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."

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