By  on October 22, 2007

Approaching its 30th anniversary, the Natori Co. and its portfolio of expanding brands is embarking on a new era of glamour and luxury in lingerie.

Josie Natori often describes her lingerie as a necessary luxury, but over the past year, she's taken it to new heights of luxe, whether in the form of home accessories, such as hand-embroidered and appliquéd silk bedcovers and throws that coordinate with one-of-a-kind silk kimonos; caftans woven with gold or silver thread, or a trousseau collection lavishly embellished with the Chantilly and guipure laces of the Paris couture.

"It's never been so glamorous and luxurious," Natori said.

Among the projects for next year are four new categories: a line of ready-to-wear that will be produced in-house, and licensees for fragrance, jewelry and tabletops. Last year, the company launched a line of men's luxury sleepwear and loungewear made in-house and a lifestyle-oriented line of home accessories licensed to JLA Home. Distribution for all categories is aimed at 25 countries.

The milestone on Nov. 1 has its roots in the decision of chief executive officer Natori to change careers in 1977 — leaving her job as the first woman vice president of Merrill Lynch & Co. to be a designer of unique and upscale apparel and lingerie. Natori, whose closets are filled with couture pieces by Christian Dior, Jean Paul Gaultier, Chanel and other top fashion names, said she needed an outlet to express her appreciation of beauty and fashion after the rigors of Wall Street.

For starters, she developed a signature collection of peasant-inspired blouses embroidered in her native Philippines with handmade appliqués. That was a quick hit with top retailers such as the late Lee Fabris of Bloomingdale's, who would later become the flagship's fashion director, and Sally Frame Kasaks, who was at Saks Fifth Avenue and is now chairman and ceo of Pacific Sunwear of California Inc.

"Sally even offered to do a full-page ad in the New York Times," Natori recalled. "I was so naive about the fashion business, I didn't realize how important it was and what an honor it was. Would you believe there was even a contemporary lingerie department at Saks in '77, separate from the regular lingerie department? Lee suggested I make the peasant blouse longer, into a nightshirt. It was really her idea to name the company Natori. I said 'Oh, no, that's so presumptuous.'"The word natori in Japanese means the "highest form of art," and the company's namesake made it her mission to live up to the highest standards by transforming lingerie and related brands into something of an art form.

"I knew it would be a brand from Day One, but after five years I knew the focus of the business would be the concept of design and lingerie — not just lingerie, but building a platform for home accessories, fragrance and jewelry," said Natori, 60, whose personal style is as impeccable and discerning as her designs. "Today, I am really quite proud of what each brand I've created represents."

Burt Tansky, chairman and ceo of Neiman Marcus Group Inc., is a Natori fan.

"I like her and have known her a long time, and we've had talks about how to build business at both Saks and Neiman's,'' he said. "She's smart, understands fashion, has a point of view and understands her customer. I think she's been able to counter the private label issue with a style and design element that's been favorably accepted by consumers. In effect, she's her own consumer and creates product that's above all of the private label out there. She's an icon brand."

Stephen I. Sadove, chairman and ceo of Saks Inc., said Natori's longevity is the result of the freshness of her ideas.

"She's a class act," he said. "She's aware of what's going on in the fashion and business worlds. Her lingerie is more than just coming out of the bedroom day or night. She has a wonderful level of personal detail and taste from a design perspective, and it's always fresh. She's always evolving product lines and coming up with new ideas. That's the reason she's been able to be around 30 years."

Michael Gould, chairman and ceo of Bloomingdale's, said Natori's background on Wall Street "certainly gave her another dimension in this business....I think Josie has a great fashion sense and curiosity. She also has the ability to listen. She talks to merchandise managers and buyers and asks questions, seeking out other people's counsel and thoughts."Natori has a strong viewpoint on design and branding. "I have always believed there are no boundaries," she said. That belief is evident in the Natori innerwear-outerwear statement, beginning with bustiers "before Madonna made bustiers fashionable" in 1990 during her "Blonde Ambition" tour.

She also believes "sensuality is simply being and feeling yourself." Natori's uninhibited approach to boudoir items translated into sexy, slinky lounge pieces of jersey or Modal and lace-trimmed silk slips has blurred the lines into another medium that feels and looks like eveningwear. "The most luxurious thing you own is something you wear running around town," she added.

Since the turning point when she sold her first blouse in her living room in the Seventies, the Natori company, cofounded with her husband, Ken, has weathered the ups and downs of consolidations at retail and within the industry. Ken Natori, a former managing director of Shearson Lehman, joined his wife as business partner in 1985. He now oversees the company's finance, licensing and partnerships.

Describing her husband's responsibilities, Natori said: "Ken has always seen the big picture. But he is not comfortable with lingerie, saying, 'It's a woman's business.' He likes the other businesses, like home accessories." She noted that his "passion" is golf, a lifelong hobby that propelled him to buy the Gary Player-designed Glen Arbor Golf Club near Pound Ridge, N.Y., where the Natoris maintain an 18th-century country home.

The couple's only child, Kenneth Cruz Natori, 31, joined his parents in the family business in April as vice president of finance. He was most recently an associate in international equities at Lehman Bros.

It's been a big transition for the younger Natori. "Going from a trading floor on Wall Street, where 90 percent of the men are screaming, to a female-oriented environment is a major change," he said. "It's been a great switch, but I still wear suits every day."

The Natori Co.'s portfolio of sleepwear, at-homewear and daywear labels include Natori, retailing from $70 to $400; Josie Natori Couture, priced at $850 to $2,500; Josie Natori Collection, $40 to $1,000; Josie, $30 to $80, and Cruz, $48 to $120. There also are three licensed bras brands produced by Dana-Co, including Natori, which sells at an average $44 to $66; Josie, $30 to $80, and Josie Natori Collection, $60 to $98.Josie Natori said she's been in and out of a variety of licenses and private label projects over the years, including lingerie for Victoria's Secret and a rtw collection for the former Martha stores. But all of the cards seem to have fallen in place since last year for the privately owned company that generates annual wholesale volume of $80 million, according to industry estimates. Sales growth is projected to increase 30 to 40 percent by 2012, Natori said.

Regarding the company's longevity, Natori said: "I am so pleased there is not an ounce of private label in our business. I've seen this industry evolve and change over the past three decades, before it was dominated by the Sara Lees, the VFs, Warnaco and Warren Buffet. What makes me excited after 30 years is we are totally focused on brands and luxury and the department store business, while all of the others are going into mass. Today, you have to stay the course, and brands is the place where we have a niche. You can look at so many brands and say, 'Wow, they've gotten so much bigger.' But at the end, it's very clear that I wanted to build brands that would stand the test of time. I want brands that are constant. And it's exciting to know that with my son, we are here to stay as a family company."

As for retirement, Natori said: "I feel very grateful, having built a reputation and pushing the boundaries over the years. I'm 60 and feel like I have a long way to go. We'll see how it goes."

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