NEW YORK — Saks Fifth Avenue’s top merchant, Gail Pisano, is expected to announce her departure from the fashion chain soon, possibly today, sources told WWD Monday.

Pisano holds the title of executive vice president, with responsibility for women’s designer merchandise, intimate apparel, accessories, shoes and jewelry. A 15-year veteran of Saks, Pisano is considered a savvy merchant and has been instrumental in forging longer-term partnerships with designers and making Saks more competitive against its archrival Neiman Marcus. Two general merchandise managers report to Pisano, who reports to Christina Johnson, president and chief executive officer of Saks Fifth Avenue Enterprises.

Pisano could not be reached for comment Monday. It could not be learned whether she plans to take a new job or is leaving the store without a new one.

At the annual meeting of Saks Inc., SFA’s parent, Saks Inc. chairman and ceo Brad Martin said the designer business is improving, and the jewelry salon in the New York flagship is doing well and will be rolled out to other locations.

Overall, however, business conditions remain tough, particularly with bridge merchandise, with Saks Fifth Avenue experiencing lower operating income as well as lower same-store sales during the first quarter. In May, SFA’s comp-store sales slipped 3.8 percent.

The departure of Pisano, considering the range of her responsibilities and her long tenure, is a big loss for the $2.34 billion Saks. In May 2002, Wayne Meichner, another key merchant, left Saks. He held the title of executive vice president of merchandising, and eventually became president of Polo Retail.

Meichner supervised men’s wear, cosmetics and women’s ready-to-wear, but those categories are being handled by Johnson. Now, with Pisano’s impending departure, it’s a good bet that Saks conducts an industry search for a well-seasoned senior-level merchant who could cover a broad range of categories. That would leave Johnson to focus more on financial and operational matters.

However, it won’t be an easy search. For one, when Meichner left, Saks starting looking for talent, and the search has been an on-and-off process since then, according to one source. In addition, the talent pool of merchants with experience in high-priced merchandise is limited.Pisano is married to Joseph Gromek, president and ceo of Warnaco.

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