By  on August 4, 2009

For President Obama, it was the beer summit. For Saks Fifth Avenue, it’s the men’s wear summit.

Some 65 department managers from around the country flew to New York for a three-day seminar to be introduced to the Saks Fifth Avenue Men’s Collection. On Monday morning, the retailer staged a fashion show for around 130 executives on the sixth floor of its flagship, steps away from the 800-square-foot shop for the new collection in the store’s atrium.

The private brand, which is trickling into stores now, is arguably the most important launch at the store for the fall season. In the works for nearly two years, SFAMC encompasses all categories of men’s product — everything from ties, shoes and socks to suits, cashmere sweaters and outerwear. It’s also the first sign of a new company initiative to bolster private label and proprietary brands.

Saks has set up a new private label-brand office and hired two people, with two additional openings that are expected to be filled shortly. “There will be more private labels to come down the road,” said Tom Ott, senior vice president and general merchandise manager of men’s, declining to provide further details for now.

Stephen I. Sadove, chairman and chief executive officer, was similarly coy, saying: “You’re going to see more of this across the company. We’re building relationships with our vendor community and [making clear our desire for] exclusive product. There’s no question that is the future direction of where we and other retailers are going.”

But this week, the men’s collection is in the spotlight.

“It’s a fashion collection, not just dumb-dumb basics,” said Eric Jennings, men’s fashion director.

Prices are about 20 percent higher than opening-price point merchandise and range from $65 for polos and $75 for ties to $1,100 to $1,300 for suits and up to $1,500 for outerwear. Cashmere sweaters are $295 to $345; merino wool sweaters are $130 to $215; dress pants are $195 ,and woven shirts are $135 to $165. The collection fits into “box one and two” of the company’s “nine-box grid” of good, better, best offerings, Sadove said. “It’s modern, classic styling at a very good price point. It won’t displace Brioni or Loro Piana, but it will complement where there are voids.”

“It’s definitely not the cheapest [thing we carry],” Ott added. “Retail price was not the driving force of this collection.”

Jennings believes the collection also will attract a new customer, one that might have been intimidated to shop Saks in the past. “There are guys who see us as too expensive and trendy, but this makes us more approachable.”

Ott said Saks started looking at creating its own collection in 2007. “We saw a void in the marketplace as the better Italian collections kept raising prices, and we also had a call from our customers and sales associates for Saks Fifth Avenue product,” he said. Although Saks had always had private label goods in men’s, they were primarily classification-oriented and “not pulled together,” he continued.

The comprehensive line will be offered in each of the 48 Saks stores (out of 53 total) that carry men’s wear. Fifteen of those will install soft shops for fall, with the remainder coming on board within the next year. “It will be a meaningful collection in all stores,” Ott said.

Store executives would not provide a projection on what percentage the new line would represent in the men’s mix or its volume. Sadove said, “We really don’t know, but we will learn over time how big it can be. We believe it can be very meaningful.”

But at the same time, he stressed: “Saks is always going to be a house of brands. Now, Saks Fifth Avenue Men’s Collection is one of those brands.”

Ott characterized the line as “international classic with fits and styling that are updated yet understandable.”

The collection was a joint effort between Saks’ men’s merchant team and consultant Peter Rizzo, a men’s wear veteran whose career includes stints at Barneys New York, Bergdorf Goodman Men, Polo Ralph Lauren and I.C. Isaacs.

“Peter provided the insight and oversight for the collection,” said Ott. Working with Ott and Jennings, Rizzo helped create the “look, feel and color of each delivery,” Jennings said. Deliveries will be made every three months.

Rizzo said, “each classification is being brought up to world-class standards” in terms of “quality, attributes and wearability.”

The line is three-tiered. First are the “international classics,” which represent about two-thirds of Saks’ men’s business. These items are targeted to the “stylish, international traveler who appreciates the nuances of quality but is more updated and sophisticated.” Next is the sartorialist component, which is centered on tailored clothing and related business wear. A contemporary element will be launched for spring 2010.

Each piece sports a hangtag touting its attributes. Headlined “Know What You’re Wearing,” it offers the customer information on fabric and production such as the 100 percent Egyptian cotton used in the dress shirts or the cashmere sweaters that boast Todd & Duncan yarns. By the beginning of September, a similar signage program will be installed in stores.

Although the collection can stand on its own, both the fashion show and the shop paired it with designer brands such as Michael Kors, Ralph Lauren, Theory, Z Zegna and Incotex.

Ott said that, to make room for the line in the mix and on the floors, Saks “pruned some of the unproductive parts of the business.” Although merchandise at the highest price points is still part of the mix, this has been de-emphasized a bit in response to the economic environment. “We’re not vacating it, but we’re rightsizing it,” Ott said.

Saks tested a few pieces of the collection for Father’s Day and was “wildly successful,” according to Ott, who said woven shirts, colorful polos, sweaters and novelty socks were among the bestsellers.

Another advantage of Saks having its own collection, the executives said, is the ability to fulfill the seasonal needs of all the stores. “For Florida, we need to have lighter-weight product in October, while for our northern doors, we will have coats and outerwear in Q3,” Ott said. “Our reaction time for reorders and to chase trend is easier for us with our own collection. That’s been very much of a challenge with the big branded companies.”

The collection will be featured in the store’s Fifth Avenue windows on Aug. 19 and also will be a significant part of Saks’ fall advertising and marketing campaign.

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