By  on August 16, 2006

NEW YORK — Calvin Klein continues to bulk up its white label division.

After an underperforming start, its better-priced sportswear line was relaunched under Kellwood Co. for fall, and a fine-tuned product assortment recently has been shipped to stores. While it is still too early to gauge consumer reaction, Calvin Klein Inc. executives already are on to their next brand extension: In December, a new dress line licensed to G-III Apparel Group will be available in better dress departments at department and specialty stores nationwide.

Company executives describe the dress launch as a major initiative in parent Phillips-Van Heusen's growth plans for CKI. And those plans are ambitious ones: Emanuel Chirico, PVH's chief executive officer, said in June that the goal is to add $2 billion to $3 billion of business to CKI's $4 billion in sales over the next five to 10 years. With PVH having set CKI up as a licensing operation after the 2003 acquisition, that revenue must come from strategic licenses, such as the new dress line.

"There are a lot of growth initiatives throughout Europe and Asia [for the company overall]," said Tom Murry, CKI's president and chief operating officer, describing the dress launch as a major push. "Dresses are one of the top 10 initiatives. We expect to be a dominant player in the U.S. better dress classification area."

The dress collection — which is not to be confused with the dresses available within Kellwood's in-store shops for white label sportswear — will launch softly on better dress floors in December, with a complete rollout planned for spring. The collection will be available at Federated Department Store divisions such as Macy's East and North, as well as at Dillard's, Nordstrom, Lord & Taylor and Parisian. In its first month, the line will be distributed to about 265 doors, stepping up to 400 to 450 doors in January.

"There are not a lot of department store brands in dress departments, and it's a good step to have Calvin Klein there," said Rob Smith, executive vice president and general merchandise manager at Macy's East, which is launching the dress line. "[Calvin Klein] is performing well at almost everywhere we have it. The Calvin Klein brand strengthens the validity of dresses as a classification, too."Sammy Aarons, vice chairman at G-III, claimed the scale of the launch was a result of the relationships the manufacturer has built with retailers, since it is also the licensee for Calvin Klein suits and men's and women's coats.

"There is a lot of confidence that we can accomplish what we go out for," Aarons said. "The formula is somewhat simple. We utilize the Calvin Klein aesthetics categorically in our line."

Kevin Carrigan, creative director of Calvin Klein white label and ck Calvin Klein, worked with Kenneth Nolan, design director of Calvin Klein Dresses at G-III, and his design team on the new collection. Although dresses are clearly in a strong fashion cycle, with stylish, lightweight pieces that can work for day or night, the Calvin Klein dress line features many long, evening-driven looks — give or take a few interpretations of Calvin's iconic shift dresses. Carrigan called this a deliberate move, since the launch comes in time for the holiday season, and he added that the collection will feature more day looks in coming months.

For design inspiration, Carrigan and Nolan combed the fashion house's extensive archives. One slinky black matte jersey number, for instance, is inspired by the V-neck jersey dress Julia Roberts once wore to the Oscars — yet the long, better-priced version is belted, with a fishtail hem.

The duo also culled from the fall runway offering of Francisco Costa, women's creative director of Calvin Klein Collection — though Carrigan resisted a too-literal translation.

"If something is going on in Collection, it's important to bring it to each [division], just a season later," he said. "Francisco showed a lot of red, and it's a major color for fall, so we have it in our sportswear with Kellwood. I am bringing the cohesiveness to the brand, so that if the consumer sees a red sweater in the sportswear line, she will see a red dress here also for holiday, or a red cashmere coat."

Other dresses in the new line include asymmetric necklines, wrap numbers and creations with pleating details across the front. Several of the looks are loosely inspired by Calvin Klein swimwear, mixing silk charmeuse tops and flowing silk chiffon bodies, and featuring straps based on some of the company's swim designs. The color scheme is also very Calvin: It ranges from black, red and dark chocolate brown to mineral tones such as grays, and an ink color.The 65-piece launch collection will wholesale from $64 to $114. Aarons declined to disclose sales projections, but said: "The way we sell and do our business is that if we can't create an impact on the floor, we shouldn't be there. When the consumer walks in, she should know Calvin Klein is an important label to that store."

How easily the shopper will be able to differentiate dresses in both the sportswear and dress departments remains to be seen. She won't even notice the difference, claimed Murry.

"The Kellwood line is a lifestyle better collection, which, in addition to daywear and special occasion, has a dress component, which sits in that department as a part of the business," he said. "This is a separate business, so we wouldn't want one to encroach on the other. This is a classification dress business."

Murry noted that part of the formula is the way in which Carrigan works with all the design directors across the white label licensees "to maintain and retain the correct image so it's not confusing and it all looks like Calvin.

"But there are different end uses, different zones or different departments, and I think we can coexist in all of those," he added.

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