By  on July 31, 2009

NEW YORK — It looks like Ellen Tracy plans to take a hiatus from the bridge sportswear department, beginning next spring.

Although company officials wouldn’t confirm a WWD report Thursday that the firm was exiting bridge, knowledgeable sources said this fall will be the last season Ellen Tracy will be in the bridge area. A new Ellen Tracy line will be developed for better sportswear departments, starting in spring 2010. This move doesn’t mean a bridge line couldn’t return eventually, but for now, the focus appears to be on better sportswear.

Mark Mendelson, president of Ellen Tracy, plans to stay.

Last week, Brand Matter LLC sold the operational part of the Ellen Tracy business to RVC Enterprises and licensed RVC for use of the brand for women’s sportswear in both the better and bridge categories.

William Sweedler, co-chairman and chief executive officer of Brand Matter LLC, parent company of Ellen Tracy, did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Ellen Tracy’s departure from the bridge area is expected to leave a void and a lot of disappointment at stores such as Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, Dillard’s and Lord & Taylor, where the line commands sizable retail space. Despite ups and downs, it has been a significant presence in the bridge category, which is now comprised of such brands as Elie Tahari, Tory Burch, Lafayette 148, DKNY, Eileen Fisher, Magaschoni and Anne Klein New York.

Ellen Tracy’s arrangements with some key stores go back many years, and sources said it has been challenging for the company to run a profitable business with retailers’ gross margin and markdown requirements. Unlike many competitors, the brand, which in recent years did about $100 million in wholesale volume, doesn’t have freestanding stores. Ellen Tracy has about 10 licensed categories, including coats, dresses, suits and footwear, all geared to the better-priced customer.

When Mendelson came on board in early 2008, he hired Susanne Klevorick as creative director and senior vice president of design. She was previously senior vice president of design at Ann Taylor, Nine West and Jones New York, and she and Mendelson have traveled as a team almost since they met nine years ago.

“I’ve been challenged at times for why I didn’t bring in someone from the bridge world,” said Mendelson, in a WWD interview last February.“[Founders] Linda [Allard] and Herb [Gallen] dressed a very modern woman. Susanne brings a customer perspective, and she doesn’t have any baggage from what ‘bridge’ was.”

Klevorick, known for her taste level and color sense, is expected to stay under the new regime.

With stores demanding products at lower price points, and the customer looking to trade down, Ellen Tracy’s move onto the better floor could be well-timed. Average prices of better price sportswear can be at least 50 percent lower than bridge prices. Among the brands on the better floor are Michael Michael Kors, Lauren by Ralph Lauren, Kenneth Cole New York, Calvin Klein white label, AK Anne Klein, DKNYC, Jones New York, Liz Claiborne and Tommy Hilfiger, which is exclusive to Macy’s.

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