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Banana Republic is getting serious about trading up.

On Thursday, the fashion retailer appointed Simon Kneen, formerly of Brooks Brothers parent Retail Brand Alliance, as executive vice president of design and creative director. Jack Calhoun, Banana Republic’s president, said Kneen’s experience with high-end women’s and men’s wear will allow him to take the retailer to another level, including its new high-end collection, Monogram.

This story first appeared in the January 4, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

And Calhoun is so bullish about Monogram he even is considering opening freestanding stores devoted to the line — just like competitor J. Crew is doing with J. Crew Collection. “If the right stand-alone made sense…,” he stressed. “We’re constantly talking about it.”

It’s hard to avoid comparisons between the two companies. Banana Republic is a division of Gap Inc., which was once led by Millard “Mickey” Drexler. Now, as chairman and chief executive officer of J. Crew, Drexler has put his energies into turning the formerly bland preppy business into fashion with an eccentric flourish. In the process, he introduced Collection, a handpicked assortment of luxe, limited edition items that officially launched online with a mini Web site. On April 22, the company will open its first Collection store, a 2,500-square-foot unit at 1035 Madison Avenue near 79th Street in New York.

Banana Republic quietly launched Monogram for men in the fall. Women’s will launch this spring. Sold in 30 Banana Republic stores, the line is described by the company: “BR Monogram, our signature label collection, is defined by remarkably rich fabrics, distinctive details and modern silhouettes for the most eloquent expression of style. Available in limited quantities.”

Items shown online included a men’s wool-cashmere chalk stripe navy suit blazer for $425; short-sleeve women’s gray suit jacket, $225; cashmere men’s pinstripe blazer, $800; hand-knit sweater jacket, $300, and treasure green buckle dress, $138.

J. Crew Collection, which had a soft launch online in the spring, features items such as a Toscana shearling jacket for $2,000; a red cashmere opera coat, $1,300, and a tangerine Mina cashmere jacket, $395. Collection pieces have unusual prints or colors to distinguish them from the run-of-the-mill. For example, the Bahia silk dress, $245, was inspired by a vintage scarf, and the Campo de’ fiore ballerina dress, $285, is made of custom-colored cotton with allover poppy print from “one of Italy’s most renowned mills.”

Despite the inevitable comparisons between the high-flying J. Crew and Banana Republic, Calhoun insisted Kneen was not hired to “fix anything. We have a lot of momentum. Our business is strong. We just need to gain that consistency.”

Banana has been a bright spot for Gap Inc., which generally has struggled with declining traffic and negative comps. Banana Republic’s net sales in North America for the third quarter of 2007 were $607 million, up from $563 million in the third quarter of 2006.

For the last five years, Kneen was creative design director for Retail Brand Alliance, where he led the creative vision for brands such as Brooks Bros. and Adrienne Vittadini.

“He has proven from his early days in Italy to his job at Brooks Bros. that he [knows] what this customer needs for various parts of his or her life,” said Calhoun. “He’s been able to do that at the high end of fashion. Expanding our high-end lines is something we’ve talked about and something Simon has talked about. Are there more opportunities? Yes. We’ve seen it start to work. There are constant opportunities to look at those [lines].”

Calhoun pointed out that Kneen was the first to design fashion collections for men’s and women’s wear at Brooks Bros., and was part of the leadership team that helped reposition the brand. Calhoun added Kneen’s leadership skills will allow him to unify the message behind Banana’s men’s, women’s and accessories collections. “We have a very clear vision of what we want the brand to be and [Simon will] bring it through all our communication elements,” he said. “We tell our brand story with our product and that helps the teams working on marketing and stores.”

Kneen’s appointment is effective Jan. 9. He succeeds Deborah Lloyd, who left Banana Republic in October to become co-president and creative director of Kate Spade.

“When I talked to [Kneen] about what our vision for the brand is, he sees us continuing to move it forward,” Calhoun said. “As creative director, he’ll be involved in all aspects of the brand. He’ll be involved in store design. We are in the middle of looking at what the next store design will look like.”

During his tenure at Retail Brand Alliance, Kneen designed the collections under the Casual Corner label from 2003 until 2005, prior to the brand’s sale. From 2001 to 2003, he was creative director of Maska, the Italian fashion house known for its exclusive couture collection and ready-to-wear line. Prior to that, he was head designer, prêt-à-porter, for Maison Balmain, based in Paris. Kneen also led his own successful design firm and produced the Simon Kneen Collection, a line of suiting, separates, knitwear and accessories, sold through luxury apparel retailers in Italy.

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