NEW YORK -- Arthur S. Levine and Elie Tahari -- two of the most potent names in the suit business -- have teamed up to create a new better label in a bombshell partnership.Levine, who once controlled as much as 90 percent of America's suit business through Kasper ASL, but ultimately left the company he founded during a management turnover in September, has acquired a 50 percent stake in Tahari's existing bridge suit business and will launch a better-priced collection at retail this fall.Not only does the deal mark the 60-year-old Levine's quick return to a market in which he is probably the best-known executive, but it also puts his name back on a label for customers familiar with the trademark fit and quality of the Kasper ASL collection. The new line is called Arthur S. Levine for Tahari, and first-year projections top $75 million.It will go head-to-head in the better suit market with the $350 million Kasper business, now headed by former Donna Karan chief executive John Idol, who also took over Levine's title of chairman when he resigned.Gregg Marks, president of Kasper, said he couldn't comment about his old boss's new venture because he hadn't seen the line or heard any details."All I can say is our business has been strong, and if not for the events and effects of Sept. 11, we would have had one of our best years ever," Marks said. "Overall, our sales met plan and markdowns were in line with expectations. We've historically had our best years in a down economy because consumers trade down and also because suits represent good value."Levine also made the point that suit business has been outperforming other areas of apparel in recent months because of the value and safety of purchase they represent to consumers. He expects that to continue throughout the fall launch.Tahari built his reputation over 25 years with his signature sportswear collection with sales over $100 million, plus the successful five-year-old Theory venture that is a separate partnership with Andrew Rosen.But Tahari is probably best known among American consumers for suits -- ones appropriate for job interviews or to build a successful career wardrobe with a slightly more fashionable edge than a basic navy jacket and skirt.However, his suit business peaked at about $25 million a few years ago, dropping steadily over the past few years and taking a steep dive since Sept. 11, which led the designer to cut a quarter of his workforce the following month. He had been looking for a business partner for the suit business for several years and had approached Levine on numerous occasions, even during Kasper's negotiations to acquire the Anne Klein trademarks to form a potential strategic alliance."I've always cared about designing suits," Tahari said during a joint interview in their West 43rd Street offices on Tuesday. "But I never knew how to turn them into a good business. Pricing, merchandising and marketing were never my strengths. This is a romance that I have pursued for 10 years, and every time I saw Arthur, he would say, 'I love your design,' and I would say, 'I love your business."'When Levine resigned from Kasper, reportedly under pressure from its board, many considered it to be his last job, considering the 30-year saga of the company, including an ill-fated partnership with Leslie Fay that left it stung with a huge debt in junk bonds following Leslie Fay's reorganization. Under the new management regime, Levine said he decided it was time to take Tahari up on his offer and that he had no interest in retirement, pointing out that Jones Apparel Group chairman Sidney Kimmel was older than he before that company came into bloom. Plus, he is confident that Tahari's reputation for design, particularly with suits, will translate to a mass audience."And he's the only other person in this industry who's as crazy as I am," said Levine. "He's the only other one who's as psycho as I am when it comes to quality and fit."Levine and Tahari quickly put together a team of seasoned suit industry veterans, many of whom have known one another for the past quarter century. The partners themselves first met when Tahari was designing the Daniel O collection and Levine was behind the Sasson suit label.Lynn Greene, who joined the firm to design the Arthur S. Levine for Tahari collection, also first worked with Levine when he got the license for Sasson suits in 1975 in a venture that ultimately became Kasper ASL. She spent much of her career as designer of the Oleg Cassini suit line, licensed by Arenzano Trading, until it closed two years ago. Ira Kipness, who was president of that company, is also joining the Tahari venture.Levine also set up a management team that includes longtime retail veteran Robert Friedman, a former Hecht's and Famous Barr executive, as a consultant to liaise with its store accounts, and Lou Eaccarino as president of Arthur S. Levine for Tahari. He was formerly executive vice president of the Goodman Group division of Kellwood Co.Thomas Farley remains president of the Tahari bridge collection, where the company has also hired former Albert Nipon suit designer Lina Reiss to design the line. She was also, coincidentally, Tahari's first fit model and is a cousin of Levine.The immediate goals for Tahari and Levine are to establish a presence for the collection in department and specialty stores throughout the U.S., as well as secure a Canadian distribution partner. It's a new direction for Tahari, whose collections had been moving away from the classic definition of bridge and closer to designer sportswear price points and styling in recent seasons. The designer tried to distance himself from suit departments as a way to improve the overall image of the brand, which is still a goal for his Elie Tahari sportswear collection.But in partnership with Levine, the company will also be making a major statement in the better zone, with the line priced to wholesale from $69 to $110 -- a third lower than the bridge line -- and not so rarified in image or fit. With pantsuits, tunic tops, a broad selection of red and navy skirtsuits, there's a strong resemblance to the look of Kasper, but there are also hints of Tahari in emerald jacquard fabrics, an occasional Nehru collar or a tweed look with a belt made of leather piping.Levine's top priority is to emulate Kasper's history of consistency with its fit so that customers will be able to buy different styles without having to try different sizes each season. He said a deal for a new, larger warehouse in northern New Jersey should be signed soon and that an advertising campaign would likely accompany the fall launch."When Arthur and I started working together, the first thing in my mind was that keeping the Tahari image was key, but also what Arthur did at Kasper," Greene said. "It's a fresher approach than Kasper, with a little less edge than Tahari."Tahari expects the new line will create a more solid base to support his other ventures, including the expansion of his signature sportswear, and also help the company weather the current economic climate and the poor market for soft goods."Dealing with an economy and an industry that is winded, and crippled in many ways, and with stores buying with margin guarantees, we're dealing with a world that is very hostile right now for our industry," Tahari said. "Now we are three merchants that know our individual focus, with a shared overhead. That is going to be our strength."
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