NEW YORK — Liz Claiborne Inc. and its new licensing partner for intimates are developing an aggressive multibrand, multichannel strategy for next spring.

The plan for 2004 focuses on three brands: the Liz Claiborne misses’ and Liz Claiborne Woman full-figure labels for better department store distribution at more than 2,000 doors, and the Villager label for promotional department stores such as Kohl’s and Mervyn’s. Distribution currently is slated for North America, but the international marketplace is being explored as well.

This ambitious plan is only the tip of the iceberg, said Barbara J. Friedman, president of licensing at Liz Claiborne, who said other company brands are expected to be added to the lingerie mix down the line, including brands that already have exclusive distribution in sportswear: Crazy Horse at J.C. Penney Co., First Issue at Sears Roebuck & Co. and Axcess at Kohl’s and Mervyn’s.

Friedman said the Claiborne firm decided not to take the traditional route of licensing the line to one of the innerwear powerhouses, with their own national brands. Instead, the approach was to find a manufacturing operation that has expertise in the specialized field of bras, panties and shapewear, and cultivate a creative rapport with executives that excel in innovation and new ideas.

The result was a licensing agreement, reached last weekand reported in WWD, with a newly formed partnership of Gelmart Licensing LLC and Chelsea Design Group LLC, to design and manufacture intimate apparel for the Claiborne empire’s hefty 30-brand portfolio. This new licensing pact takes over a four-year-old license that expires today for Liz Claiborne Intimates with Jockey International.

The team at Chelsea Design are Stuart Greenberg, president and chief executive officer; Tobie Garfinkle, senior vice president of merchandising; Linda Perrone-Fernandez, senior vice president of design, and Ezra S. Nasser, president of Gelmart Licensing’s parent, Gelmart Industries Inc. The family-owned Gelmart Industries, which produces private label and proprietary innerwear brands, generates wholesale sales in excess of $150 million annually, according to industry estimates.

Greenberg was formerly vice president and general manager of VF Corp.’s Lily of France and licensed Natori foundations; Garfinkle was vice president of merchandising for the Lily of France and Natori brands at VF, and Perrone-Fernandez was vice president of VF intimates for Lily of France and Natori. Successors have not been named, said a VF spokeswoman.Discussing how the deal was struck, Friedman said, “We had been talking with larger companies, but there was a conflict with major brands. We started looking at private label manufacturers and we found Gelmart, a very interesting company — a vertical operation with the ability to manufacture department store brands.

“We thought we needed to look at a new business model,” she continued. “We thought of using the core competencies of a manufacturer and bringing in outside talent with experts in product and sales, as well as executives who know how to manage a brand.”

Greenberg said, “From my perspective, there are several important elements to this deal: the power of the Liz Claiborne company in terms of marketing, financial resources and the dynamics of the brand name; Gelmart’s generational management and investment in sourcing, distribution and back-end systems, and an opportunity to work with a great team, Tobie and Linda.

“But the real issue is the opportunity this deal provides at a time when the marketplace is looking for innovation and speed to market. It’s fair to say we’ll be a $50 million-plus [wholesale] business in a couple of years.”

Nasser noted that Gelmart, a 50-year-old company, has been manufacturing fabrics and innerwear at several company-owned factories in the Philippines for the past 40 years. Gelmart, which has distribution facilities in Lyndhurst, N.J., maintains a research and development center in Linden, N.J., and a showroom and design area at 183 Madison Avenue in Manhattan. The company is looking to expand sourcing and production into China in 2005, said Nasser.

As for identifying the target customer, Ann C. Bukawyn, vice president of licensing at Liz Claiborne, said, “There’s a 99 percent brand awareness of the Liz Claiborne name with our target audience. She’s a 30-plus customer and she wants to feel sexy under her clothes, but there is a modesty factor. She wants to look and feel sexy, but in an appropriate way.”

Friedman added, “One category we were not successful with before was full-figure [bras]. We definitely want to go after that full-figure customer, as well as the casual bra category and shapewear.”Suggested retail for the bras will be $24 to $32, with coordinating panties selling for $10 to $12. A location for the new Liz Claiborne Intimates showroom has not been finalized.

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