By  on January 14, 2008

Liz Claiborne Inc. has hired John Bartlett to design the Claiborne men's sportswear line, and it might be only a matter of time before the struggling women's line follows suit.

Under the label Claiborne by John Bartlett, the men's line is launching for spring 2009. The wholesale prices of about $15 to $300 will stay the same, and Claiborne will evaluate expanding or scaling back from the estimated 1,000 doors, including Macy's and Dillard's, which carry the men's line.

Claiborne chief executive officer William L. McComb has been asking many designers what they would do to turn around the better-priced Liz Claiborne women's line, and whether they would consider taking the job of designer. Although McComb has described the proposition to designers such as Tory Burch, in largely hypothetical terms, his actions, paired with the troubles of the line and employing Bartlett, suggest there might be a decision in the near future.

"From a women's perspective, we've looked at a myriad of different strategies," said Dave McTague, executive vice president of partnered brands for Liz Claiborne, who declined comment on hiring a new designer. "In the coming weeks, we will be sharing a plan on the women's side."

Mainstream brands have used the guest-designer concept with varying success. Patrick Robinson at Perry Ellis and, more recently, Isabel Toledo at Jones Apparel Group's Anne Klein, enjoyed critical success but short-lived tenures. Adidas has successfully employed Stella McCartney and Yohji Yamamoto for niche, higher-end lines, combining the designer's label with its own.

Claiborne executives have admitted that the product of their better-price namesake brand, designed by Richard Ostell since 2005, has stagnated. Its biggest wholesale partner, Macy's, cut back orders last year, partly as a response to the creation of the diffusion Liz & Co. line with J.C. Penney and partly as a response to product.

Sources said retailers have scaled back spring orders 30 percent, after 50 percent reductions last year, and criticized the line for targeting too young a customer, offering a weak price-value ratio and having margins in the low 30s. The Liz Claiborne brand family, which also includes Liz & Co., Concepts by Claiborne, Claiborne, Axcess and Villager, is projected to bring in $1.5 billion this year. That is a continued slide in volume from its peak of more than $2 billion in the mid-Nineties, and is driven by losses in the core Liz Claiborne brand.Commenting on the men's Claiborne brand, McTague, who, as president of Converse Apparel, worked with John Varvatos to design a Converse clothing line, said: "As I looked at the product while I was walking the store and worked with the design team here, I thought the line had fantastic bones, but it didn't have a soul or a DNA. So I started thinking about who are the guys I really respect creatively with our business. [Claiborne creative director] Tim [Gunn] and I looked at each other and simultaneously said, 'We should talk to John Bartlett.'"

McTague said Claiborne did not interview anyone else for the men's job. A two-time CFDA and Perry Ellis Menswear award winner, Bartlett began his signature collection in 1992 and opened his first store in Manhattan's West Village in September.

Bartlett said in a statement that he aims "to infuse Claiborne with a strong DNA and lead the brand in a new and exciting direction. My goal is to create an enticing line at affordable prices that men will find irresistible. The Claiborne name has a strong legacy and I intend on honoring that while transforming the men's line to address a great opportunity in the better men's market."

McTague said Claiborne is still formulating the marketing plan for the brand, which will include in-store appearances by Bartlett.

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