By  on August 20, 2007

NEW YORK — Venus, a multichannel apparel and swimwear company, filled its catalogues and Web site with images of amply endowed models striking provocative poses in styles that brought to mind Frederick's of Hollywood. It was a look that appealed to a certain segment of the population, but it was a narrow segment.

Enter Brian Ruskin. The former Victoria's Secret executive was hired by Venus in February to bring fashion credibility to the $100 million company and some class to its Web site and catalogue pages, without losing any of the sexy spirit. Ruskin also will introduce new product initiatives.

"They were looking for someone to give a new direction to the clothing line," said Ruskin, Venus' executive vice president. "They said, 'It's your vision to redirect the company.' It was really about bringing the product to a more sophisticated level. The bottom line is that we are sexy and that's the core of the brand. Now we're sexy sophisticated. There's a bigger market for sexy sophisticated."

Ruskin introduced a cleaner style of photography for the catalogue and Web site, shooting models in a studio in front of solid backdrops rather than with glitzy-looking props such as cream and gold columns, mirrors and beaded curtains.

The clothing is less overtly sexy and more fashion-forward. Sweaters include a white short-sleeve cable turtleneck, a bouclé baby doll and a cropped knit jacket with large buttons. A gray knit dress with black trim and a black patent leather belt is shown with black leggings, and other trendy silhouettes, such as bell sleeves and tunics, are featured. By comparison, much of the clothing in a fall 2006 catalogue is spandex and nylon. At that time, there was a heavy-handed approach to embellishment with sequins, rhinestones, beads and paillettes piled on dresses or tops, and brooches and hardware, such as buckles, in strategic places.

"In presenting the merchandise, my goal is to make it as sophisticated and upscale as possible at the lowest prices," Ruskin said. "I've upgraded all of our fabrics going forward. It's not necessarily a move to more natural fibers, just higher quality. For example, our suiting fabric, the white trench, is our refined stretch and it comes from a European mill. In the spring I saw this amazing viscose at all the fashion houses in Paris and I found a mill to replicate its beautiful drape and sheen."Ruskin said Venus "didn't really have the infrastructure to bring trend-right merchandise to the brand" prior to his arrival. "We have an incredible sourcing team and a great factory base. I added a couple of new factories. It was a matter of the direction and [figuring out] what the modern, sophisticated woman wants."

The answer to that question, according to Ruskin, is trend-right, great-fitting fashion at a good price. "We want to be a destination for sexy, sophisticated clothing and casual and polished weekend apparel."

Prices range from $9 for a ribbed tank to $178 for a long halter dress. "We're one of the best out there for the value," Ruskin said, noting the fabric upgrades won't raise average retail prices. "However, the quality-value quotient will increase dramatically."

The Venus woman, who is between 18 and 45 years old, is no wallflower. "She's sexy, professional and goes to work and likes to go out," Ruskin said. "She's social and likes to be seen and is confident. She wants to make sure that what she's wearing [reflects who she is]."

Ruskin said dresses and trend tops are big businesses at Venus. He introduced loungewear and pajamas and plans to add more sleepwear in the spring.

More attention is being paid to fit, especially in the pants department. Ruskin, who created a fit system for Victoria's Secret called Body at Work, said Venus will introduce a fit system in mid-January. "Pants are going to be a great business for us," he said. "My expertise is designing the best fit."

Venus was founded by Daryle Scott in 1982 as a mail-order company specializing in competitive bodybuilding suits. A few years later, Scott began selling leotards, athletic apparel and women's swimwear — the company was the official swimsuit sponsor of the 2007 Miss America Pageant.

Golden Gate Capital acquired Venus in November. The San Francisco-based private equity group is one of the largest direct retailers in the U.S. with sales in excess of $3 billion and holdings in Spiegel, Newport News, Express, Carabella and Rocket Dog.

Venus operates three stores in Florida. "We're going to watch [the stores] and evaluate them and see how the brand grows in the next six to nine months," Ruskin said. "If the brand grows the way we hope it will, [stores] are definitely part of the growth plan. Golden Gate is eager to grow. That's why they purchased the company. I think they're getting what they hoped for."

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