By  on December 14, 2006

PARIS — Karl Lagerfeld will soon be dishing out his own denim line, simply called K.

Parent Tommy Hilfiger Corp. aims to build the denim-driven collection into a significant global business, capitalizing on Lagerfeld's renown and his proven knack with jeans.

But given the closing last June of the fledgling New York-based Karl Lagerfeld contemporary label, Hilfiger is mapping out a measured growth plan for the K line; initial distribution is focused on wholesale accounts in Europe and Canada, said Hilfiger chief executive officer Fred Gehring.

"We want to make sure it goes well," the ceo said Wednesday in an exclusive interview. "It's not really a volume-driven introduction."

The K Karl Lagerfeld collection for women and men, which will bow for fall-winter, will be unveiled to the trade at the Bread & Butter fair in Barcelona Jan. 17 to 19. WWD first reported on Oct. 5 that a new Lagerfeld jeans line was in the works.

Billed as a lifestyle collection — knitwear, trousers, dresses, blazers and outerwear — the K line will include a large offering of five-pocket jeans in black, blue and gray denim and other fabrics, with a range of finishes, cuts and rises.

Retail prices for jeans are set at 120 euros to 220 euros, or $159.60 to $292.60 at current exchange, and the collection ranges from 70 euros, or $93.10, for a T-shirt to 450 euros, or $598.50, for coats.

Gehring acknowledged some congestion in the premium denim category, but said Lagerfeld's reputation, international name recognition and "integrity" in the casual world would break through the clutter. "He has a real specific point of view," Gehring said.

The designer was critical of the positioning and pricing of the earlier Lagerfeld collection, telling WWD last July that "bridge" is a term for dentistry, not fashion. He said his idea was to build the new K range around jeans and T-shirts, much like his blockbuster collaboration with H&M in 2004. "It's not basic, but it's the basis of modern dressing," he said.

Lagerfeld is collaborating on the collection with Maurice Ohayon, the denim guru behind the Paris-based Notify label. Ohayon's title at K Karl Lagerfeld is executive creative director."I think it's a very modern way of working," Lagerfeld said of the collaboration. "I'm not obsessed with my name. It's always been linked with something."

The designer is, however, obsessed with well-fitting jeans that emphasize a skinny silhouette.

"I hate baggy pants: Don't expect them from me," said the designer, who five years ago shed more than 90 pounds and chucked his loose Japanese layers in favor of stick-to-the-ribs suits by Dior Homme. "It's very body-conscious, very defined," he said of the K line, which also boasts a distinctive K logo.

Lagerfeld enlisted Stephen Gan of Visionaire and Harper's Bazaar as a graphic design consultant for the project.

Gehring declined to reveal revenue projections for the K Karl Lagerfeld collection, but cited ambitions to build a "significant" licensing business for the line in eyewear, footwear, accessories and fragrance.

"We are in various discussions at the moment," he said, hinting the first deals could be revealed as early as the first quarter of 2007.

He characterized interest in the collection as "very high." The company aims to launch K in 250 to 300 doors for the first season, in specialty denim retailers, fashion boutiques and select department stores. The collection will be backed with an advertising campaign photographed by Lagerfeld.

Gehring gave no timetable for when K would tackle the U.S. market, saying the priority was to establish the line first in Europe, which is now where Tommy Hilfiger Corp. is now based, in Amsterdam, and which Gehring knows best. Canada is included in the initial rollout because Hilfiger has an established and stable business there.

"The Canadian market is very aligned with the European market," Gehring noted.

But he said he would not rule out freestanding retail stores for K Karl Lagerfeld in the future, once the brand gains traction at wholesale and the product range grows.

Despite major success at Chanel and Fendi, Lagerfeld has seen his own brand weather some turbulent times.

In the wake of Hilfiger's acquisition by two Apax Partners funds, approved by shareholders last May, the company decided to focus its resources on the core Hilfiger brand, which has been struggling in America. That meant discontinuing the much-ballyhooed Lagerfeld contemporary line following its fall 2006 retail debut.But on Wednesday, Gehring reiterated his commitment to develop Lagerfeld's Paris-based collection line, plus the new K venture, which has its own dedicated team, including Rob Dunk as vice president. A denim veteran, Dunk was a founder of G-Star and the Red + label and was creative director at Pepe Jeans Europe, a Hilfiger spokeswoman said.

"We're going to do all the things that need to be done to build this properly," Gehring said of K. "We should be able to develop this as a substantial business."

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