By  on August 5, 2010

David Chu’s relaunch of Jack Nicklaus apparel is under way with a raft of international distribution deals, including HMX Group as the U.S. licensee — a big vote of confidence in the newly formed HMX management team.

Last year, Chu, the founder of Nautica, formed Nicklaus International Brand Management LLC with golf legend Jack Nicklaus to develop the Nicklaus trademarks around a worldwide strategy and unified creative direction. A 40-year master license held by the former Hartmarx Corp. expires at the end of the year but effectively ended with the fall collection. NIBM was eager to centralize design and manufacturing after Hartmarx, which entered bankruptcy protection last year, allowed the branded apparel to splinter into inconsistent regional lines over many years. But HMX, which now owns the Hartmarx assets, on Wednesday closed on a new three-year agreement.

“HMX is a new company and we think this license represents a new start as we take the Nicklaus brand to the next level,” said Chu, president and creative director of NIBM, which has signed 15 primary licenses by territory, representing 21 countries.

HMX chief executive officer Doug Williams said the firm is “confident that the Nicklaus name, together with David’s taste level and credibility as a brand builder in the apparel sector, will resonate with both industry and consumers alike. Already, the new line looks exceptionally strong.”

The agreement is strictly for distribution, but in a key growth market. Only 10 percent of Jack Nicklaus apparel sales come from the U.S., while most of them come from East Asia. The old U.S. distribution flowed largely through Kohl’s and Dillard’s, but for spring it will be channeled exclusively to “green grass” accounts. “We’d like to double the business in a few years,” Chu said.

“Our approach right now is to get into the best golf pro shops. We’ll build from there. The idea is to evolve the line so it supports more of a lifestyle. The guys I know who play golf also go fishing, they go boating, they do a lot of activities besides golf,” said Chu, who made an undisclosed capital investment in NIBM.

But the spring collection, installed at Chu’s Gramercy Park-area offices, was clearly designed with the golf course and clubhouse in mind. In fact, each delivery takes its name and creative inspiration from one of the many Nicklaus-designed golf courses.

Sebonack, named for a Long Island course, features a pastel palette in smooth, cool cottons and a lot of traditional men’s wear patterns like gingham, argyle and bengal stripes. Khaki shorts are cut slim and have a bit of stretch. For the clubhouse, there are oxford-style shirts done in a pique, which can be worn under a blazer.

Retail prices for all tops, sweaters and bottoms range between $70 and $100. Outerwear is $140 to $195.

Killeen Castle (inspired by a Nicklaus course in Ireland) incorporates rugby collars and stripes, a brighter palette accented by orange and activewear elements such as weatherproof zippers. “Hybrid performance” shirts have wicking polyester inside and cotton pique outside.

“Elegance and style used to be important in golf. Everyone’s gone to tech, tech, tech. I wanted to bring back some luxury feeling — with performance, yes — but at the same time, with elegance,” said Chu.

The logo remains a profile of a bear on all fours.

“We’re keeping most of the logos on the back [below the collar] because a lot of the traditional clubs put their crest on the front,” said Chu.

The women’s wear is similar in function to the men’s and even more athletic, with fitted cuts, contemporary fabrics and shiny, silver-toned hardware. Every color group is fully coordinated. There are skorts, since some clubs require women in skirts, and long cardigans, since the tops are mostly sleeveless.

Nicklaus, known as the Golden Bear, won a record 18 professional major championships and went on to become one of the most powerful individuals in the golf industry by designing resorts and golf courses, and building his marketing and licensing business to annual worldwide sales of more than $250 million. However, the brand has lacked a globally integrated strategy for design, marketing and merchandising.

“Sometimes the local flavor would take over,” said Chu. “In Korea, I’ve seen women’s shirts that say ‘I heart Jack,’ with a cuddly bear playing golf. It’s cute, but I don’t think that’s what Nicklaus should be standing for.”

He plans to have all campaigns shot at Nicklaus courses, and run the ads in major golf magazines and other high-end lifestyle titles.

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