By  on March 27, 2006

Liz Claiborne’s acquisition of Ellen Tracy in 2002 for $180 million was a trophy for Claiborne chief Paul Charron.

The purchase of Tracy, the leading bridge brand in the market, established Claiborne as a major player in the lucrative field and gave it significant real estate in upscale specialty and department store chains like Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale’s. And, as Charron famously says, “It’s a good thing to buy your competition.”

According to Tracy executives, Charron followed a simple mantra: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

“Liz wanted to let Ellen Tracy be Ellen Tracy, and that was Paul’s constant comment to all of us,” Howard Rosenberger, president of the brand, recalled. “The biggest change was in a lot of the strategies and reporting methods, financial issues and the systems of how we worked. Ellen Tracy had run as a small private company that did a lot of business, whereas Liz is very much a more corporate environment. A lot of changes were back-room, including financial strategies and reporting methods.”

Founded as a blouse resource by Herbert Gallen in 1949, Ellen Tracy evolved into a bridge label. In 1962, Linda Allard joined the label as a designer, and together Allard and Gallen built it into the leading department store bridge vendor.

Allard wasn’t just a designer behind the scenes. She became the spokeswoman and face for the brand, traveling around the country to meet customers, who typically responded to her woman-to-woman approach, and her name was added to the label. Gallen and Allard, who married in 2001 after working together for 40 years, sold the company to Liz Claiborne in September 2002.

The transition from a privately owned Seventh Avenue firm to a division of a public company was far from smooth, and sources said the business took a nosedive after the acquisition. Ellen Tracy alienated core customers at a time when stores channeled attention away from bridge in favor of the contemporary category. Sources said Ellen Tracy’s volume at its peak in the late Nineties was about $300 million. Today, however, they estimate it’s more like $200 million. The company declined to comment on figures.

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