In the suitS and dressES category, the three top slots — Liz Claiborne, Ann Taylor and Sag Harbor — are some of the country’s largest vendors of career apparel, a category that has seen renewed interest as more companies frown upon the business casual policies that became popular in the late Nineties.

However, whether a company makes an affordable daytime suit or a $3,000 evening gown, all the brands in the top 10 share one important trend: diversification.

Whether publicly or privately held, expanding into other markets is an important growth strategy, especially for Seventh Avenue powerhouses that have evolved into holding companies, such as Liz Claiborne, Jones New York, LF Brands and Kellwood Co., which owns Sag Harbor Suits and produces suits for Liz Claiborne.

For example, the Liz Claiborne stable includes over 30 brands and saw its 28th consecutive quarter of sales growth this year when it reported figures in May; Ann Taylor reported its highest earnings from its 48-year history, largely due to the performance of its more casual Loft division; Sag Harbor’s $500 million estimated volume makes it the biggest brand at Kellwood, which houses around 40 brands, and Jones New York Dress is part of Jones Apparel Group, which represents over 15 brands, including Evan Picone Dress at number nine.

Though Jones New York Dress offers both daytime and evening dresses, Jessica McClintock and Vera Wang, which occupy the fifth and sixth spots, respectively, focus on eveningwear and bridal gowns.

Wang and McClintock continue to diversify their brands —McClintock’s junior Gunne Sax line lent muscle to her overall business, and Wang with ready-to-wear, which launched in 1994 but, according to Wang, has only recently picked up its pace.

Last year both designers moved beyond apparel: The Jessica McClintock line launched a furniture collection called the Jessica McClintock Romance Collection with furniture manufacturer American Drew, while Wang launched her first fragrance in February 2002.

The Kathie Lee Collection’s distribution at Wal-Mart has helped the brand increase its profile among U.S. consumers. However, shoppers won’t be seeing the collection for much longer since Wal-Mart announced plans in April to cease carrying the line after the holiday season, ending an eight-year run of what was once a $700 million business at its peak. Kathie Lee Collection is also owned by Kellwood.At number eight is Oleg Cassini, the charismatic 90-year-old designer who was awarded the Board of Directors’ Special Tribute by the Council of Fashion Designers of America at its awards show this month. Currently on the market are Oleg Cassini fragrances and licensed Oleg Cassini bridal gowns, suits, eveningwear and active sportswear.

In addition, his name still strikes a chord with consumers who remember his high-profile romances with women like Grace Kelly, as well as when he designed clothes for former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy.

Though Evan Picone has been owned by Jones New York for about nine years, the brand was expanded to include a moderate dress line about two years ago. The success of the brand with consumers has helped to make it the a top-selling dress resource in several moderate department stores, according to president Barbara Kennedy. That, combined with strong consumer recognition from its popular sportswear line, helped put it at number nine.

Perhaps the clearest example of a company trying to diversify is LF Brands, which owns the moderate dress line in the number 10 spot, Leslie Fay. Formerly known as the Leslie Fay Co., it changed to LF Brands in April to reinforce its image as a holding company. They include Leslie Fay, Joan Leslie, David Warren, D.W. Studio, Rimini and Cynthia Steffe.

1. Liz Claiborne

2. Ann Taylor

3. Sag Harbor

4. Jones New York Dress

5. Jessica McClintock/Gunne Sax

6. Vera Wang

7. Kathie Lee Collection

8. Oleg Cassini

9. Evan Picone Dress

10. Leslie Fay

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