NEW YORK — Saks Fifth Avenue has launched a search for a head merchant, following two key executive departures in the past year.

In disclosing the search on Tuesday, Saks confirmed a WWD report that Gail Pisano, executive vice president of merchandising for women’s designer and Gold Range merchandise, intimate apparel, jewelry and accessories, is leaving the company. Her last day is July 1. In May 2002, Wayne Meichner, Saks’ other executive vice president for merchandising, who handled men’s wear, cosmetics and ready-to-wear, left the store.

Bobbie Lenga, partner and managing director of the retail practice at Russell Reynolds Associates, is conducting the head merchant search, which will be a tough one.

Lenga said she has compiled a list of candidates, and that the focus is on someone with experience in women’s apparel retailing, but not necessarily on the high end, and with leadership skills.

“The candidate needs to be able to relate to the products and understand Saks and what its potential is. It could be someone with mid-range merchandise experience, someone like Luis Padilla.”

Padilla is currently executive vice president, merchandising, Marshall Field’s, and formerly senior vice president of softlines merchandising at Target Stores. “He’s a great merchant who knows trends and products,” Lenga said, adding, “I wouldn’t necessarily say he is a candidate, and I don’t think he is the type who would leave Target [Corp., which owns Target Stores and Marshall Field’s].”

It’s also likely that Lenga’s list includes candidates from Bloomingdale’s, Gap Inc. and Neiman Marcus, among other stores. Lenga agreed that the Saks search would be challenging. “Every merchant search is tough these days because of the lack of talent. The talent pool has shrunk tremendously.” Also, retailers have generally failed to adequately nurture and train new talent in the past l0 years because they have become so financially driven, Lenga said.

On top of it all, some candidates with that rare combination of leadership and merchandising skills might prefer to be chief executive officer, rather than a head merchant reporting to a chief executive, further narrowing the field. Someone like Jeane Jackson, who once ran Banana Republic and, and earlier worked at Saks, comes to mind. She’s currently sitting on boards, but not working full time anywhere. “Saks is a great brand, and for the right person, this is a terrific opportunity. The person has to be very product focused, visionary, intuitive, passionate, very proactive. It’s very difficult to tell how long the search will take,” Lenga said.In the meantime, Christina Johnson, president and chief executive of Saks Fifth Avenue Enterprises, has assumed responsibility for all merchandising, covering the areas previously held by Meichner and Pisano. Johnson spent the first 20 years of her career at Carson Pirie Scott and Marshall Field’s, merchandising such areas as cosmetics, home and accessories, prior to joining Saks, where she rose up through the store organization before becoming ceo. In the Nineties, Rose Marie Bravo, now ceo of Burberry, was Saks’ head merchant, though she held the title of president, reporting to the ceo. Saks made it clear that the new head merchant would not be president.

It is believed that Pisano wanted to be head merchant. Asked about her plans, Pisano said, “I have the good fortune to take some time off, sit back, spend time with my family and at some future point, entertain the next step. It’s been an amazing 15 years at Saks Fifth Avenue.”

Asked if she wanted the head merchant’s job at Saks, Pisano replied, “It is clearly in Saks’ best interest to have one chief merchant overseeing all areas. There would be one strategic vision by having one person. I have so many options. I would rather move on and pursue new opportunities.”

Pisano was instrumental in building the designer business at Saks, with such brands as Prada, Gucci, Christian Dior and Chanel, by forging relationships and long-term partnerships with them — in several cases, before they became world-class labels. She started at Saks as a divisional merchandise manager over footwear in 1988, later added accessories, became a senior vice president and three years ago became executive vice president. She started her career as a shoe buyer at Bloomingdale’s and then worked at Macy’s before joining Saks.

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