By  on April 12, 2007

*WEB EXCLUSIVE CONTENT*: Click here to view a photo montage of VF Corp., Liz Claiborne Inc., Jones Apparel Group, and Kellwood Co.'s latest fashions.

Forget the distinction between wholesaler and retailer. Today's breed are brand managers.

Once simply manufacturing giants, VF Corp., Liz Claiborne Inc., Jones Apparel Group, and Kellwood Co. are mutating into multiheaded beasts, with their direct-to-consumer sides becoming an increasingly large part of their identities.

As traditional retailers consolidated and upped their own production of private label, retailers' reliance on wholesalers has declined.

"Obviously when you look at how much power department stores carry over them, vendors need to do something to get power back in their own hands, but how they do that is up for debate," said Brad Stephens, an analyst for Morgan Keegan & Co. Inc. "Specialty retail is one of the hardest businesses out there, and you can open yourself up for more — not less — risk."

Jones Apparel Group's 1,000-plus retail stores made up about 31 percent of the $4.74 billion firm's sales last year, up from 21 percent in 2005 and 17 percent in 2004, the year Jones acquired Barneys New York. In five years, Jones president and chief executive officer Peter Boneparth would like to see retail contributing between 35 and 40 percent of group revenues — but that doesn't mean the company is walking away from wholesale.

"Everything we do is about balance," Boneparth said. "Our roots are in wholesale. We're a wholesale business, and we aren't abandoning that."

Most of Jones' stores are outlets, but the company is expanding its full-priced segments. Boneparth thinks Bandolino can grow from the 30 stores it has today to 100 within a few years. Still in the beginning retail stages, Anne Klein will get half a dozen new specialty stores this year.

"Our focus is going to be maximizing our productivity in the things we've got," Boneparth said. "The new concept is Anne Klein, but the existing concepts are where we are going to spend a lot of time and energy. The idea is not to open a bunch of doors, but rather to do them profitably. While store numbers are increasing, our goal is to make sure the retail represents the brand properly, because it's the face of the brand on a day-to-day basis."

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