By  on April 27, 2007

NEW YORK — Michael Tiernan brought sexy back to Boston Proper.

After resuscitating the women's apparel and accessories catalogue business 15 years ago, the president and chief executive officer of Boston Proper plans to launch another specialty catalogue and add a brick-and-mortar side to the business, though he does not have a timetable, Tiernan told the Direct Marketing Association Thursday night at the Yale Club here.

"Today's women want choice, and ultimately we expect specialty stores to be part of our multichannel business," Tiernan said. "But we are only going to grow at a rate at which we can maintain our profitability" — 10-plus percent pretax earnings last year.

With catalogue circulation of 48 million and an almost decade-old Web business, Boston Proper is a different enterprise from what Tiernan acquired in 1992. The firm had gone bankrupt and he bought what was left of Boston Proper — effectively a name and a mailing list — for $125,000. The firm now does about $140 million in annual sales.

Tiernan's strategy was, "Let's make it sexy." The new owner streamlined Boston Proper's eclectic offerings, deciding to specialize in women's sportswear and accessories, and relaunched "with a focused collection and a cover that spoke to a sexy, confident Boomer," Tiernan said. "We were inspired by a whole generation of women who were redefining what is proper."

A halter top sells for about $69, a low-cut knit top for $29 and the fitted jeans paired with it for $64.

The average Boston Proper customer is a 46-year-old professional with an $80,000 annual income. To suit her lifestyle, the firm launched the niche catalogues, Boston Proper Sport and Boston Proper Travel.

"We saw Boomers were severely neglected," Tiernan said. "Markets make businesses. We found white space and staked our claim by selling quality fashion with sexy lifestyle imaging."

Boston Proper's catalogue images created a lifestyle for this hip Baby Boomer.

"We found she enjoyed being taken away from her day-to-day life with aspirational photography in faraway locations," he said. He also found that by "putting together coordinated and versatile looks," complete with accessories, Boston Proper could sell multiple pieces at a time.Initially, the Boca Raton, Fla.-based firm had a huge problem with returns and cancellations, which Tiernan attributed to the "poor quality and inconsistent fits" of other companies' brands that the catalogue sold. So it developed a Boston Proper label, which today makes up 80 percent of the offerings, with "a misses' fit and a contemporary look."

After attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and doing a stint with the Peace Corps, Tiernan joined his family business, Mark, Fore & Strike — named after sporting terms that reflected the items it originally sold (mark for shooting, fore for golf and strike for fishing). The company shifted its focus to men's and women's sportswear and accessories in 1976, when the business did $3 million in annual sales, and Tiernan became president and ceo in 1983. In 2003, Tiernan decided to sell Mark, Fore & Strike to concentrate on Boston Proper, and last year business grew about 25 percent.

"The challenge in infusing sexy into your brand is to push the envelope without crossing the line," Tiernan said. "Boston Proper's goal is to help women feel good about themselves and, yes, to look and feel sexy — believe me, it's better than the alternative."

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