By  on March 10, 2005

NEW YORK — Every luxury brand seems headed to China these days, but Ports 1961 has shifted into reverse.

The $200 million sportswear brand, which originated in Canada in 1961, was purchased by Chinese entrepreneur Alfred Chan in the early Nineties. It is widely recognized by Chinese consumers and operates flagships in cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Chengdu. Now Ports is looking to make a U.S. comeback.

The brand recently set up a sleek 10,000-square-foot showroom at 601 West 26th Street, which will serve as its North American base and from which company executives hope to set up a wholesale and retail network that could see five U.S. flagships in the next five years.

Ports is no newcomer to the U.S. market. Founded in 1961 in Canada by Luke Tanabe, Ports International had its high point in the late Eighties when there were 35 freestanding Ports stores in Canada and 15 in the U.S., including a unit on Fifth Avenue and 57th Street. After Chan acquired the company in the early Nineties, he decided to concentrate on the Asian market and closed down Ports’ North American distribution points. Ports currently operates about 200 retail stores in China.

“We have been talking about a makeover for about five years and then two years ago, we decided to bring it back home to Canada and North America,” said Tia Cibani, creative director and managing director. “Alfred Chan agreed to the expansion. I felt it was important to have a presence in New York. Being in China is very important, but as a support to that, we needed to build a presence here, too.”

Cibani has been overseeing the repositioning campaign, beginning with the renaming of Ports International to Ports 1961 in 2003. Cibani joined Ports in 1990, working with DSquared’s Dean and Dan Caten, who were heading the design team then. She moved to Xiamen, China, in 1993 to oversee the development of the brand there, and only returned in 2003 to head the North American relaunch. She is now based in New York.

For its relaunch, the company hired Bruce Baas as vice president of sales. Baas joined from Michael Kors, where he was vice president of global retail and the women’s collection for four years. Prior to Kors, Baas was at Bergdorf Goodman for 13 years, rising to vice president and divisional merchandise manager of designer sportswear. Ports also brought in Jacquelyn Wenzel as merchandiser and general manager. Wenzel previously had her own merchandising firm.Company executives quietly started tinkering with the Ports formula, updating its looks and quality. Where once Ports’ main focus was on suits and coordinating ensembles, now the emphasis is on fashionable items. The fall collection is called Reverence, and key pieces include a silk box pleat dress with crystal embellishment, a cotton trenchcoat and a wool and polyamide strapless dress with a full skirt and crinoline underlay. Wholesale price points range from $75 to $800.

“There is a Theory customer who is looking for the next step into luxury and style, but doesn’t want to spend on Prada or Gucci yet,” Wenzel explained.

In the next three-and-a-half years, Baas projected a U.S. wholesale volume of about $10 million. The company plans to build the wholesale distribution while slowly establishing a network of freestanding stores. Since 2003, Ports opened three stores in Canada, and there are plans to open two U.S. flagships, on the East and West Coasts, in the next year. By 2010, the company expects to have five units in the U.S. Baas added that the line targets upscale specialty stores such as Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman, Mitchells of Westport, Conn., and Marissa Collections in Naples, Fla.

When asked about Ports 1961’s target client, Cibani pointed to a little red, square-shaped Virgin Atlantic magazine titled Jetrosexual. “This line is for the ‘jetrosexual,’ the global soul,” she said. “It’s for a very easy lifestyle, for a woman who is international.”

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