DOWNGRADE FOR ST. JOHN:Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services downgraded the outlook for St. John Knits International Inc. on Tuesday to negative from stable. The ratings firm said weak operating performance in fiscal 2003 resulted in lower-than-expected credit protection measures at the apparel manufacturer. Revenues rose due to new retail stores, but wholesale and retail sales on a same-store basis were lower, the ratings firm said. “The ratings on St. John Knits International Inc. reflect the company’s weak financial profile, including its high leverage [and] its narrow focus on high-end women’s knitwear apparel, as well as its channel and customer concentration,” Standard & Poor’s said. “These factors are offset, to a certain extent, by the company’s established brand image.” The ratings firm affirmed the company’s “B-plus” corporate credit rating and its “B-plus” secured debt as well as its “B-minus” subordinated debt rating.

CRACKING DOWN ON CHILD LABOR: The U.S. Department of Labor, the International Labor Organization and the government of India have launched a $40 million project to combat the use of exploitative child labor in India in 10 hazardous industries, including silk, footwear, bangles, bricks and brassware. The DOL and Indian government have each dedicated $20 million toward the “INDUS project,” which is the largest international technical assistance program under DOL’s umbrella. The project, which will be administered by the ILO, will be implemented in 20 districts in four Indian states. At least 20 countries abuse child labor in the production of textiles, apparel and footwear, as well as jewelry through gold and diamond mining, according to the DOL. Aside from India, they include Pakistan, Egypt, Argentina, Bangladesh, Turkey, Chile and Swaziland.

ONE PRICE’S NO-GO: One Price Clothing Stores is proceeding with an orderly liquidation of its broken business. The company said Monday that it was selling assets to maximize the return to shareholders, and that more layoffs will follow as the company “proceeds to liquidate.” The company on Friday laid off 200 workers at its home office and a distribution center, both in Duncan, S.C. John Disa, president and chief executive officer, said in a statement that the layoffs were due to the “liquidating nature of this Chapter 11 and the absence of financial resources to sustain the business going forward.” The company filed for Chapter 11 in a Manhattan bankruptcy court on Feb. 9 and, pending bankruptcy court approval, expects going-out-of-business sales to be completed within six to eight weeks.HEAD START: Swedish women’s and men’s fashion retailer Hennes & Mauritz on Tuesday said group sales increased 14 percent in January — excluding the impact of currency exchange — compared with the same period last year. That’s up from December, when sales were up 11 percent, but slower than January 2003, when sales rose 18 percent.

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