By  on May 23, 2006

George is getting a designer boost.

Wal-Mart's classic clothing brand, whose design roots are in Britain, will offer a capsule collection by Mark Eisen, to bow for fall. The 35-piece collection, George ME by Mark Eisen, is filled with aspirational clothing in the spirit of great American sportswear.

"They're chic, polished, luxurious stand-alone items," the South African born-Eisen told WWD. "And just like any great American sportswear pieces, they're meant to be mixed and matched."

The collection, to arrive on the shop floor in mid-August, will be sold at all 3,205 Wal-Mart stores nationwide and on the retailer's Web site. It will be updated every six weeks. There are no plans to introduce the line outside the U.S., however.

George ME is the latest addition to Wal-Mart's $25 billion apparel business, and follows the successful launch of Metro 7, a contemporary clothing brand that bowed last fall. The new George line is part of Wal-Mart's drive to grow its clothing business, particularly at the fashion end. While successful, George has never had the traction in the U.S. that it has achieved in the U.K.

"This new collection brings a nuance and a modern twist to the classic George apparel, and is meant to complement and be layered in with the core product," said Doug Howe, Wal-Mart's senior vice president of product development for apparel.

Indeed, George ME will share the same theme and color story of George each season.

Howe said the reason for choosing a designer with a recognized name goes back to the roots of the George brand, which was founded in the U.K. 16 years ago by British retail guru George Davies, who now does a collection for Marks & Spencer.

"We've taken a page out of the George playbook, and gone back to its roots," Howe said.

He declined to discuss sales projections for the new capsule collection, or for George as a whole. Globally, George is a 1 billion pound, or $1.89 billion, business, whose biggest markets are the U.K., Mexico and Canada.

Eisen was a natural choice because of his emphasis on fit, fine tailoring and modern vision, Howe said. "We really wanted to offer a designer aesthetic at affordable value," he said.Eisen's debut collection features tops, bottoms, tailored jackets and knitwear. Not surprisingly, there's a black suit, black trenchcoat with ivory details, a two-button houndstooth jacket with peaked lapels, cable cardigans that hit the knee, cropped or long herringbone trousers, accordion-pleated and ruffled shirts and suede coats.

Prices range from approximately $19 for a wool-blend cableknit sweater to $70 for a suede jacket.

Eisen said Wal-Mart has stretched traditional boundaries with regard to fabrics, workmanship and tailoring.

"I am so impressed with the value they've brought to the collection, and the credibility — and luxury — of the fabrics," said Eisen. Fabrics include cashmere-blend knitwear, superfine cottons for blouses and chinos, wool blends for mid-season jackets and denim for trousers as well as jeans.

Details and finishes, he added, are crucial to the new collection.

"We've considered each element of the garment, and the tailoring," said Eisen, adding there are printed or piped linings for jackets, waistbands with contrasting prints, contrasting saddle stitching on suede outerwear and silver hardware and grommets on car coats.

The end goal, Eisen said, is to turn the capsule collection into a lifestyle one, and accessories are the next step, although he declined to give any details. "It will be a natural progression to a head-to-toe look," the designer said.

Wal-Mart's more-cautious Howe said it would be up to the customer to decide just how big the line actually gets.

A fall ad campaign is in the works, said Howe, although he declined to provide further details.

Eisen said his job wasn't particularly difficult at Wal-Mart because the merchandise team knew exactly what it wanted.

"They have some very, very talented merchants who pinpointed the female customer and her lifestyle. When we sat down to talk, it was all clear. Their vision was the reason I decided to do the job. They are reaching up."

Eisen's past experience ranges from a signature line of clothing and knitwear to a short spell at Ann Taylor to made-to-measure clothing for private clients to the current knitwear line, called Karoo Mark Eisen, which is sold at Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue and Selfridges.He said he had no problems making the transition to the mass market — and the single largest shopping audience in the world. Wal-Mart reckons it gets 130 million customers through its doors on a weekly basis.

"It is a great opportunity to touch a lot of people," said Eisen, adding that designing for vastly different markets is a modern and democratic approach for designers working today.

He's certainly not the first to dip into the mass market. Karl Lagerfeld, Stella McCartney and Solange Azagury-Partridge all have designed capsule collections for H&M — and Viktor and Rolf will design for the Swedish retailer in the fall. Sixties print designer Celia Birtwell's limited-edition clothing collection for London's Topshop was so popular that frenzied customers were tearing the clothing out of one another's hands minutes after the line launched. Zandra Rhodes, Sophia Kokosalaki and Marcus Lupfer are among the other names who've designed for Topshop.

Although the U.K. division of George has never named a famous designer, it consistently has been ahead of the supermarket fashion pack. In addition to its classic range in the U.K., the brand has launched fast-fashion, activewear, denim and bridalwear. Earlier this year, it introduced a collection called Must Haves, a capsule of the season's key "icon" looks, with rapid-fire delivery cycles of four to five weeks.

Today, ASDA will announce it has named Colleen McLoughlin, the British media darling and fashion-loving fiancée of soccer player Wayne Rooney, as the face of Must Haves.

Angela Spindler, Global George's managing director, was flying back to the U.K. from New York at press time and could not be reached for comment about the Mark Eisen line. She was in the U.S. for most of the last week, working with the U.S. team on the launch.

"The U.S. market is huge for us, and we're making great progress there," Spindler told WWD earlier this year.

Global George is the Leeds, England-based business that designs, merchandises and markets the collection to ASDA and Wal-Mart stores worldwide. Each country works within parameters set out by the George design team, and can tap into Wal-Mart's worldwide sourcing network. The U.S. is the first to launch a market-specific initiative by hiring a designer.As reported, Wal-Mart has been focusing on beefing up its apparel offer and boosting its fashion credibility. Wal-Mart said in a statement Monday that the launch of George ME exemplified the new direction it is taking with its fashion brands. The company plans to focus more on customer research, operate a New York office aimed at picking up on the latest trends, differentiating as much as possible its different brands on offer, filling "gaps" in the brand geography and training merchandisers to improve the overall shopping experience.

On the heels of the successful Metro 7 launch, there are plans to launch new apparel lines, reposition the junior line No Boundaries and launch an urban-inspired brand for men in July.

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