NEW YORK — Caribbean Joe might sound like the name of a suntan oil, but it’s actually a sportswear line that’s heating up the moderate floors of department stores.

In the year since it hit the retail floor, this casual line with tropical influences has far exceeded what its owners at Apparel Holdings Group, formerly Periscope Inc., projected: first-year sales reached $60 million — about $45 million more than originally planned.

This year, the sales goal is $150 million, including a men’s line to be launched for spring, according to Ken Sitomer, an owner of AHG, along with Scott Pianin and Jonathon Spier. Ross McConnell heads the Caribbean Joe division.

Spier said the company already has about $120 million in bookings for this year, including junior brand Periscope, Periscope girls and private label knitwear — all in the moderate tier. In total, the company had sales of $141 million in 2002 and plans to do about $280 million in 2003.

By 2005, AHG hopes to hit $500 million to $600 million through its current brand portfolio and acquisitions.

"We’re focused on moderate [sportswear] because we think that’s where the business is today," Spier said.

While Caribbean Joe put wind in its sail, AHG’s surge comes at a precarious time considering the unsteady economy and poor retail performance overall. Deepening its challenge, AHG’s precursor, Periscope, was involved in a sticky court battle with its former chief executive officer and filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Spier and Sitomer came on board in October 2000 and, with the hope of reviving the company, came up with the idea of Caribbean Joe as its first new apparel launch. Pianin and McConnell were already with the firm. The new owners took "peaceful possession" of the assets of the former company to start AHG.

"Caribbean Joe is casual weekend wear — anything but T-shirts and blue jeans. It’s a sophisticated look at moderate prices," said McConnell, who was on vacation in the Caribbean when he thought of the name for the line. "We bring an energy to the selling floor that hasn’t been seen in a long time."But before reviving anything, Sitomer said the company needed a major overhaul — from product and design merchandising to sourcing and systems. It also is in the process of moving into a new, 35,000-square-foot showroom at 1411 Broadway in Manhattan.

"When we started the company, the systems were like in the Sixties and now we’re in the late Nineties. We still have a way to go," Sitomer said. "We also listened to the retailers and they have been telling us for years to deliver value. We took a calculated risk, but we were correct."

Today, Caribbean Joe is sold nationwide at Federated Department Stores, May Co., Saks Inc., Dillards, Belks, Carson Pirie Scott and other major independent stores — totaling about 1,500 department store doors. Featuring exotic island prints and coordinating solids, the collection is based around camp shirts and relaxed pants, some with elastic. All items are washable and fabrics include rayon, denim and stretch jersey.

For fall, the collection includes printed stretch corduroy pants with coordinating tops and faux-suede sherpa vests. The label is a fiery red and gold, with the words Caribbean Joe in bold letters, outlined in black. Prices wholesale from $10 for a T-shirt to $17.50 for a jacket.

The company recently signed licenses for Caribbean Joe small leather goods with Trebbianno and for swimwear with Mainstream. Sitomer said the company is also in discussions for a license to distribute in Canada and is talking about distribution in Europe and the Far East.

Hal Kahn, chairman and ceo at Macy’s East, said Caribbean Joe offers a fresh concept and has performed quite well at retail.

"We had a very good spring last year and we anticipate to have a good spring this year," Kahn said. "It’s selling well in Florida now, and we have a big plan in men’s. The line offers a lot of value, and I think it makes a statement on the floor and differentiates itself from a lot of the other merchandise with interesting prints and a good value."

Kahn said AHG is comprised of good listeners who work well with the stores — which is key to being successful today. "We have a lot of growth opportunities with them in both juniors, misses and men’s," he added.Carson Pirie Scott president Tony Buccina said: "We feel bullish enough to put it in all of our stores. We are looking for lines that are new and different and that we can grow with, and Caribbean Joe is one of them. It’s new, fresh and their prices hit a wide audience. It’s right on target with good, casual clothes."

Still, Sitomer said the brand must not lose sight of its most important trait: product.

"We realized we had to work quickly and decisively, and change to a real apparel company that needs focus and planning," he said. "That’s what we’ve done. Now, every division is profitable — 2001 was a nice year and we made a mild profit, and in 2002 we should make a very reasonable profit. It is nice during tough times that there’s an opportunity to stand out and be noticed and we stood out and were noticed."

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