By  on August 24, 2005

LOS ANGELES — Terry Lundgren, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Federated Department Stores Inc., didn't hesitate last month when an investor pressed him at the annual shareholders meeting to identify the brand of a bright floral print jacket she was wearing.

"David Meister," he said.

The namesake designer behind the only bridge line in Kellwood Co.'s catalogue of brands appeared humbled by the recognition.

In six years, the David Meister brand has grown into a $30 million dress and sportswear business that most recently staked a claim to prime real estate between Tahari and CK in The New View department at Bloomingdale's 59th Street flagship in Manhattan.

But Meister, 43, knows his work has only begun.

"I meet a lot of people who don't know who I am," Meister said from his studio on the campus of parent Kellwood Co. in City of Industry, Calif., 18 miles south of downtown Los Angeles. "We've developed this great business in all these different areas. But I'm a part of the brand. It's my point of view. And now we want to take it to the next step."

That next step: building a lifestyle brand.

Meister said he has "started conversations" to extend his name onto several licensed categories, including handbags, footwear and swimwear. A freestanding store and a runway show — both firsts for Meister —also top the list. And after a key move this spring into the high-profile 550 Seventh Avenue showroom in New York, the company followed up by hiring an outside brand consultant, Lividini Weisenfeld Partners, and Siren Public Relations to choreograph it all.

Sales are up 30 percent for this fall compared with a year ago, said Penny Aschkenasy, president of ENC, the Kellwood division that includes the Meister brand. Still, she said, "There is a person behind the label and that's what the world doesn't know — yet."

The brand is carried in 400 U.S. doors, including Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus. Neiman's is Meister's leading account and where he launched an exclusive suit collection this summer.

More in-store shops are in the works for Bloomingdale's and Neiman Marcus, said Aschkenasy. Abroad, his biggest accounts are Holt Renfrew in Canada and Selfridges in the U.K . Meister's annual sales are relatively modest among the roster at the $2.5 billion, publicly traded Kellwood, which includes brands as disparate as Phat Farm and Sag Harbor."We've only started in terms of really branding David, and getting the message out there around the world about him and the company," Aschkenasy said.

Aschkenasy is responsible for launching the David Meister label. The pair met at Anne Klein, then worked together at Laundry. "I came to Kellwood and we had all these moderate brands and I said to my boss, 'We've got to open a better brand,'" she said.

With Kellwood's full backing, Meister broke out on his "own" in 1999.

"I call her my sanity check," Meister said of Aschkenasy. "Penny and a lot of my crew have been with me this entire time."

The line of polished, contemporary-minded day dresses quickly segued into evening. Sportswear was added in 2004. Dresses account for 55 percent of volume, although sportswear could soon tip the scale.

The success of both categories at Neiman Marcus prompted the retailer to request a suit collection, and since shipping in June, "early indications have been positive," said Ann Stordahl, executive vice president and general merchandise manager for the Dallas-based retailer. "David has a designer taste level at bridge prices, and our customer really appreciates his fashion sense, his attention to detail and quality."

Frank Doroff, Bloomingdale's senior executive vice president and general merchandising manager of ready-to-wear, echoed those strengths. "Bridge is a segment of business we want to excel in. We feel it could be more luxurious, more modern, more sophisticated — and David represents a point of view that could help us get there."

Kellwood is banking on the David Meister brand to fully fill the bridge category, which has risen in recent years as a key category in the marketplace. Meister's more contemporary take — sexier, ladylike looks, from his signature print dresses to embellished denim — reflects the driving shift in bridge.

"The only way I'd see having another bridge line is if it happens to come in an acquisition," said Stephen Ruzow, president of Kellwood's women's wear division. "But we would rather focus on building this one."

To that end, the strategy starts with establishing the Cincinnati-born Meister's identity as a California lifestyle designer."We plan to invest pretty heavily to get him there," Ruzow said. Kellwood's faith in the brand, he added, "is all based on one thing: getting really good full price sell-through. That is the real test of a designer, whether the clothes sell at full price. We've been seeing this for a few seasons with David."

Consistency, particularly in terms of fit, is often cited. It's among the reasons retailers offering the brand online report strong sales, Aschkenasy said. "The numbers are surprising," she said, although she couldn't quantify to what extent.

Ruzow noted Meister's flair for prints makes swimwear and coats natural progressions for the brand. He is less inclined to rush into accessories.

There is concern that too quick an expansion isn't necessarily right for Meister. "He should establish himself first into a great ready-to-wear line before he pursues other categories," said one retail executive, who asked not to be identified. "Someone established ... can get away with product that isn't so strong because of the name. But David's not there yet."

Integral to getting there is boosting the international business, Ruzow and Aschkenasy said. The search is on to hire an executive to aggressively pursue this growth.

In the meantime, licenses and a stand-alone boutique in Los Angeles are being explored with an eye on bowing swim and a signature shop by the end of next year.

Meister has his sights on the entire picture. "I say, the sky is the limit. I don't like parameters. If the time is right and it's the right opportunity, a lot of different things can happen."

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