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St. John Picks Sharp as Design Chief

St. John on Thursday named George Sharp as executive vice president of design, a new post. The appointment came a day after Sharp resigned as vice president...

NEW YORK — St. John on Thursday named George Sharp as executive vice president of design, a new post. The appointment came a day after Sharp resigned as vice president of design at Ellen Tracy.

In his new role, Sharp reports to Glenn McMahon, chief executive officer. He will work with the existing design team and oversee St. John’s ready-to-wear and nonapparel categories, which consist of jewelry, handbags, footwear, eyewear and fragrance. Sharp also will work with design consultants Marie and Kelly Gray, who rejoined the brand in 2006.

Sharp, who begins Feb. 18, has been with Ellen Tracy since April 2005. Earlier, he was head of collections for Escada and designer for Rena Lange. He will divide his time between St. John’s headquarters in Irvine, Calif., and the company’s New York offices.

“He has grown up knowing this customer through Rena Lange and Escada and he understands the international market very well,” said McMahon. He had previously worked with Sharp when McMahon was at Ellen Tracy. “I hired him away from Escada to join Ellen Tracy. Being here for a while, I thought we could use someone of his talent.”

McMahon said the Grays will continue in their consulting roles, but “George will be the full-time designer.” He said no other changes are planned for St. John’s design team, which also includes Maria Lopez, Tiffany Pepys-Hoey and Greg Miller, who are all vice presidents of design and will report to Sharp.

Claiborne officials said Thursday that they are not yet sure how Sharp’s departure will affect the brand’s sale. They said the bridge brand would either be sold or kept — not closed. Claiborne is down to one remaining bidder for Ellen Tracy, a consortium of buyers led by Windsong Brands and the Radius Group, and including other investors such as American Capital Strategies Ltd., but a tough due diligence is drawing out the process, according to sources.

“I’ve never been on a ride like this,” Claiborne ceo William L. McComb said Thursday. “The external market has slowed the process down.”

If they do not like what the deal looks like, Claiborne is committed to keeping Ellen Tracy, improving sourcing and manufacturing and replacing its head designer. McComb said the search for a new big-name designer started Wednesday. He may appoint a designer before the fate of the brand is decided.

Sharp was hired from Escada in 2005 to turn Ellen Tracy around after it alienated its core customer by skewing too young in the absence of Linda Allard, who retired in 2003. “George found that Ellen Tracy woman, and we have that template now,” said Roberta S. Karp, senior vice president of business development, legal and corporate affairs at Claiborne.

Sharp will stay on for a few weeks while holiday 2008 is designed, McComb said.

Ellen Tracy has slid in volume from $171 million when Claiborne acquired it in 2002 to what sources estimate is less than $75 million today. Changes in the bridge market, combined with product issues and hurt sales, and on top of recent economic woes, retailers have been conservatively buying all of Claiborne’s brands that are on review, uncertain of their fates and whether they will be sold down channel, like Dana Buchman was on Thursday to Kohl’s.

Originally, Claiborne had tried to sell Ellen Tracy with Buchman together “as a bridge complex because of certain efficiencies,” but Claiborne closed the bidding for Buchman at the end of the year when the Kohl’s deal was getting close. McComb said the ongoing licensing of the brand — particularly at the moderate channel, where the volume would be greater — would be far more profitable than selling it. Dana Buchman herself will stay on as “a brand ambassador,” who makes personal appearances, Karp said.

Claiborne closed its Dana Buchman division, which had approximately 60 employees Wednesday, though it will still do the design — but not production — for the brand. With Buchman’s design staff gone, Claiborne still must decide who will design the line going forward.

McComb called morale at the company “lumpy” — “but it’s lumpy in the whole industry.”

“It’s an emotional roller coaster,” he said. “We announce Isaac [Mizrahi] joining us one day, and the closure of Dana the next.”

Claiborne said Tuesday that Mizrahi would be taking over design for the Liz Claiborne brand beginning in spring 2009 after his five-year contract with Target Corp. expires. On Thursday, the designer — with a polkadot scarf tied around his neck — walked with McComb around the balcony of the $4.99 billion vendor’s executive suites on the 21st floor of 1441 Broadway here, waving through windows at Claiborne executives.