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NEW YORK — Bongo is preparing to step up the beat in 2003.

This story first appeared in the January 2, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

The company, which became wholly owned by Candie’s Inc. in April, has various plans for growth in 2003, including a new ad campaign concept, a fresh merchandising scheme and a long list of new licenses.

Neil Cole, Candie’s Inc.’s chief executive officer and president, said Bongo is on the fast track to becoming a megabrand 20 years after its launch.

“The Bongo brand is one of the fastest-growing names in the industry due to the success of the jeanswear business, and we believe that this is an ideal time to be moving forward with product expansions,” Cole said of Bongo’s plans for more licensing. “We believe that our strategy of continuing to pursue licensing opportunities for key categories for both brands will translate into growth and profitability for our company and shareholders.”

According to Gary Bader, president of Bongo, the company has doubled its annual volume in 2002 to reach $100 million, not including revenue from licensed products. Bader said during the course of 2002, Bongo became a true department store brand, while still keeping it in specialty stores such as Wet Seal, Charlotte Russe and Gadzooks.

Bader said he expects to reach about $180 million in volume for the year ahead. While the label has been known as a jeans brand since its start, Bader said the company’s biggest challenge has been how to translate the denim trend into the next big thing on the denim floor.

“Denim really isn’t doing so well anymore, it’s not selling the way it was,” Bader said. “I think that for the next back-to-school season we are going to see other items in the denim departments. We are starting to offer denim washes and fits in non-denim fabrics. I really think that this is going to be the answer, since the customers are already going into the junior departments and picking up numerous bottoms in nondenim fabrics.”

That’s exactly the way Bader wants the new Bongo to grow in the next year. While it offers these nondenim bottoms in stores now, Bader said he has begun to see other vendors beginning to offer the same types of products that Bongo has. In the past, Bader said Bongo was more of a follower in the junior apparel business and now it is preparing to be a leader.

“We are keeping the same edge that Bongo has always had, but working really hard to stay one step ahead,” he said.

In the licensing arena, the brand signed several deals in 2002 and plans to launch a series of others next year. Its existing licenses include knit tops, handbags, infant’s and children’s wear, belts, socks, small leather goods, eyewear, cold weather accessories, fashion hats and rainwear. Bader said he is close to signing an intimate apparel license and hopes to sign one for young men’s wear in 2003.

The newest ad campaign to launch in the spring features a much different look than in the past. Styled by Hayley Hill and photographed by Michael Muller, the campaign is sexier and more sophisticated than in the past. Bader said the company decided to go with a model rather than a celebrity, since they were looking for “the face of Bongo,” something they didn’t see in pop star Willa Ford, who modeled for the ads last year.

Bader said he is attempting to reach an audience between the ages of 15 and 18, so ads are planned for the larger teen publications such as Seventeen and Teen People. He that since Candie’s purchased the company, it has made business run smoother and allow it to react more quickly.

“It used to be that the Candie’s people only paid attention to the brand when they had the time,” he said. “When it was owned by Azteca and Candie’s it was hard because it was unclear of who was responsible for what. Now that we are fully owned by Candie’s, it’s their baby, too, so we get more attention.”

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