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VF Taps Seegal As Nautica CEO

Nautica confirmed that Denise V. Seegal will be its new president and chief executive officer, succeeding founder David Chu, who is leaving to pursue other interests.

NEW YORK — Nautica named Denise Seegal as president and chief executive officer, to oversee a master plan principally involving strengthening the men’s wear portion of the business and growing the European distribution.

Among other possible avenues are reentering into retail stores and developing women’s sportswear business, but those strategies, if enacted at all, would be further in the future.

The announcement Friday confirmed a WWD report about Seegal’s career move.

Seegal, previously ceo and president of JLo by Jennifer Lopez licensee, Sweetface Fashion Co., will join Nautica, a $550 million brand owned by VF Corp., in mid-October. She succeeds Nautica founder, David Chu, who is leaving to pursue other interests, the company said.

“We have developed a clear strategy of where to take the brand. It’s a three-year, master plan,” said Eric Wiseman, vice president and chairman of VF’s outdoor and sportswear coalitions. “So, with that done, it made sense to bring in a leader who could see the plan through,” he said, noting that Chu’s contract was set to expire at the end of next year and that, since VF acquired Nautica in August 2003, “we knew all along there would be a transition.”

Seegal will report to Wiseman.

Describing the Nautica strategy, Wiseman said, “We are very focused on getting the men’s wear right, and getting it right in more geography. We have energized our organization around this. We need to have a healthy men’s sportswear business. The products were not connecting with people for a while” because it sent out mixed fashion messages, at times becoming too contemporary, rugged or oriented to urban work environments. But the product has been improving, he claimed, and the company has confidently boosted advertising this year by 60 percent to promote it. He said it’s more geared to meet the lifestyle of someone “active, with balance in their life.”

As far as growing the business, “geographic expansion opportunities are a big priority for us,” Wiseman said, noting that Nautica has licenses in Greece, Italy and Spain, but will begin to distribute in other European countries in 2005 to a small degree, and in 2006, to a much bigger degree. There are also a few licensed freestanding stores in southern Europe, but no Nautica-owned retail presence. VF has substantial infrastructure for jeans and outdoor apparel in Europe.

Asked if there would be other Nautica management changes, he replied, “The team is pretty much in place.”

Nautica primarily sells men’s sportswear, as well as home and fragrances. Women’s merchandise is at present restricted to just two licenses, for swimwear and sleepwear, and there’s been some discussion about launching women’s sportswear, though it’s not currently a priority. “It’s out there on our future radar, but there’s no active initiative. We’re not working on it,” Wiseman said.

Nautica’s sole regular-priced freestanding unit, in Rockefeller Center, closed this month, though there is a network of 115 outlets. Revisiting retailing also doesn’t seem an immediate concern. “At some point in our future, we will get into the full-price business,” Wiseman said.

In the past year, VF has been successful raising Nautica’s profit margins, currently hovering around 10 percent, compared with 7 percent before the acquisition. Jobs and duplicate areas have been eliminated by VF, and women’s denim was dropped, among other cost-saving maneuvers.

Although Nautica’s profitability has risen since the acquisition, largely through consolidations, the sales situation has been challenging. Further increasing profitability will be dependent on improving the sales. A spokeswoman said VF’s goal is to bring Nautica, as well as other divisions, to the 14 percent operating profit range. VF’s key brands include Lee, Wrangler, Riders, Rustler, Vanity Fair, Vassarette, Bestform, Lily of France, Earl Jean, John Varvatos, JanSport, Eastpak, The North Face, Vans, Napapijri, Kipling and Red Kap.

Seegal has held top jobs at companies such as Liz Claiborne, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan and Ralph Lauren Womenswear. “She is a great developer of brands, as evidenced by her work at Donna Karan. She was the founding president of DKNY and put the brand on the map,” said Kirk Palmer, of the executive search firm bearing his name.