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Angst And Agita At Financo

NEW YORK -- What do you get when you pull together most of the leading executives in the retail industry? Lots of glad-handing, plenty of laughs -- and a room full of anxiety. That was the mood at the Financo dinner Monday night at the Harmonie Club...

NEW YORK — What do you get when you pull together most of the leading executives in the retail industry? Lots of glad-handing, plenty of laughs — and a room full of anxiety. That was the mood at the Financo dinner Monday night at the Harmonie Club here, which coincides with the National Retail Federation’s annual convention this week at the Jacob K. Javits Center. The Financo evening drew a leading crop of retail, fashion and financial executives, including: Michael Gould of Bloomingdale’s; Mark Cohen of Sears Canada; John Pomerantz of The Leslie Fay Co.; Kenneth Cole; Terry Lundgren of Federated Department Stores; Roger Markfield and Jay Schottenstein of American Eagle Outfitters; VF Corp.’s Mackey McDonald; Joseph Abboud; PVH’s Bruce Klatsky; Robert Mettler of Macy’s West, and a small, but growing contingent of female executives — Helene Fortunoff of Fortunoff’s; Denise Seegal, formerly of Liz Claiborne; search executive Elaine Hughes; Josie Natori of Natori Co., and Fashion Institute of Technology president Joyce Brown. Here is what some of them had to say on the state of the industry.

Burt Tansky, chairman and chief executive officer of Neiman Marcus: “Our customers are not trading down, but they are buying less. We see business improving. December was better than anticipated. I’m encouraged by early selling of cruise/resort.” As for the prospects of an economic recovery, Tansky added: “No one is sure when — this month, next month, June, July and August. We are playing it cautiously.”

Martha Stewart on Kmart: “I’m slightly nervous. I’m anxious to see what will happen with this very large and famous American company. [Chairman and ceo] Chuck Conaway has been there a year-and-a-half and he’s having a lot of trouble. He told me personally that he’s having a lot more trouble than he ever imagined.” But Stewart, whose public company has four separate business segments — merchandising, including the $1.5 billion Martha Stewart Everyday line exclusive to Kmart, as well as television, Internet and publishing, said: “Publishing is doing really well. Being spread out is better than being concentrated in one area.”

Robert Miller, president of Financo’s restructuring division: “Bankruptcy may be the only growth industry” in retailing, adding that the “record volume of corporate bankruptcies” last year would be sustained in 2002.

George Jones, ceo of the Saks department store group since last year, said that after 17 years with discounters and specialty chains: “It’s an interesting time to come back” to department stores and grapple with what consumers always gripe about. “Sameness — we’ve all got to deal with that. The key is to try to differentiate ourselves.”

Claudio Del Vecchio, president and ceo of Retail Brand Alliance, which acquired Brooks Bros. on Christmas Eve, said he’s personally tackling the Brooks Bros. job, but expects a turnaround there to be easier than that at Casual Corner, which, he acknowledged, is still having a tough time. Later, Del Vecchio flatly denied a press report that Peter Rizzo, president of Bergdorf Goodman, would be joining Brooks Bros. “It’s absolutely not true. I never met him,” Del Vecchio said.

Steve Ruzow, who joined Kellwood late last year, and considers it a refreshing change: “It is very different from Donna Karan — also a lot more fun. It’s nice to be doing business with people doing business. Design and taste level doesn’t mean price.”

Marvin Traub, Financo partner and retail veteran: “Undoubtedly, this was the worst fall season for anyone who isn’t in the mass market.”

Monroe Milstein, chairman of Burlington Industries, celebrating his 75th birthday: “I still haven’t figured out the business and I’ve been coming here every year.”