NEW YORK — Liz Claiborne Inc. could be a step closer to adding the J. Jill Group to its portfolio of brands.

Claiborne has entered a confidentiality agreement with J. Jill to allow its participation in J. Jill's process of exploring its strategic alternatives, including a possible sale of J. Jill to Claiborne.

Executives at both firms declined to comment further on the deal, but a press release stated Claiborne expects the due diligence process to commence shortly.

As reported, Claiborne and J. Jill, the $450 million multichannel specialty retailer of women's apparel, accessories and footwear, have been in negotiations for about two years. Claiborne made an all-cash offer of $18 per share to purchase the troubled J. Jill operation on Nov. 12. Paul Charron, Claiborne's chairman and chief executive officer, said he made his highest offer that day, but would bend it if necessary.

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