By  on June 26, 2006

NEW YORK — AnnTaylor Stores Corp. is beginning to find its groove again.

While the retailer still lacks fashion sizzle and the command over the career market it once had, Ann Taylor Stores, with its updated classics, is seeing consistent performance across both its Ann Taylor and Ann Taylor Loft divisions. And that's particularly noticeable given that retailers such as Gap, Talbots, Limited Brands, Sears Holdings and Saks Inc. all continue to struggle with one division or another.

"We are in the midst of a turnaround," said Kay Krill, chairman and chief executive officer. "It's just the beginning. We are not saying that we are there, but we are constantly making improvements."

The momentum, marked by stronger earnings and eight straight months of positive comps overall — 10 straight months by Ann Taylor Stores alone — stems from better product, fewer markdowns and stronger control over inventories. And the company's shares are responding: The stock closed Friday at $41.82 in trading on the New York Stock Exchange, hitting a 52-week high. The low was in October at $23.

The pace should be sustained at least through this year, partly because the corporation is up against weak comps from last year. As a result, the truer test of whether there is a genuine revival of the brand will come next year.

Krill, a veteran of the organization who recently rose to the top, has put the brand on a new path after a decade of excessive executive turnover, fashion miscues and roller-coaster performances, particularly at the Ann Taylor stores division. She took the helm in October after serving as president over all three of the company's divisions — Ann Taylor, Loft and the outlets — since 2004. Earlier, she ran just Loft, catapulting it from a concept housed inside Ann Taylor stores to a fast-growing stand-alone chain with sales of $1 billion. Loft is still growing quickly, opening 60 stores this year, and could almost double in size. The 421-unit chain sees a cap of 800 stores.

The Ann Taylor division seems to have transcended its checkered past, finding styles and colors that are in tune with customers. The group also is rapidly remodeling stores to a neutral palette, from a yellow tone, to help the clothes stand out.

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