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Wet Seal CEO Search Narrows

The Wet Seal is closing in on a new ceo, with Peter Whitford, who recently resigned as president of The Disney Store chain, seen as a top candidate.

NEW YORK — The Wet Seal is honing in on a new chief executive officer, with Peter Whitford the top candidate, according to a source.

Whitford last week resigned as president of The Disney Store chain, which is downsizing and looking to sell off its sites. Both retailers are based in California, with Wet Seal in Foothill Ranch and Disney in Anaheim.

Whitford would succeed Kathy Bronstein, who was forced out in February as Wet Seal’s vice chairman and ceo. She catapulted Wet Seal into one of America’s hottest specialty chains in the Nineties, largely by taking over other chains and connecting with America’s contemporary youth market. It became a standout destination in many of America’s malls, with its high-energy, colorful store presentations.

However, in the months preceding Bronstein’s departure, comparable-store sales deteriorated while competitors such as Hot Topic, Pacific Sunwear, American Eagle and Abercrombie & Fitch posted gains. Wet Seal reported a first-quarter loss of $8.5 million, reversing a year-ago profit, and same-store sales dropped 25.5 percent. Wet Seal last year posted about $600 million in sales.

Currently, Irv Teitelbaum, chairman, who’s also chairman and ceo of Canadian apparel and lingerie chain La Senza, serves as interim ceo. He couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday afternoon.

Asked if Wet Seal had a new ceo, Katy Wallace, of investor relations, said, “We do not. Our chairman is our interim ceo.” Asked if Whitford was being considered, she replied, “I don’t know anything about it.” She referred the inquiry to the human resources officials, who could not be reached.

Wet Seal really became a national force in 1995, when it purchased and eventually converted 245 Contempo Casual stores. It also acquired 78 Britches stores in 1999, and 18 Zutopia stores in 2001, and launched the Arden B. division in 1998.

Wet Seal specializes in contemporary apparel and accessories, and operates a total of 618 stores in 47 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, including 486 Wet Seal stores, 101 Arden B. stores and 31 Zutopia stores.