NEW YORK — A year after Marty Staff went missing from his post as chief executive officer of Hugo Boss North America, he’s been found at Penthouse magazine, of all places.

Staff has joined the pornographic magazine founded by Bob Guccione Sr. as chief executive of its licensing subsidiary, PH Brand Management LLC. The task of rehabilitating the Penthouse name — which is one of the most recognized in the world — will fall on his shoulders. And the fate of the company might as well. Penthouse and its parent, General Media, said in its most recent annual report that its strategy to climb out from under its crushing debt of more than $43 million depends in large part on licensing.

“The turn-on for me,” said Staff, in an unintentional double entendre, “is that the quality of the name is, at the current moment, more valuable than the business.” At least that’s what the licensees are hoping. One of them will open the fifth of its Penthouse Gentlemen’s Clubs in New York next week, joining similar upscale clubs in Texas and South Carolina.

“I think the short-term strategy is to look at the quality of the brand and make the core brand everything we want it to be, and then expand into apparel,” said Staff. “I think that we have a burgeoning club network, and that’s the easy pickings.”

Next up: “women’s underwear and lingerie, leather goods and other kinds of accessories,” Staff said. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t do a jeans line.”

He’ll also have a mandate to throw more of the kind of parties that made him famous at Hugo Boss, where he oversaw its showroom-cum-nightclub in Chelsea and regularly held parties in its Fifth Avenue store.

But Staff will have to move quickly. General Media’s revenues have declined in each of the past three years, and were down 14 percent to $53.8 million in 2002. Despite turning a net profit of $1.6 million last year, Penthouse faces a perennial cash crisis because of its debt. Thanks to several decades worth of bad business decisions, General Media must repay at least $6.5 million in debt this year, and $35.3 million next year. General Media’s annual report listed the company’s assets as being worth just $15.5 million at the end of 2002.“We do have our work cut out for us,” admitted Staff, “but there are lots of great brands that have lost their luster for a while. Since my background is solely in apparel, I look at what Rose Marie Bravo has done at Burberry and Tom Ford at Gucci. I’m not comparing this business to theirs, but I do think they’re role models.”

Staff left Hugo Boss under a cloud in June 2002 after accounting irregularities and inventory discrepancies came to light, prompting a $10.8 million lawsuit and an internal audit by PriceWaterhouseCoopers. Staff was never accused of any wrongdoing, but Hugo Boss never officially said he was in the clear, either. “My relationship with Hugo Boss was settled months and months ago,” said Staff on Wednesday. “For me, it was a great work experience.”

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