By  on August 16, 2007

NEW YORK — Over the past year, Jones Apparel Group Inc. has masterminded a new strategy for its Anne Klein brand that included appointing a creative director for a designer collection to create a halo for all divisions and shifting toward a different marketing focus.

Now the group has to prove it still believes in the plan.

In the last month, two key proponents of the new strategy for Anne Klein — Peter Boneparth, Jones' then-president and chief executive officer, and Lynn Cote, then-ceo of wholesale sportswear, suits and dresses — have departed. Their exits have left many on Seventh Avenue and elsewhere wondering whether their replacements — Wesley R. Card, Jones' president and ceo, and Susan Metzger, ceo of women's better sportswear — wish to stay the Anne Klein course as they wrestle with other problems at the group.

For now, Card, at least, is insisting they do. "Anne Klein is an amazing brand with a rich and storied history," he said, in an e-mailed statement.

"We've made significant investments in design, distribution and production since we acquired the trademark four years ago and have seen steady growth and performance at retail," Card continued. "We see Anne Klein as a major opportunity not only for Jones Apparel Group but for our retail partners as well, and we are committed to building and expanding this illustrious franchise at the designer, bridge and better levels. To that end, we are launching new categories of business under AK Anne Klein, adding talent where necessary and increasing our marketing support across all divisions."

Metzger, who will oversee the Anne Klein business, declined to be interviewed.

Anne Klein was once considered one of America's most iconic sportswear brands, but since Klein's death in 1974, it has gone through several changes, and just as many designers who tried to put their own imprint on the brand to varying degrees of success — Donna Karan, Louis Dell'Olio, Richard Tyler, Patrick Robinson, Ken Kaufman and Isaac Franco, Charles Nolan and Michael Smaldone.

Jones Apparel acquired Anne Klein as part of its purchase of Kasper A.S.L. in 2003, and while the brand has struggled with multiple identity crises over the years, its executives have always stressed the notion Anne Klein's brand equity had been untarnished. Over the past two years, Boneparth singled out Anne Klein as one of the brands with top potential for growth and he and Cote cooked up the plan to create a top-level designer collection — tapping Isabel Toledo as its creative director — to inform the bridge and better levels — a pyramid setup that is reminiscent of Phillips-Van Heusen's structure for Calvin Klein, with the top-level Calvin Klein Collection, the bridge ck Calvin Klein and the better-priced Calvin Klein white label.Anne Klein's total volume is estimated at $500 million, including wholesale, retail and licensing revenues.

"It's been about five years since the acquisition, and we have taken our time to do everything that needs to be done, evaluating the brand and retail opportunities, and finding the right designer," said Stacy Lastrina, Jones Apparel's executive vice president of marketing and creative services. "Now that we have worked to get everything in order, we are at a point where we believe in a big opportunity for the marketplace. Jones Apparel has Anne Klein as one of its top initiatives for lots of reasons. We see an opportunity and we are investing."

Toledo presented her first collection for the brand last February for fall distribution and it is sold very selectively at stores such as Barneys New York and Ikram in Chicago.

"So far, the response has been really positive," said Ikram's owner Ikram Goldman of the few pieces the store has received. "It's an American sportswear collection but a very hip, modern sportswear collection. It has Isabel's quirky touch, and that makes the collection different from the Anne Klein that people are used to. Isabel has a way of designing clothes that make a woman look beautiful and interesting, and her pieces are timeless."

A favorite of editors and a fixture in the New York art scene with her illustrator husband, Ruben, Toledo immediately created a fresh DNA for the brand.

"I started out with thinking very American, very sportswear, thinking what Anne Klein was about," Toledo said. "She stands for the ultimate women's American point of view. It's all about building on the past collections, with clothes that last forever. My first collection was dedicated to the clean and extreme vision of a woman.

"I have really wanted to give it credibility," she continued. "And I have wanted to take things very slowly to figure out how to innovate and not alienate. It's hard because fashion today, or designer fashion anyway, is for a certain type of woman, but I really want to keep Anne Klein very accessible. I tried to invoke it with innovation, with good cuts, things I have felt you owned forever."Her hand is already starting to ripple through to the other divisions. This fall, Jones Apparel is relaunching AK Anne Klein as a lifestyle label, aligned with Toledo's modern sensibility, and replete with new categories such as AK Anne Klein handbags, jewelry, denim, as well as footwear, which was recently taken in-house. There will be an extension called AK Anne Klein Sport next spring, featuring active-inspired footwear and handbags, which will be followed by an apparel launch for fall 2008. Anne Klein New York is also being upgraded with Toledo's more modern aesthetic for next spring.

Toledo is working closely with the designers in the other divisions to give the overall brand aesthetic consistency.

"I try to make sure there are details in the clothes that go from one collection to another so that women could build on it," she said. "The hardest and most important thing has been not to follow trends, but to be very pure to the thought of Anne Klein. I have been working hard at giving Anne Klein a fingerprint for the future. She was gutsy, and it was no-nonsense dresses, which today don't sound as exciting or groundbreaking, but in her time how do I interpret that? I am trying to do certain lines that feel like Anne Klein. It's really in technical point of view that I build the Anne Klein identity."

The brand image will be augmented with a new advertising campaign under the creative direction of Raul Martinez, ceo and executive creative director of AR, a New York advertising agency. Philip-Lorca diCorcia shot models Carolyn Murphy and Stella Tennant at the SUNY Performing Arts Center at Purchase College, and the overall effect is urban, with light used to dramatic effect. Martinez came up with the concept through discussions with Toledo and other Anne Klein executives.

"It couldn't just be an evolution, it had to be quite impactful," Martinez said. "And it had to take from the heritage of Anne Klein. She was quite revolutionary in her time, so you take that heritage and interpret it. It was to elevate the brand in the designer context."

Lastrina said that for the first time, there is a group effort to lift the brand to a new level. The company has beefed up its management team for Anne Klein, which now consists of Susie Rieland, chief merchandising officer, bridge and lifestyle sportswear brands at Jones Apparel; Claire Marino, vice president of sales and merchandising for the Anne Klein Designer Collection; Adrian Gilbey, design director for Anne Klein New York Dress; William Frawley, creative director of Anne Klein New York footwear and handbags; Jodi Wright, creative director of AK Anne Klein footwear, handbags and jewelry, and David Aaron Siskin, vice president of AK Anne Klein Footwear."We are pioneering this brand as a management team," Lastrina said. "We are meeting all the time, from footwear to handbags, sportswear, marketing, licensing...everybody is on the same brand page and vision, working together as a team, regardless of the tier of business."

Due to the renewed focus on AK Anne Klein, there have been rumblings the eight accessories-only Anne Klein New York stores that opened in the past year would close or be transformed into AK Anne Klein lifestyle stores. According to Lastrina, only the Madison Avenue boutique will close by the end of the year, while the others continue to operate in the current format, at least for the time being.

"The change is just beginning, because they are restructuring the whole way they do business," Toledo said. "To do designer, you have to have patience and a strong stomach and you have to know it takes time to develop it."

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