NEW YORK — Perry Ellis has been off the women’s sportswear map for some time, but it’s about to be a landmark again.

Public Clothing Co., the newest group to hold the license, and parent Perry Ellis International are engaged in a multimillion-dollar relaunch of the iconic American sportswear brand, set to debut under the signature label this spring with the goal of entering about 300 to 350 specialty and department store doors. For the spring fashion show, about one-third of the show, set for Sept. 18 at the New York Public Library’s Celeste Bartos Forum, will be devoted to the new women’s sportswear line.

"What we did was go back to what [designer Perry Ellis] understood — lifestyle and casual dress of the Eighties — and interpret that for today," Elissa Bromer, president of Perry Ellis women’s wear, said last week during a preview with WWD of the spring collection at the company’s new showroom at 499 Seventh Ave. here.

The goal is to turn the business into a $100 million venture over the course of time, with first-year projections estimated to reach $50 million by the end of 2004.

For the three months ended July 31, the Miami-based PEI posted a 46.7 percent gain in net income to $2.2 million. That compares with last year, when the company reported earnings of $1.5 million. Total revenues for the period slipped 2.4 percent to $64 million from $65.6 million in the prior-year quarter.

"The reality is the name is incredibly powerful and has strong brand equity," Bromer said. "So we’re taking the key heritage elements of the brand, building on the iconic value, but not relying on that as a business model. We’re going to work extra hard at bringing in young talent, energy and passion to bring this brand forward. It’s really about understanding the core of Perry Ellis and reestablishing that."

Revitalizing the women’s sportswear brand marks the first push into this arena following PEI’s termination of that license with the Goodman Group, a division of Kellwood Co., last year.

Bromer, a seasoned professional who has spent the last eight years as president at Bill Burns, Liz Claiborne Inc.’s career division and at Andrea Jovine, and Dan Shamdasani, president and chief executive officer of Public Clothing Co., have big goals for making this a preeminent sportswear brand again in the spirit that was Perry Ellis, who died in 1986.As workers were putting the finishing touches on the 4,500-square-foot showroom, Bromer and Shamdasani detailed their strategy.

"Basically, it’s a multibrand strategy," Shamdasani said. "The consumer is shopping across all channels and we want to be where the end consumer is. So Perry Ellis validates that strategy for us and allows us to enter the department store channel and specialty store channel with an iconic brand."

Shamdasani’s eight-year-old Public Clothing Co., which does over $100 million annually and owns the moderate label French Cuff and Generra women’s apparel license, set to relaunch in 2004, teamed up with PEI about six months ago.

He is confident all the right pieces are in place for a successful relaunch — from management and design infrastructure to strong financing and a global sourcing network. As reported, Liz Tippens, formerly a vice president and district merchandise manager at Victoria’s Secret Direct, has been hired as executive vice president in charge of brand management and strategic planning.

Still, Shamdasani couldn’t believe a brand like Perry Ellis was there for the taking.

"The funny thing about Perry Ellis is that most people remember it as a women’s brand. Maybe because he started out in women’s, more women relate to it than we realize," he said. "Also the management team at PEI was very committed to the brand and that was a big positive for us as licensees."

Totally item-driven, the spring collection borrows from the old to create the new. The whimsical collection features new twists on classic themes, such as sleeveless cableknit sweaters and striped items. Some key items include a long, white cotton caftan shirt, soft pastel striped cotton pants, perforated leather skirt and a linen ruffled handkerchief skirt.

Overall, each collection will span about 60 pieces. The line wholesales from $40 to $70 for hand-knit sweaters, $35 to $65 for pants and $60 to $110 for jackets.

While the better-priced Perry Ellis label will launch for spring, the Portfolio label will be developed for fall as a classification business.

"We’ve used words like lifestyle and casual because it’s all about related separates," said Bromer, who described the profile customer as being between 29 and 39 with an ageless mentality and a misses’ fit. "All you have to do is walk the retail floor to see there’s a lot of sameness out there. We feel there’s an opportunity for spirited fashion at a price."The company has tapped Niovi Forbes, formerly a senior designer at French Connection, as its women’s designer. Previous to her hire, Forbes created her own contemporary-young designer line called Niovi, which was sold in stores internationally, including TG-170, Language, Big Drop in New York and Los Angeles’ NYSE and Curve.

While Bromer said the days of having one superstar designer are over, she said Forbes’ hire is in tune with the tradition at Perry Ellis, a company that is known for harboring young, fresh talent. Isaac Mizrahi, Tom Ford and Marc Jacobs, who made waves with his grunge collection in the early Nineties, are just some of the names who have worked at Ellis in their early years.

"Niovi has incredible passion, but the key to this brand will be the team," Bromer said. "It’s not one person, it’s a team approach."

To get the message out about the relaunch, PEI’s senior vice president of marketing, Pablo de Echevarria, said the company is spending somewhere in the "low eight figures" and has hired Doug Lloyd, owner of Lloyd & Co., whose clients have included Gucci, Jill Stuart, Anne Klein and Cole Haan.

"It’s going to be big, major billboards in all key cities…very stylized fashion portraits with exploded logo, fashion shows, in-store events and strong editorial presence," said de Echevarria, noting there will be four-page inserts starting in March in Vogue, while a larger insert is planned for W and Details.

"One of the freaky things we have been seeing is the kind of awareness and perception we have among women," he added. "Every January we do a study where we interview some 15,000 people about the awareness of our competing brands, and what we have found is that our awareness is strongest among women 18-to-29-years-old. Maybe because we keep such a strong presence in editorial plus the name is very strong…but we get comments like, ‘my favorite pieces in my wardrobe are this,’ and I’m like ‘where did they get this, maybe a thrift store?’"

Retailers have not yet seen the line, but early reaction about reviving the iconic brand is strong.Lavelle Olexa, senior vice president of fashion merchandising at Lord & Taylor, said it’s always the right time for good product, especially one with strong customer recognition.

"We certainly look forward to shopping the line and we would have high expectations based on our knowledge of Perry Ellis and our experience there, but also because of Elissa Bromer," said Olexa, adding that L&T has carried Perry Ellis in the past. "She’s really an astute merchant with a strong background in all the areas that could be meaningful in launching this new label. Her expertise could be extremely instrumental in helping this line succeed. And Perry Ellis was a man who denoted quality and was the epitome ofAmerican sportswear. So the name will help, but it’s always led by merchandise and that always has to be right. You’re playing to a very educated consumer today."

Similarly, Bloomingdale’s executive vice president of ready-to-wear, Frank Doroff, said his team will definitely look at the new sportswear line, and said Bromer is a good product person.

"Sportswear needs a shot in the arm and hopefully this will be it. I am looking forward to seeing it. I know Elissa and the Perry Ellis name will help, but it’s always led by merchandise," he said. "I imagine that it would sit with a City DKNY, that kind of look, but until we see it, it would only be conjecture."

Andrew Jassin, partner of the Jassin-O’Rourke group consulting firm, said the combination of Public Clothing and PEI should be a winner.

"We have so many clients and very few are as impressive to me as Dan, his intellect and integrity, and he has a vision to build a multibrand company," Jassin said.

George Feldenkreis, chairman and chief executive officer at Perry Ellis International, called the women’s sportswear relaunch a "significant turning point in the evolution of the Perry Ellis brand."

"Perry Ellis designs for women defined American sportswear," he said. "We expect women’s products to account for no less than 30 percent of total Perry Ellis sales by 2006."

Meanwhile, Bromer and Shamdasani see the line’s potential as limitless."But we’re not sprinters," Bromer promised. "We want to be in it for the long haul and I feel the leadership here is realistic. We understand not only the core competencies, but what and how we can offer something new that has staying power. We really do believe it will be a multimillion-dollar opportunity, but the key is to grow profitably and to grow with strategic partnerships."

Flipping through a book on Perry Ellis, Bromer said what many have said about the iconic designer: that he really understood American sportswear and the concept of casual dressing before it was a modern idea.

"The fact that he doesn’t have a women’s brand now is almost a void in the timeline of how it should have been," she added. "His women’s business was the driving force of his spirited energy."

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