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Mizrahi’s Major Move: Isaac Tapped to Design Liz Claiborne Women’s

Liz Claiborne Inc. has enlisted Isaac Mizrahi to rescue its struggling flagship brand.

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Liz Claiborne Inc. has enlisted Isaac Mizrahi to rescue its struggling flagship brand.

Mizrahi is leaving Target Corp. — the venue that introduced him to the mainstream customer — at the end of this year and will become creative director for all categories of the better-priced women’s Liz Claiborne brand, beginning in spring 2009.

William L. McComb, chief executive officer of the $4.99 billion Liz Claiborne Inc., told WWD that the “long-term” deal — the brainchild of Dave McTague, executive vice president of partnered brands for Liz Claiborne Inc. — has been in the works for months.

“Dave walked in the door with a charter to fill the emotional vacuum of the brand,” McComb said. “Liz Claiborne is an extremely well-known, well-regarded brand that failed to deliver on the core values that made it great in the first place: color, fit, value and style. The turning point was when Liz Claiborne died [in June], and we got lots of calls and letters from consumers who didn’t know she hadn’t been working here since 1989.”

Claiborne is hopeful that Mizrahi can bring his fashion wit and color sense to the struggling women’s collection.

Mizrahi’s appointment follows Monday’s announcement that John Bartlett will design the Claiborne men’s sportswear line, under the label Claiborne by John Bartlett, also launching for spring 2009. Unlike the men’s line, the core Liz Claiborne collection will not be called Liz Claiborne by Isaac Mizrahi, though his association with the brand will be clear on the labels.

“Isaac is an international icon,” McTague said. “He not only knows this woman, he adores her. His core values are so perfectly aligned with our core brand: fit, color, comfort, value, fun and a uniquely American brand.”

Mizrahi replaces Richard Ostell, who has designed the line since 2005. Karen Harvey Consulting conducted the search.

Suffering from what Claiborne executives have admitted was stagnant product, the flagship brand has seen a continued slide in volume, from about $2 billion in the early Nineties to accounting for part of the $1.5 billion in sales of the Liz Claiborne brand family, which now also includes Liz & Co., Concepts by Claiborne, Claiborne, Axcess and Villager, brought in last year. McComb said the goal still is to stabilize the losses before he focuses on growing the line. He added that the company will probably be holding prices, but improving the product to deliver better value for the price, which has been a weakness of the brand.

Last year the biggest wholesale partner for the Claiborne brand, Macy’s, drastically cut back orders, partly as a response to the creation of the diffusion Liz & Co. line for J.C. Penney. Mizrahi will not design Liz & Co. or other diffusion lines.

“This is the long-awaited differentiation that Macy’s has been asking for,” McComb said. “This is the vital answer to the differentiation.”

Jennifer Black, a retail analyst at her namesake firm, thinks the move will earn back the space the line has lost in retailers, which sources said have scaled back spring orders 30 percent, after 50 percent reductions last year. “In the short run, are things going to change? No, but longer term, the space they have been losing in department stores may stabilize,” said Black. “If these department stores have the opportunity to carry Isaac Mizrahi, which was a huge draw for Target, they would be crazy to not do it.”

Sources speculate Mizrahi will appear in everything from in-store appearances to runway shows during New York Fashion Week for the line. Like Liz Claiborne Inc. chief creative officer Tim Gunn, who has been promoting the collection this fall with in-store shows, Mizrahi is a familiar face on television. In addition to hosting his own series on both the Oxygen Network and the Style Network, Mizrahi is a regular guest star on other shows, including, interestingly, a recent appearance on “Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style.” In February, he will launch his new Web-based series “WatchIsaac” at Watchisaac.com.

“It’s a great move for Liz Claiborne, and a huge loss for Target,” said Black. “They couldn’t have picked a better person. Isaac really understands this customer, and he has done the high-end and really done a great job targeting it to the mainstream market. I would bet he would be doing lots of personal appearances once they have the product out. With him designing it, the line could be pretty great.”

Sources estimated Mizrahi’s collection for Target does more than $300 million at retail annually, with last year being its best ever. Sales have doubled every year since the line was launched in 2003. Target’s agreement with Mizrahi expires at the end of this year, which some might see as a blow to the discount retailer. Mizrahi’s arrival at Target helped foster its cool image and was a major force in elevating its apparel offering. Recently, however, Target has seen sharp falls in same-store sales, with many analysts saying the Mizrahi collection and other lines need freshening up.

A three-time winner of the designer of the year award at the Council of Fashion Designers of America, Mizrahi opened his own sportswear business in 1987. Before shuttering his design house, bankrolled by Chanel, in 1998, the industry heralded Mizrahi as the next big thing in American fashion as a designer who was known for his wit and charm. He hosted theatrical runway shows and was featured in his line’s print ads. At the time of its closing, Mizrahi’s collection business was estimated at $8 million to $10 million at wholesale, plus another $15 million to $20 million from the ISAAC bridge division. He made his big media debut with the documentary “Unzipped,” about the development of his fall 1994 collection.

He reinvented himself four years ago when he started designing his line for Target, as well as a couture collection for Bergdorf Goodman — epitomizing the emergence of high-low. He will continue his designer line.

Mizrahi wasn’t available for comment Tuesday, but said in a statement: “Liz Claiborne is an American fashion icon. Her clothes were not only beautiful, not only smart, they were revolutionary. She invented separates, and invented an entirely new category in the department store.

“She made fashion friendly and accessible, and in doing so, she became every woman’s best friend. These are all ideas I treasure and I’m honored to have the opportunity to build on this fantastic legacy and excited to reestablish the label as a must-have. And, as excited as I am about developing Liz Claiborne, the collaboration also affords fantastic opportunities for growth in my own brand,” said Mizrahi.

Mainstream brands have brought in well-known designers to resuscitate themselves with varying success. Although Patrick Robinson at Perry Ellis and, more recently, Isabel Toledo at Jones Apparel Group’s Anne Klein, enjoyed critical success, both had short-lived tenures. But McComb promised the deal with Mizrahi will have a better fate, and consultants seem to agree.

“Liz has felt like a dormant brand for quite some time without a strong sense of identity or relevancy,” said Catherine Sadler, president of New York marketing firm Catherine Sadler Group. “Isaac represents approachable fashion to Middle America.”

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