By  on September 28, 2010

Juicy Couture, a division of Liz Claiborne Inc., has poached LeAnn Nealz, executive vice president and chief design officer at American Eagle Outfitters Inc., as its new president and chief creative officer. Nealz will be responsible for all creative aspects of the business, including product design, marketing and store design, and will report to Edgar Huber, chief executive officer of Juicy. Nealz succeeds Juicy co-founders and co-designers Gela Nash-Taylor and Pamela Skaist-Levy, who left their day-to-day responsibilities in January and took on nonoperating creative roles at the company. The duo plan to launch their own brand next year when their non-compete runs out. Last April, Juicy named Erin Fetherston as guest designer and creative consultant. Fetherston worked on a small holiday 2010 capsule collection and is completing the 2011 collections as planned. She will leave next year. Nealz’s influence will be evident in late 2011. “We needed a leader who could address all the future opportunitiesand the current needs of the brand. It’s a big and complicated business,” William L. McComb, chairman and ceo of Liz Claiborne Inc., told WWD. Juicy, which spans young girls to adults, has a design team spread over two coasts, domestic and international distribution, and a wholesale and retail network. The brand generates more than $1 billion in retail sales, including more than a dozen licensees, said McComb. Nealz, who will split her time between Los Angeles and New York, will oversee design for both Juicy Couture, which caters to women 18 to 34 years old, and the more upscale Bird by Juicy Couture, which is aimed at women 25 to 45 years old. McComb hasn’t ruled out the idea of bringing in more guest designers from time to time to design “very small, interesting capsules.” “We love the work Erin has done,” said McComb. “LeAnn loves the idea of guest designers of the business. Different voices and ideas from different ends of the spectrum can be very good.” Nealz, who will begin in the next 30 days, wasn’t available for a telephone interview, but said via e-mail, “I’m very honored to be stepping into this role that will allow me to work with Edgar and the team, to take this innovative brand to the next level.” She said, “Juicy Couture revolutionized how women dressed when they blurred the lines between casual and couture. Now, we have the opportunity to build on this powerful DNA and to modernize and elevate the brand, in order to write the new chapter and to connect with Juicy’s loyal following globally.” Nealz’s résumé includes some of the top brands in the apparel industry. Prior to joining American Eagle four years ago, she was senior vice president of design at GapKids and babyGap, and before that was a consultant to Esprit. She has also been vice president, creative director of Nine West Group Inc.; a designer in the early days at Theory, and women’s and men’s senior design director at Banana Republic. She began her career in Los Angeles as a stylist working with a number of fashion brands, including Calvin Klein. She met Calvin Klein when she began styling his jeans’ ad campaigns and ultimately became design director for ck jeans and Calvin Klein Sport. “LeAnn has shown extraordinary range throughout her career. From the designer world to vertical retailing, from apparel to accessories, from adults to children, she has demonstrated time and again her innate ability to balance design ideals with commercial, wearable product,” said Huber. “She will modernize and innovate the brand for the future. She’s also a great manager.” “She will impact the back half of next year,” added McComb. The search was handled by executive recruiter Karen Harvey. Known for its wit, bold colors and imaginative in-store presentations, Juicy Couture has branched out beyond contemporary sportswear to children’s wear, fragrances, accessories, handbags, sleepwear, footwear and jewelry. During the past few seasons, Juicy Couture’s wholesale business has struggled as the line failed to move beyond its iconic tracksuit and needed to be reenergized. The collection also suffered from both quality and fit problems, became highly promotional, and exited many of its wholesale doors. “As we were growing the fashion side of Juicy in our own retail stores, department stores only carried the tracksuit. We made the decision not to play ball and be in every door,” said McComb. The company has had greater success with its retail model, and this month took its e-commerce site in-house, which is expected to become its largest door. Previously, e-commerce was handled through Neiman Marcus. The company’s current strategy is to cultivate a healthy and stable, yet controlled wholesale business, to complement its direct-to-consumer business. In an interview last month, Huber told WWD, “It’s very clear from a wholesale point of view that my strategy is to keep it profitable. We’re not opening a lot of wholesale doors. Rather, the company continues to open 10 to 20 retail doors a year…” Juicy has 100 of its own freestanding stores, 11 of which carry the Bird line. Nealz is leaving American Eagle at a time when the teen specialty retailer is facing its share of challenges. Last month, AEO said it would close 50 to 100 stores in the next two to five years as it reported that second-quarter net income fell 66.2 percent after taking markdowns to clear an aggressive position in tops, and shutting 28 Martin + Osa stores. As for Nealz’s successor, an AEO spokeswoman said, “We are not replacing her position in the short-term. Roger Markfield [chairman] will take over her duties immediately, as he has been playing a major role in design since he came back aboard. Further, we have diligently built a very strong team under LeAnn, and are confident that they can continue on seamlessly. We believe that Roger working directly with the design team will enable us to move more quickly and react to trends. Further, we have seen continuous improvements in our assortments as a result of the new design talent we have been adding over the last year.”

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