By  on August 17, 2005

NEW YORK — Nine West, known primarily as a footwear company, is picking up speed in apparel.

Owned by Jones Apparel Group since June 1999, Nine West has made some major strides in its apparel divisions in recent seasons. Launched in fall 2000, the apparel divisions, Nine West Collection (better sportswear), Nine West Suit and Nine West Dress, bring in about $100 million in wholesale volume.

Jones hasn't had an easy time digesting Nine West, which has had an uneven performance. Jones acquired the Nine West firm in 1999 for $1.4 billion, including $500 million in debt. At the time, the footwear and accessories firm was generating $1.92 billion in revenues and $40.4 million in profits. Today, Nine West's overall business hovers at $1 billion in sales.

In Jones' latest quarter ended July 2, markdowns of wholesale footwear, accessories and junior denim led to a decline in profits to $54.8 million from $77.6 million. Revenues for the quarter rose to $1.19 billion from $1.05 billion.

Jones bought the Maxwell Shoe Co. in 2004, which has been a boost, but the Nine West brand has been flat, and it has had difficulty repositioning Easy Spirit footwear.

"I think in the beginning it was a lot easier than it is today," said one industry source. "There's a lot of competition in the marketplace, and [Nine West] is being viewed as a very promotional [footwear] brand. More outlet opportunities are popping up all the time. Its customer is more mature than it was before." Younger customers are gravitating toward the trendier Steve Madden brand, the source said.

Meanwhile, Jones executives remain bullish about the prospects for Nine West apparel. The better line, which executives at Nine West call contemporary fashion with a misses' fit, is sold primarily to department stores and better specialty retailers, with a few select pieces sold in some of the company's 229 freestanding stores.

The brand plans to launch new categories with the fall and holiday collections. After a retail test, Nine West is to initiate a special-sizes segment that includes petite and plus-size apparel up to size 24.

"These women are sexy and comfortable with their bodies," said Patricia Coscia, vice president of sales and merchandising for Nine West. "This line gives them fashion, regardless of size. The same bestsellers we have in misses' are the same bestsellers we had in special sizes."Next, it will start a collection of pet accessories called K9 by Nine West, including sweaters and matching ones for owners, carriers and, yes, toys such as a squeaky one that looks like a Nine West shoe. The line will launch in time for holiday selling, exclusively with Nordstrom stores.

"People treat their pets like their companions, so we thought the mommy-and-me idea for K9 was a fresh idea," said Stacy Lastrina, senior vice president of marketing and creative services at Jones Apparel Group. "And the line will be sold with the sportswear, to make it easy for the customer."

Mark Mendelson, group president at Jones, said each piece within the Nine West apparel collection is made to be versatile, casual or career acceptable — all with that fashionable look the customer sees in fashion magazines.

With versatility in each look, Nine West apparel in the past three years has expanded to 1,300 doors from 200. A couple of its best customers, Macy's East and Nordstrom, have agreed to carry more product each season and, for the first time since its launch, Nine West will ship a January delivery to all stores. Executives at Macy's East and Nordstrom couldn't be reached for comment.

"Now women coming into the stores in January will have a reason to spend their gift cards or exchange for something they really like," Mendelson said.

January, typically a poor month at retail, has been increasingly important for Nine West, Mendelson said. Market research has helped the company to better understand what the customer is looking for, Lastrina said.

"Trends are very important to her and she is in the stores very frequently, at least three times a month," Lastrina said. "Fifty percent of Nine West customers shop out of desire, rather than need. She gets her ideas from magazines and expects us to have that for her in the stores."

Next up, Nine West is looking to launch apparel in Asia, beginning with China.

"There is a large opportunity for us in China," Lastrina said. "Based on how well the footwear business does there, I have no doubt the sportswear will also be great."

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