By  on July 14, 2008

Sears has a new leader to revive its long-ailing fashion business.

The chain has named veteran department store executive Craig M. Israel as senior vice president and president of its apparel unit.

The company said Israel is taking a newly created position, although in the Nineties, Robert Mettler, who is now president for special projects at Macy's Inc., was president of apparel and home fashion.

Israel will report to Bruce Johnson, interim chief executive officer of Sears Holdings Corp., which also operates Kmart Holding Corp., and will be responsible for all women's and men's apparel and accessories, as well as the children's and cosmetics divisions at the Sears chain.

It's an especially challenging job considering Sears has been plagued by too much merchandise, too many markdowns and uninspired fashion. At the 926 full-line Sears stores, hard goods tends to draw the most traffic, particularly such proprietary brands as Kenmore, Craftsman and DieHard.

However, strides have been made with Lands' End, which is owned by Sears, and with other private labels. They have been pared down, and have clearer fashion messages and improved marketing.

Also, Sears has teamed up with rapper LL Cool J to launch LL Cool J for Sears. The collection of casualwear for juniors, young men's, girls' and boys' will roll out to 450 stores in September and could generate as much as $100 million to $150 million in its first year, sources have said.

There might be an opportunity for Sears to pick up some additional celebrity licenses in light of last week's bankruptcy at Steve & Barry's, which has the Bitten by Sarah Jessica Parker, Dear by Amanda Bynes and Eleven by Venus Williams lines.

In a recent interview on the LL Cool J brand, Irv Neger, Sears' senior vice president of apparel, said the chain knows the urban consumer does visit the store. "But it's a customer we weren't reaching. With this brand, we see tremendous growth opportunity."

Sears is anxious to also pump up its junior offerings, where the competition is far more advanced.

Israel, who joins Sears on Wednesday, could not be reached for comment.

Meanwhile, the competition has been racing to create celebrity lines. Avril Lavigne will soon launch at Kohl's Corp., and J.C. Penney Co. Inc. this month kicked off Fabulosity by Kimora Simmons. In addition, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen have made their mark at Wal-Mart Stores Inc. with one brand, and at Bergdorf Goodman with another.

Israel has more than 30 years of retail experience in merchandise roles. In stressing his qualifications for the job, Sears also pointed out that he has tackled turnarounds during challenging economic cycles. According to the company, Israel in previous jobs drove profitable EBITDA growth and elevated the "in-store" customer experience.

Israel was president and ceo of Robinsons-May/Meier & Frank, which operated stores along the West Coast and was a division of the former May Department Stores Co. Ultimately, when Federated Department Stores Inc. acquired May Department Stores in 2005, the stores were all converted to Macy's units.

Earlier, Israel was president and ceo of Kaufmann's, another division of May Department Stores that was based in Pittsburgh.

He also held senior roles in women's, men's, juniors', children's, cosmetics and center core at other former May Co. regional operations, including Foley's, Famous Barr, L.S. Ayres, and Lord & Taylor, as well as Abraham & Straus, which Federated owned and converted to Macy's.

For the fourth quarter ended Feb. 2, Sears Holdings reported profits fell 47.5 percent to $426 million from $811 million a year ago, and revenues slid 6.8 percent to $15.1 billion from $16.2 billion. For the full year, Sears' net income dropped 44.6 percent to $826 million, as sales slipped 4.3 percent to $50.7 billion.

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