NEW YORK — Now licensed to Kellwood Co., Liz Claiborne Dress — a $150 million business at its peak in the mid-Nineties — and the new Liz Claiborne Suit divisions are gearing up for an aggressive push to establish themselves in the ready-to-wear field.

The dress license was transferred in March from the Leslie Fay Co., which had it since 2000, and the suit component was added. Prior to that, Claiborne ranthe dress unit internally. Banking on the ability of the Claiborne name to resonate with consumers, Kellwood has developed a wide range of product in both categories and will launch the lines to buyers next month.

To a degree, offering an abundance of styles to see where the consumer gravitates is part of Kellwood’s strategy to pinpoint who the Liz Claiborne suit and dress customer exactly is. But it’s also just a big line, said Denise Miller, president of the division. There are about 180 pieces, with equal parts dresses and suits.

Kellwood has been looking for brands in categories beyond the moderate zone — made clear last month with its acquisition of the license to produce a better line for Calvin Klein and a $163 million bid for Kasper A.S.L. Ltd. —and Liz Claiborne fits right into that strategy, since it has such strong consumer recognition in better-priced sportswear.

“We ran six dress divisions in the moderate category and all our stores asked us to get into better,” said Jay Diamond, president of Kellwood Co.’s Halmode division. “We spoke to Stephen Ruzow [president of women’s wear at Kellwood] and said, ‘Somehow, we’ve got to get Liz.’”

In this year’s WWD100 survey of the fashion brands most recognized by consumers, Liz Claiborne landed the number-one spot in the suit and dress category and placed 18th in the overall list.

As the allure of dresses with consumers started to fall — along with the economy — in the late Nineties, Claiborne handed off the license to Leslie Fay with the hope that it would flourish under the care of a dress specialist.

While in-house at Claiborne, the dresses had slipped in volume to somewhere between $20 million and $50 million, according to a source close to the company. Plagued by financial and back-room problems at the time, Leslie Fay never really grew the business, which was another reason the license was switched.Kellwood might also be betting that consumers are hungry for new labels in the suit department. There are only a few major competitors dominating the suit field — Diamond cited Tahari Arthur S. Levine and Kasper A.S.L. — and said it’s ripe for retailers and consumers.

If a deal with Kasper comes to fruition, though, Kellwood could end up making suits for Liz Claiborne, Kasper, Albert Nipon, Le Suit and Sag Harbor Suits, giving it sizable market share.

Though he wouldn’t disclose first-year sales expectations for the Claiborne suit line, Diamond said Sag Harbor Suits generated about $25 million in its first year when Kellwood launched the moderate label in 2000. Market sources expect the dress and suit lines to do about $30 million combined during the first year.

If product hits a chord with retailers and consumers, though, there is significant potential in the category. Tahari Arthur S. Levine, for example, launched for fall 2002 retailing with first-year projections around $75 million and is expected to generate about $150 million this year. However, Levine’s experience as founder and former chairman of Kasper likely played a role there.

As for the merchandise, Miller said the Claiborne line features tweed suits for the lunch crowd in addition to career and special occasion styles. In dresses, there are daytime, cocktail, career and special occasion offerings.

Both lines pay close attention to details. On the suit side, there are zipper pockets, flared sleeves, pick stitching and customized buttons. In dresses, buyers will find lace trims, small flower prints and ribbon-waisted styles.

Bonnie Brownfield has joined the team as suit designer and Lisa Tracy designs the dresses. Brownfield was formerly the head designer for Earth Song, while Tracy headed design at Expo.

The dresses retail between $99 and $139, with suits ranging from $159 to $199. They will sell under the Liz Claiborne, Liz Woman and Liz Claiborne Petites labels.

In some cases, the career dresses play back to the suits so smaller retailers can merchandise the two lines together. Offering this option to retailers is a similar philosophy at Liz Claiborne, said Barbara Friedman, president of licensing.“I am truly impressed with the amount of money and resources Kellwood has put into the business,” Friedman said. “I think people look at Kellwood differently today than a few years ago. They are well run, strong in sourcing and manufacturing, but never paid much attention to brands outside the moderate market. Now, I think they’re being looked at as a firm that can manage brands. That will definitely make them a major competitor for [Liz Claiborne] and Jones New York.”

Friedman said competition is healthy, since it keeps a level of focus. This was something that Jones New York Dress president Barbara Kennedy also voiced.

“I think the brand is important and would be good for the dress business if it works,” Kennedy said. “To stand alone in an arena is not easy and it would be better for stores and [makers] to build the dress business back with more business. The brand’s troubles since the Nineties doesn’t mean it couldn’t hit a note with consumers and retailers if the product is right.”

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