NEW YORK — The highly desirous CK Calvin Klein women’s better sportswear license, owned by Phillips-Van Heusen Corp., is close to landing in someone’s hands and sources say the frontrunner is Kellwood Co.

Another interested party for the CK Calvin Klein women’s business is said to be investors Lawrence Stroll and Silas Chou, owners of A&G Group and Michael Kors LLC. A spokeswoman for Stroll said he had “no comment.” Stephen Ruzow, president of women’s wear at Kellwood, declined to comment on the report.

But PVH and Kellwood are no strangers. The two companies signed a long-term licensing agreement last year for Kellwood to manufacture and market Izod women’s wear for the moderate market. The line is expected to hit stores in spring 2004. PVH owns the Izod trademark.

Bruce Klatsky, chairman and chief executive officer of PVH, declined comment on any specific suitors for the CK Calvin Klein women’s license and would only say, “We’re coming close.” He said he expects to have a CK women’s better-price line in stores by the second half of 2004.

Tom Murry, president and chief operating officer of Calvin Klein Inc., said Tuesday night at the Sanctuary for Families benefit here that he expects a new women’s CK sportswear licensee to be named by the end of this month or early in June.

As reported, Kellwood is also negotiating to buy Kasper ASL when it emerges from bankruptcy. That company manufactures and markets both the Kasper and Anne Klein collections.

Besides Kellwood and Stroll and Chou, the two other parties that PVH is said to have spoken with are Jones Apparel Group and Liz Claiborne Inc. But sources believe Kellwood has emerged as the only option for PVH since Jones is embroiled in difficulties over its Ralph Lauren licenses; Claiborne, which already has the DKNY Jeans, City and Active licensed lines, is more interested in pursuing acquisitions than licenses, and Stroll and Chou, who have coveted the entire Calvin Klein business in the past, don’t have the infrastructure or management in place to quickly gear up to manufacture and market the CK women’s line.

One source indicated that Jones could still be in the running, but so far, hasn’t been able to come to terms with PVH over royalties and minimums.Observers believe Kellwood has the infrastructure, sourcing, manufacturing and distribution capabilities to take on the CK better-price business. With overall sales of $2.2 billion, Kellwood has been on a shopping and licensing spree in the past year that includes Gerber Childrenswear and the license for Liz Claiborne’s dress and suit division under the Liz Claiborne, Liz Claiborne Woman and Liz Claiborne Petites brands. Earlier this month, Kellwood acquired the XOXO license for sportswear, dresses and intimate apparel from Global Brands Holdings LLC.

Kellwood’s portfolio spans about 20 brands, as well as more than 300 trademarks and labels. Its main apparel brands include Sag Harbor, Koret, David Meister, Democracy, David Dart, Sangria and Jax, and it has licenses with Emme, Bill Burns, Wilson socks, Stan Herman robes, Nautica men’s dress shirts, Slates men’s sweaters and outerwear and Izod women’s sportswear.

As reported, PVH’s Klatsky said in February he was negotiating with four people for the CK better-price women’s line. “The U.S. opportunity is in excess of $1 billion for a men’s and women’s better sportswear business,” Klatsky said at the time. A new men’s better sportswear business is currently being developed in-house by PVH.

The Warnaco Group continues to manufacture and market women’s and men’s CK Calvin Klein jeans and underwear.

In February, PVH signed a production and distribution deal with Italian-based manufacturer Vestimenta for Calvin Klein’s women’s and men’s designer Collection. Although the partnership officially begins on Jan. 1, 2004, Vestimenta is manufacturing Klein’s fall 2003 collection.

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