By  on February 26, 2009

Amid its recession-related troubles, Saks Fifth Avenue may have found a comfort zone.

In all 53 Saks stores across the country, Wear departments opened this week, signaling the culmination of efforts to instill new life into the stale bridge category and throw greater weight behind what’s been the store’s opening price range. Saks is recovering from upsetting the industry with its sharp discounting last year, and again raised eyebrows this month by installing a high-end Kiton men’s boutique, which is seemingly counterintuitive given the world’s economic turmoil. However, Wear embodies what designers consider an appropriate, timely response to consumers across the nation trading down and seeking greater value and fashion.

Industrywide, bridge has been tough, and bad enough that Saks decided to drop the moniker and develop its own spin. Bloomingdale’s was first to do so three and a half years ago, renaming its bridge floor “The New View” and recreating the vendor mix.

Wear at Saks puts the focus on less distributed labels, such as Lavia 18, Aquascutum, Natorious and SoCa St. John, all exclusives at the retailer this season, as well as Elie Tahari, Tory Burch, Eileen Fisher, Lafayette 148, DKNY, M Missoni and the private label Clothes [real].

At one time, the bridge floor was dominated by the likes of Anne Klein, which has been dropped, and Dana Buchman, which is now an exclusive at Kohl’s. Suits and head-to-toe dressing drove sales, but now Saks is banking on items, less formality, color, and mixing and matching to create unique outfits composed of different labels. There’s a consistency on the floor from shop to shop, in terms of bright colors, restrained prices and modern attitude, which is challenging for merchants to create over a large area, requiring much editing and cooperation from vendors.

“They’ve been on this case for a year and a half. I think it’s perfect timing,” said Josie Natori, chief executive officer of Natori Co. Inc. and designer of Natorious. “The whole idea is offer more fashion and more labels. In the past, Saks was more career-oriented.”

Natorious for spring has been on the selling floor for about two weeks, with embellished ikat tunics, priced at $595, and silk tops for layering, $195, among its bestsellers.

Other directional items are Lavia’s knitted jackets, capri pants, and flyaway three-quarter sleeve jackets; Elie Tahari’s animal print cotton skirts and novelty silk ottoman jackets and Lafayette 148’s soft-printed skirts.

Saks is aggressively marketing the floor with print ads, windows and the opening 28 pages of the spring catalogue. At the Fifth Avenue flagship, Wear occupies 25,000 square feet on the fourth floor, which has been repainted, dressed up with new mannequins, lighting, area rugs, fixtures, large steel laser-cut Wear logos on columns, and at the entrance, a steel logo built into the cement floor. However, with Saks slashing capital expenditures, there was no major renovation, though the space is more open, less cluttered with inventory and brighter than before.

“Most importantly, it’s about the change in the product,” stressed Joseph Boitano, group senior vice president and general merchandise manager of women’s at Saks Inc. “It’s a lot less formal today, a lot less head to toe. It’s more about mixing it up, great tops and dresses, items that you can work into your wardrobe. We’ve given the zone a whole new perspective”

Saks chairman and chief executive Stephen I. Sadove said Wear wasn’t about shifting the balance of the Saks inventory to a greater percentage of opening price points. Instead, “Bridge had declined. We trying to re-create what we have lost.” It’s a matter of “getting to the appropriate balance” between good, better and best, he said.

“It’s a new idea and we need to create excitement,” said designer Elie Tahari. Compared with the old bridge floor, “Wear looks younger, there is an element of freshness, and the mix and matching from different people creates a more unique individual look. These are clothes that women can get a lot of mileage out of. They’re affordable, they go from day into evening, and if you buy a few pieces, you can mix it with what you already have.”

Tahari said he provided Saks with some special pieces, and that Saks is buying his collection differently from other retailers.

Wear prices range from $400 to $500 for jackets, $175 to $250 for trousers and tops, and $400 to $500 for dresses. Outfits generally can be put together for under $1,000, whereas in Saks’ second-floor Gold Range, the outfits are moderately higher, and significantly higher in the best or designer ranges.

Despite the ups and downs of bridge, the category has been “really big — among the top three largest volume generators in all of women’s and very profitable,” said Ron Frasch, president and chief merchandising officer. “We are probably the store that has stood behind bridge more than any other. It’s a foundation business for us.”

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