By and  on April 17, 2007

Lord & Taylor and its parent corporation, NRDC Equity Partners, are building up a pool of designer talent.

The latest to sign on is Bryan Bradley of Tuleh, who will create an exclusive collection for Lord & Taylor. And the next could be Charles Nolan, who has a strong track record of designing sophisticated, elegant and youthful clothes.

For the past four years, Lord & Taylor has been remerchandising to sharpen its focus on bridge, better and contemporary merchandise. As reported, NRDC is also in talks with Peter Som, known for his luxurious, clean appeal and celebrity following, and has already signed contemporary designer Cynthia Steffe. Due to a noncompete arrangement, Steffe has been hired to help build up the accessories assortments at Lord & Taylor, but her role could be expanded into ready-to-wear in about a year.

Officials at Lord & Taylor and NRDC were not available for comment Monday.

Lord & Taylor is working to haul in young designer talent through a variety of arrangements. The deals could involve licensing agreements and/or ownership interests. Providing exclusive collections to Lord & Taylor is a huge part of the NRDC strategy, but it's possible certain designers signed by the group provide product that NRDC would then wholesale to other stores. Designers working for Lord & Taylor will still be able to work on their primary and signature collections and continue to distribute more broadly.

The strategy also reflects efforts at Lord & Taylor to narrow the gap in private label with competitors such as Macy's, which has a far more advanced program. Saks Fifth Avenue last year reintroduced private label collections after a hiatus of a few years.

Bradley has inked a contract for a year-long creative experiment, with the option of renewal. He will design a collection centered around key items with monthly deliveries. Bradley stressed it's not a typical diffusion line of Tuleh designs at watered-down price points, but an altogether different design approach for him that could involve categories of merchandise he wouldn't necessarily tackle for Tuleh.

"I am looking at it from the perspective of what I think a department store needs to do to be successful now," he said. "I think of it broadly in terms of monthly categories and monthly deliveries."For instance, for Father's Day, Bradley is designing "sunglasses for cool dads," while for holiday, he is working on T-shirts, sweaters, rubber snow boots, fur stoles and mittens, as well as accessories like cashmere earmuffs or scullcaps — "things like that could get people excited and make them feel less cynical about department store shopping," he said.

Bradley is sourcing much of his inspiration from Lord & Taylor's eighth floor archive, which he considers a treasure trove very few make use of. "It has every single ad, promotion and menu from the cafe," he said. "It's all this incredible, sophisticated, outrageous, beautiful artwork."

The designer plans to lift some of the iconic images and use them for T-shirt motifs, for instance. They include a Sixties photo of several women standing in a line wearing different length skirts with the tag line "It's not the size, it's the length that counts," and a Fifties graphic featuring a big Santa Claus and the tag line "Here comes that man again."

While the name of the label hasn't been determined, it is likely to feature Bradley's name or initials alongside those of the store. The pieces, T-shirts with graphics and cashmere knit cardigans, could hit Lord & Taylor's doors as early as September. And Bradley is confident the deal could evolve into multiple categories.

"It could be anything, that was something I was really definite about from the beginning," he said.

"It's led me down design paths I would have never gone before," the designer continued. "It's all worth it, even just to go to the eighth floor archive and have a BLT for lunch. And you can look at cafe menus from 1933."

The collection will be priced at the upper tier of Lord & Taylor's assortment, ranging, on average, from about $89 to $270 at retail; some special fur items will be more expensive. By contrast, a Tuleh blouse could retail for $1,200 to $2,300, and suits sell for just over $3,000.

Asked how the new venture would help with the financing of Tuleh, Bradley said, "It's fun to get a paycheck. I like anything that pulls me outside my normal modes of thinking."Bradley said he was put in touch with Richard Baker of NRDC Equity Partners through Jaqui Lividini (NRDC works with Lividini Weisenfeld Partners for marketing and communications). That said, Bradley's interest in Lord & Taylor predates the introduction.

"I have been following Jane Elfers," Bradley told WWD of L&T's president and chief executive officer. "It felt to me that she almost single-handedly took the store, wrenched it out of the past and made it interesting again. I have a soft spot for Lord & Taylor because it's very classic American, or American classic. They play the national anthem every morning before opening."

Bradley and Baker seemed to have hit it off from the get-go. "He is pretty relaxed and doesn't have a lot of patience for long conversations that go on and on and nothing happens, just like me," Bradley said. "Both of us wanted to do something now, and to try something new."

In other developments in the talent buildup at Lord & Taylor, last month, the store hired advertising guru David Lipman; Y&R's BrandBuzz; Randall Ridless, a designer of store interiors, and Mancini Duffy, an architectural and design firm, for a range of assignments, from developing a new fall-holiday branding campaign to large-scale renovations and spotlighting ongoing merchandise changes.

The intent is to pump new life into one of America's oldest retail brands.

NRDC is believed to be interested in pursuing more retail acquisitions, possibly Saks Fifth Avenue. NRDC Equity, a joint venture between the principals of National Realty & Development Corp. and Apollo Real Estate Advisors, has completed transactions in excess of $50 billion. Richard Baker is NRDC's president and ceo. He recently told WWD, "It's very important to all of us that Lord & Taylor is the industry leader for American design and continues to search the country for great talent."

NRDC wouldn't be the first to build a retail/wholesale portfolio. Jones Apparel Group owns Barneys New York as well as the Jones and Nine West brands, among others. There also are LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, with holdings that include Donna Karan, Sephora and Louis Vuitton, and PPR, which owns Gucci Group and recently sold its Printemps department store subsidiary.NRDC has a more diversified model, with extensive real estate holdings and a lot of valuable property, including the Lord & Taylor flagship, which will be redeveloped.

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