300 million. At the time of its sale to Claiborne, annual volume was around $200 million, according to industry sources.One industry source said, "Ellen Tracy was once a great brand, but became a shadow of what it used to be after its sale to Claiborne, due in part to the retirement of Gallen and Allard." The source cited Allard as the driving force behind the brand. He noted that the current "volume is believed to have dropped to around $100 million."

"We think it is one of the foremost trademarks with a great history," said Andrew Jassin, managing director of the New York consulting firm Jassin O'Rourke Group. "It is the first brand that existed in the bridge zone. It has always been known, up until recently, for great fabric and styling. The Ellen Tracy brand has a loyal Baby and Echo Boomer customer mix who have been disappointed since the sale of Ellen Tracy to Liz Claiborne."Jassin believes Tracy could once again be one of the premier American women's brands provided it is "run properly and licensed out" appropriately."There are line extensions that could be expanded to include better footwear and jewelry and through all of the fashion zones. What the Ellen Tracy brand needs is better marketing to get back to its roots. It has a loyal customer waiting for new product to come back to the market," he said.Windsong focuses on investments in leading middle-market consumer companies that own strong recognizable brands. The fund makes minority investments in both public and private companies. Windsong Brands has partnered with others in investments in Joe's Jeans and Caribbean Joe. Its founder, chairman and ceo is William Sweedler.Prior to founding Windsong, Sweedler was president and ceo of Joe Boxer, now a wholly owned division of the Iconix Brand Group. He also was a founder of Windsong Allegiance Group, an apparel manufacturer and brand manager, a firm in which he still retains the role of chairman. WAG owns, manages or licenses the brands Como Sport, PRX Performance, Calvin Klein Golf, Joseph Abboud Classics and Pivot Rules.Sources familiar with the consortium said the investors want to bring the Ellen Tracy brand back up to the better bridge category.A sale of Tracy would almost complete the $4.99 billion Claiborne's program of disposals of underperforming or noncore brands in its drive to focus on "power brands." In September, the group sold four moderate brands — Emma James, Tapemeasure, JH Collectibles and Intuitions — to the Regatta division of Li & Fung USA, a subsidiary of Li & Fung Ltd., for an undisclosed amount.Sources said Dana Buchman most likely will not be sold since, as reported last month, Claiborne now is leaning toward licensing the bridge brand to a retailer. Claiborne executives declined comment.

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