By  on October 25, 2007

"There is a tremendous amount of American design talent. The problem is these designers don't have the funding and support to become important," said Susan Davidson, who on Wednesday was named president and chief executive officer of Creative Design Studio.

The announcement confirmed an Oct. 19 WWD report that NRDC Equity Partners, parent of Lord & Taylor, was forming CDS and would name Davidson as its head. She starts her new job Monday.

"I'm wildly excited," Davidson said. "This is a tremendous opportunity to work with American talent. What most [young] designers need badly is funding and nurturing, and what we have is the outlet, Lord & Taylor, and the potential to sell to other retailers, which can give them the scale."

Davidson, along with Richard Baker, ceo of NRDC Equity and chairman of L&T, characterized CDS as a stand-alone company with a mission to invest in American designers and build them into brands with financial, strategic and infrastructure support. "CDS is in the business of investing in great design talent, most likely in the U.S., but who knows?" said Baker. He did note however that, "Lord & Taylor has a special relationship and bond with American designers. As we go forward, it is important to be true to the DNA."

Davidson will report to Baker.

The CDS strategy also entails transforming the existing proprietary brand business at L&T into a full-scale operation that orchestrates the retailer's design and product development, and wholesales the merchandise to other stores around the world.

L&T's proprietary brand volume is said to represent close to $200 million of L&T's $1.3 billion in annual volume. The proprietary program includes the Context, Kate Hill and Grant Thomas labels.

According to Baker, it's no longer appropriate to regard these lines as proprietary. They're brands to be wholesaled widely, he said. "CDS is a new company that stands on its own and has the freedom to sell product anywhere. I've already had appointments with two high-end department stores to buy certain product, but don't underestimate the importance of specialty retailers as well," Baker said.He added CDS brands will be supported by a battery of events, including launches.

The strategy is one that has been attempted before with mixed success. For example, Pegasus invested in Judith Leiber and a few other well-known but small-volume designers, including Daryl Kerrigan, and eventually folded. The designer business, while glamorous and exciting, is difficult to make profitable with its high cost structure.

But Baker said, "We know that we are on the right track. We understand well-designed and well-manufactured product that's appropriately priced." L&T's Bryan by Bryan Bradley launch has been "highly successful" so far, "blowing out" at the 19 doors that sell it, he said. "This [line] is something we might be able to get into other markets where Lord & Taylor is not located."

CDS designers include Peter Som, whose company is owned by NRDC, as well as Bryan Bradley, Charles Nolan, Cynthia Steffe and Joseph Abboud. Each designer has a different arrangement with CDS. Som will continue to design his eponymous line as well as the Bill Blass collection, with no additional lines currently in the works. Bradley will continue to design Bryan by Bryan Bradley, which launched last month, and Nolan is recreating the Kate Hill private bridge collection with new product arriving in January.

Steffe next year becomes creative director for the Context contemporary line, formerly a private brand that is slated to be wholesaled. Steffe will also create a collection under a new label.

On the men's side, Joseph Abboud will create a new men's wear label, replacing the Grant Thomas private label.

Kate Hill, Context and Bryan by Bryan Bradley will now be operated by CDS, which will sell these lines to L&T and other high-end retailers.

The CDS design stable, according to Baker and Davidson, will cover the better to designer price spectrum. Since L&T's price range covers better, bridge and contemporary, some CDS products won't be sold at the specialty store. For example, Som has no plans to sell at L&T. However, Baker said the plan is to "nurture Peter Som to become a global brand." Bryan by Bryan Bradley is "at the moment" only sold at L&T, he added, implying the distribution could be broadened.CDS has moved into a 109,000-square-foot floor in the Starrett-Lehigh Building on Manhattan's West Side overlooking the Hudson River, where the company will have showrooms for the brands that were formerly in-house only at L&T and are now being reworked and upgraded for broader distribution. CDS is also staffing up, with product developers, stylists, merchants, designers and others, a team of about 80 people. Existing staff from L&T's proprietary brand program will be included.

Baker said a long search was involved in finding a CDS ceo. Berglass and Associates executive recruiting firm assisted CDS in the hunt. After attaining an M.B.A., Davidson entered the buyer training program at Bloomingdale's, became a merchandise manager at Henri Bendel, served as president of Chaus and spent 10-and-a-half years at Liz Claiborne, most recently managing about $1.5 billion worth of business as group president for denim and nonapparel. She was also a former president of DKNY Jeans.

Last week, NRDC Equity formed NRDC Acquisition Corp., a special purpose acquisition company, to purchase one or more operating businesses. The company completed its initial public offering of 41.4 million units, including 5.4 million units pursuant to the underwriters' over-allotment option. The units were sold at an offering price of $10 each, generating gross proceeds of $414 million. That's enough equity to purchase a $1 billion to $2 billion company, Baker said. Each unit consists of one share of common stock and one warrant to purchase an additional share of common stock at $7.50.

"We are really looking to add more designers to this stable," said Davidson. "The intent is to nurture and develop American talent."

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