By  on March 20, 2013

NEW YORK — Saks Fifth Avenue is accelerating the rollout of its men’s private label.

Starting this fall, the line will have a new name, three subbrands and devoted shops in key markets. And the retailer did not rule out the possibility that it would wholesale the collection in the near future.

“We are a brand,” said Richard Cohen, vice president of business development for Saks, who came on board last year to spearhead the development of the label. Called the Saks Fifth Avenue Men’s Collection, the line was launched in 2009 and has grown into the retailer’s largest-selling men’s wear brand. That success has spawned the development of a women’s private brand collection as well.

The men’s line will now be called simply Saks Fifth Avenue New York, but within that will be Black, White and Platinum subbrands that will be differentiated by the color of their interior labels. Black and Platinum product are being designed by Kim Herring, who had worked with Cohen at Ermenegildo Zegna, while the White label is being designed by Rhett Bonnett, a fledgling men’s wear designer who also produces a line under his own name.

“We created three different labels,” Cohen said. “Black is our international line; White is our modern, younger line, and Platinum is our top-of-the-line.” The idea behind separating the labels is to take the Saks customer “on his journey, from a twentysomething all the way up till he becomes ceo.”

The Black component offers suits, furnishings, sportswear, outerwear and shoes. White is more firmly rooted in sportswear, and Platinum offers premium outerwear.

But while the color of their labels may be different, the subbrands are designed to work together and also will complement the multibrand assortment on the floor.

“We feel comfortable that this can sit easily with the other people we buy from,” Cohen said.

Ron Frasch, Saks Inc. president and chief merchant, said the journey for Saks started just more than three years ago when Peter Rizzo, who now heads creative merchandising for the company’s Off 5th division, told him that the store had every great men’s label but one — its own. “He got me thinking that there’s a place for us. We have a distinctive and desirable fashionable point of view. And it also fulfilled our need to increase exclusives within our men’s offer,” Frasch said.

Rizzo worked with the existing team to create the first collections, and “very quickly it became a very significant business for us,” Frasch said. Rizzo then moved to the discount division and Saks hired Cohen. In order to elevate the brand further, “we realized we needed true design talent,” and Herring came on board, Frasch said. “This is his first fully developed collection, and we’re really proud of it.”

To show it off, Saks knew it had to enhance the presentation in stores. “If we want to play with the big boys in the men’s business, we have to present it in the same way,” Frasch said.

The first, a 2,000-square-foot hard shop, made its debut earlier this month at the revamped Beverly Hills men’s store. “New York is next,” Cohen said, noting that it would be 2,500 square feet and located on the sixth floor. It is expected to open this summer. That will be followed by shops in the men’s stores in Boca Raton and Bal Harbour, Fla., as well as Chicago, where the men’s wear is being relocated into the main store from a freestanding unit nearby.

“By the end of the year, we will have four very significant shops,” Frasch said. “Then we start working on 2014. We really believe in it.”

Cohen said in larger stores such as New York, where the classic and contemporary collections are separated, the shops will offer Black and Platinum product while White will be merchandised with other modern brands. But in smaller stores, all three labels will be merchandised together.

The first hint of the revamped brand quietly hit Saks’ warm-weather stores for the cruise season, where patterned swimwear and shorts have been selling strongly, Cohen said. “We attacked the warm-weather stores first,” he said. “We created a cruise collection in bright colors — shorts all year long. It’s in stores now and doing very well.”

Within the Black line, the tailored clothing is now being produced by Samuelsohn in Canada and will sport a dual label. It will use performance fabrics, have full canvas construction and retail for under $1,200. “This takes the collection to another level,” Cohen said. Dress shirts will use Italian fabrics and patterns chosen specifically by the Saks team. They will sell for $195. Ties will be made in Italy, and outerwear will include travel jackets, topcoats with standing collars and leather jackets. There will also be accessories such as printed scarves and gloves with brightly colored linings.

Key pieces include a double-breasted wool peacoat in an above-the-knee length; a quilted Italian napa lamb leather vest that reverses to a cashmere-blend flannel; half-zip cashmere sweaters with suede piping; cotton gingham checkered shirts, and chunky wing-tip brogues with lug soles.

The Platinum collection focuses on Italian outerwear and includes a classic bomber in calf leather with removable beaver lining. There is also a collection of shoes that will retail for $425 to $495.

The White collection features a tailored, slimmed-down aesthetic of sportswear. “I wanted to redefine modern,” said Bonnett, who signed on to design the line in early December. “When people hear that word they think austere, slick, cold, black, gray. This offers a streamlined silhouette and lots of great color.” Key pieces here include a knit color-blocked peacoat with a blanket stripe at the waist; colored corduroy pants; a wool-nylon quilted shirt jacket; an updated varsity jacket; a reversible leather bomber jacket; cotton-blend knit pants, and an argyle knit polo.

Cohen said he and men’s fashion director Eric Jennings interviewed several designers before deciding upon Bonnett. “We wanted to add a modern component with an American point of view. We like Rhett’s sensibility, and his freshness and his use of color appealed to us.”

Cohen said this multipronged approach to the creation of a collection “extends beyond the doors of the store. We’re not knocking anyone off, and it’s not less expensive. It has great value and offers an American point of a view with a European twist.”

When asked if Saks is planning to wholesale the line, he responded, “It’s something we’re considering.”

Frasch said the company’s international partners in Dubai, Mexico and Kazakhstan currently purchase the line, and at the most recent Pitti Uomo show in Florence, the store set up a showroom in a local hotel. “It’s clearly an opportunity if we decide to pursue it,” he said. “A lot of great specialty stores around the world have inquired about it. But this is a long-term initiative for us, and we want to do it slowly and meticulously. It’s our name and we can’t afford any missteps.”

It’s also an initiative that Saks is trying to replicate within the women’s arena. Frasch said the store recently installed Linda DeFrances, one of its top divisional merchandise managers, to oversee women’s private brand initiatives. “We’re going through the exact same process as in men’s,” he said.

Frasch said that retailers often look at private label as something that has to be hidden behind made-up names in an attempt to elevate its positioning. “But we have a great brand name, we’re proud of it and we will use it. This is just the beginning,” Frasch said.

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