At Liz, Collection Goes Casual

<?XML:NAMESPACE PREFIX = CS /><CS:BOLD>NEW YORK -- Liz Claiborne Collection is taking a cue from its career customers and paying more attention to the weekend.<BR><BR>As the definition of career wear has become blurred, executives at Liz Claiborne...

NEW YORK — Liz Claiborne Collection is taking a cue from its career customers and paying more attention to the weekend.

As the definition of career wear has become blurred, executives at Liz Claiborne Collection decided it was time to revamp its core division and start offering items that can be worn not just Monday through Friday, but seven days a week.

“We really had the singular vision of career, and now we’re dropping the word and focusing on the collection as a whole,” said Karen Greenberg, president of Liz Claiborne Collection, which the company refers to as its “crown jewel,” last week while previewing the fall line at its Seventh Avenue showroom. “We have done so much research where our consumer is involved and what we realized was she wants more versatility, not just in her work wardrobe, but also what she wears on the weekends.”

Liz Claiborne started to introduce bits of the new look of Collection for spring, but the major launch will be in August with deliveries for fall. Greenberg said early reaction to it has been positive — as the line’s best-selling item for spring was also its newest and most forward, a wide-legged cuffed pant.

While not dramatically different than previous assortments, the updated look of Collection is more modern and stylish, featuring higher quality fabrics such as wools and silks, and offering more options than just suit looks. Included are versatile items like shirt jackets, hooded topcoats and corduroy pants that can translate from work to weekend.

“Whether our customer is an attorney, banker or schoolteacher, what she wears to work is based on the day,” said Greenberg, who has been at Liz Claiborne for 17 years. “So on Monday, she might have a very serious meeting and want to wear a head-to-toe suited look, by Wednesday she might have more of a relaxed attitude and by Friday, she wants a complete separates approach.”

The redesign of the 26-year-old Collection marks the first time Liz Claiborne has revamped the line because consumers were asking for a change.

“We haven’t moved as forward with our consumer and we’ve been a little conservative in the past. Now we’ve got more forward looks,” Greenberg said. “The consumer told us we had not evolved with her and that she wants more style, more versatility. She’s not wearing the same thing to the office. After all the research, we realized we had to get out of being landlocked into this word ‘career.’ And the way to approach our customer is to give her more versatility.”

Claiborne executives expect the updated look of Collection will enhance sales, but declined to say by how much. As reported, for the fourth quarter ended Dec. 29, Liz Claiborne’s income was up 4.8 percent, to $41.5 million from $39.6 million. Sales were up 17.6 percent, to $886.5 million from $754 million. The company is forecasting a fiscal 2002 sales increase of 4 to 6 percent.

“More luxury, more style, more choices” is Liz Claiborne Collection’s tag line to buyers for fall — which speaks to the primary new features of the line. While not raising prices, fabrics and yarns have been upgraded to include a lot of wool, new fabrics like silk canvas and a velvet-like Tencel corduroy. Overall, the collection includes about 206 styles, with wholesale prices ranging from $24.50 for a silk knit top to $114.50 for a pinstriped wool jacket.

In addition, new technical details like longer back rises and shorter front rises on pants have been incorporated to give a more slimming effect — an extra bonus considering Liz Claiborne sells a lot of larger sizes, Greenberg said.

“We changed our fit, but sizes won’t change,” she said. “So if our customer was a size 8 or 10, she’s still buying the same 8 or 10. She won’t see a difference on the rack, but she’ll see it when she puts it on.”

New silhouettes include slim suede pants and jackets, high-waisted slim pants, puckered blouses, boiled wool jackets and longer cardigans. There are lots of prints, such as a Florence-inspired print, as well as plaids and stripes.

But make no mistake: Greenberg assured that Collection is in no way turning just casual. “We’re still more dominant from a collection, go-to-work perspective,” she said. “But the pendulum swung so far into the casual world and the pendulum is swinging back [to more career], but we cannot do Collection the way we used to do Collection.”

Even during tough retail times, Paul Charron, chairman and chief executive officer at Liz Claiborne Inc., said businesses need to keep evolving to stay current.

“Back 20 years ago, fuzzy concepts could be successful,” said Charron, himself dressed more casually, sans tie. “Today, you’ve got a consolidating power base among retailers, a consolidating power base among suppliers, so there’s no margin for error. What that means is once you have a good idea you don’t just ride it indefinitely. Whether you have a good idea or bad idea, you’ve got to continue to evolve so you’re always changing — which is the essence of fashion.”

Charron said the career segment has lacked vitality for two or three years, which also prompted the change.

“Casualization is not going away, but there are also dress-up options and career dressing opportunities,” he said. “I came in [more casual] today and yesterday I looked like ‘Bill Business.’ Whenever you’ve got a business that isn’t performing in a segment that isn’t performing like career, you have to keep moving. These kinds of evolutions have no beginning and have no end.”

Kathy Pickering, general merchandise manager at the Atlanta-based Rich’s Lazarus Goldsmith’s, commended the updated look of the line.

“In the past there would be things we would see in the showroom and then it would get shipped and it wouldn’t come through the way it looked in the showroom — mostly from the quality of fabric point-of-view,” Pickering said. “Now, they’re using upgraded fabrics and the quality of construction has noticeably improved.”

Conceptually speaking, she said it’s more modern yet stays true to the misses’ look — so it shouldn’t steer away the Liz Claiborne customer.

“They haven’t walked away from their customer, but there’s still a newness to it,” she said.