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Kellwood’s Big Plans for Vince

Retail expansion and new categories are on tap.

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LOS ANGELES — Vince, Kellwood Co.’s $80 million contemporary brand, made its name with luxury basics like fitted T-shirts and cashmere sweaters.

Now, with a new owner, Vince is pushing direct retail expansion and introducing categories such as swimwear, handbags, shoes and eyewear. A denim line may also be in the works.

Private equity firm Sun Capital Partners Inc. purchased St. Louis-based Kellwood in February for $762 million.

After opening its first shop on Robertson Boulevard here in March, the Los Angeles-based brand launched a store on Melrose Place in September, a month before the start of an e-commerce site. In December, Vince plans to roll out another freestanding unit at 833 Washington Street in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, with its third California location at the Malibu Country Mart in June.

Next year, the brand wants to open another 10 stores, including its first international outpost in London. Vince intends to stock the stores with an array of licensed products — swim, shoes and bags — that will be introduced in 2009, with eyewear in 2010.

“All of this is pedal to the metal because of the stores,” said Rea Laccone, chief executive officer of Vince.

The formula is familiar. Certainly, Liz Claiborne Inc. identified contemporary labels Juicy Couture, Lucky Brand Jeans and Kate Spade as fast-growing power brands that could yield higher profit margins through sales at its own branded stores. However, Vince’s ambitions face the most serious financial crisis since the Great Depression. Intensifying the pressure, Kellwood’s new ceo, Michael Kramer, who has said he can turn around the company in two to three years, has projected that Vince’s domestic sales can grow to four to five times the current wholesale volume,

But the brand’s executives are taking everything

in stride.

“If we do $80 million now, we could easily do $300 [million],” Christopher La Police, Vince’s president, who is based in New York, said during an interview with Laccone in the Melrose Place store. “We’re still a small, relatively new company. I’m not as concerned [of an economic slowdown] because the demand outweighs the supply for Vince.…I’m not as nervous of the retail expansion.”

To which Laccone quickly added, “More importantly, Sun Capital…isn’t nervous.”

Laccone and La Police already have taken on their share of challenges. After meeting at Laundry by Shelli Segal, the Los Angeles contemporary company that Laccone started in 1988 and where La Police sold sportswear, they teamed up to start Vince three months after the 9/11 terror attacks. With Micheline Ip, a former designer from Laundry and Calvin Klein, serving as design director, Vince was able to build a following amid the challenging post-9/11 environment with retailers who yearned to entice customers with a fresh label. Kellwood acquired Vince in October 2006.

Vince is able to embark on expansion because it spent the last seven years building a foundation. The brand’s retailers include a mix of better department stores and specialty stores such as Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom, Fred Segal Trend, Barneys Co-op, Selfridges and Net-a-porter.com. Last fall, Vince began offering men’s wear under the direction of men’s design director Michael Patterson, while maintaining its core business. In January, it opened an office in London with an eye toward international expansion.

“We still have a classic modern twist to basics,” Laccone said, adding that Ip incorporated more accessories, like a gray plastic belt cinching a purple cardigan, to add a sense of value to the pieces.

Vince’s specialization in sweaters has made it a go-to brand for Barneys Co-op, which began stocking the line when Vince made its first delivery in 2002, said Terence Bogan, vice president of women’s for the 28-door retailer.

“There are not that many other sweater companies out there, so they more or less rule that particular category,” he said.

Vince’s offerings in other categories — dresses, knit pants and leather jackets — are priced competitively, Bogan said, adding that extending into handbags, shoes and other categories is logical. “They already built a brand loyalty with the customer…[knowing] that Vince is reliable [with] the fit [and] the quality.”

The clean, modern look of the stores — all designed by Los Angeles’ Marmol Radziner and Associates — is intended to complement the quietly posh clothing. The shop on Melrose Place is the flagship. Located on the two blocks of the street book-ended by Monique Lhuillier on one corner and Diesel on the other, the company fills the 1,300 square feet of selling space with what is intended to appeal to a young customer aspiring to the contemporary category as well as an older designer customer who shops for a weekend wardrobe. (Vince cited actress Rita Wilson as a fan.) Among the edgier finds are $125 dip-dyed fingerless cashmere gloves, $235 thick black leggings resembling ski pants, and $740 washed leather jackets with draped necks. The casual looks include $320 worsted cashmere cardigans arranged in five colors, ranging from light gray to fuchsia, on the walnut wood-covered runway splicing the length of the store.

Walnut wood also covers the floor in the rear of the store, while polished concrete shines in the front. The walls, painted matte olive and white, offset the raw wood beams arching in the narrow skylight. High glass windows afford views of the bamboo planted outside in the compact gardens flanking both sides of the store. For a bit of whimsy, mannequins are painted the same shade of green as the Wicked Witch of the West from “The Wizard of Oz.”

The shop on Robertson Boulevard, with 875 square feet of selling space, resembles an industrial shoebox in comparison with the more stylized settings of neighboring retailers such as Anya Hindmarch. Long, narrow and overtaken by concrete, steel and glass, the Vince store offers one rolling rack of men’s clothes. Appearances aside, it generates $1,400 in sales per square foot, La Police said, adding, “It’s a machine.”

The New York shop will occupy 1,200 square feet and the Malibu unit will be the smallest at 700 square feet.

“We and everybody else is in a race to great locations,” Laccone said.

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