NEW YORK — Joe Boxer, the high-profile label best known for its outrageous marketing and underwear, is close to being sold.

Licensing experts, speaking on the condition of anonymity, described the prospective buyer as a New York-based brand management firm that specializes in the footwear and apparel industries. They declined to identify the company.

The deal is anticipated to close “within the week” if talks proceed smoothly, the sources said. It is uncertain what a sale of the brand would mean for Sears Holdings Corp., which carried over the exclusive agreement to sell the brand when Sears Roebuck & Co. and Kmart Holding Corp. merged this year.

Joe Boxer was founded in 1985 by the flamboyant Nick Graham, who described his chief executive officer title as “chief underpants officer.” The company was sold in March 2001 to Westport, Conn.-based Windsong Allegiance Group LLC, with Graham retaining an equity interest. Joe Boxer’s operating assets, trademarks and trade names were included in the sale to Windsong.

Neither Bill Sweedler, president of Windsong, nor Sears Holdings could be reached for comment.

As a subsidiary under Windsong’s umbrella, Joe Boxer signed a long-term exclusive agreement with Kmart in 2001. The goal was to relaunch the brand with a new line of home and apparel products. The company targeted the 2002 back-to-school season for the launch.

Joe Boxer was the first major department store brand to migrate downstream to discounter Kmart, which happened when former Kmart executive Chuck Conaway took over as chairman and ceo of the discounter in May 2000. Kmart gained the right to sell and manufacture Joe Boxer products and control the brand’s entire distribution.

But several months before the b-t-s rollout, Kmart filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy court protection. Still, the discounter made good on its promise to launch Joe Boxer as scheduled. And in true whimsical, yet attention-grabbing, Nick Graham-style, the launch took place without a hitch in Kmart’s hometown of Detroit, but with a literal bang as human cannonballs flew through the air as part of a “fashion show.” The launch was followed by other festivities, such as a marching band wearing Joe Boxer shorts parading in the streets around Kmart’s Astor Place store in Lower Manhattan.

This story first appeared in the July 21, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The marketing of the Joe Boxer brand at Kmart even created an instant celebrity, Vaughn Lowery, best known for dancing the “Joe Boxer Boogie” in a b-t-s television commercial plugging the collection.

Joe Boxer at Kmart — at one point, available at the discounter in men’s and women’s underwear, loungewear and sleepwear; in women’s accessories, and select home goods — was considered groundbreaking due to the brand’s migration from department stores.

Because of a lack of success in luring big-name labels, mass retailers typically rely on proprietary brands to fill the void. Kmart, which counted on Martha Stewart Everyday as the chain’s biggest volume brand, was no exception. Other proprietary brands in the Kmart stable at the time included Jaclyn Smith, Route 66 and Kathy Ireland.

Kmart, which exited Chapter 11 in May 2003 as Kmart Holding Corp., merged in March with Sears, Roebuck & Co. and the new combined entity operates under the corporate umbrella Sears Holdings Corp.

At the time of Windsong’s acquisition, Joe Boxer had a wholesale volume of $100 million, and was sold primarily at department stores, including Federated Department Stores, May Department Stores, Saks Inc., Dillard’s and Marshall Field’s.

Since the Kmart merger with Sears, Joe Boxer hasn’t had much of a presence at Kmart, and certainly not in the Sears stores. The brand has “been cut way back,” according to one licensing source. The source, who deals primarily with brands in the mass market channel, said the plan for Joe Boxer “going forward, will be only in [women’s] intimates and men’s underwear.”

Kmart did not respond to calls for comment about its plans for Joe Boxer.

Graham has been working on the Nick(it) label for J.C. Penney, a collection of British-inspired sportswear for young men. He sold Joe Boxer after encountering a financial squeeze that arose from a bitter lawsuit with Van Mar, a former licensee.

Van Mar won a $3.15 million judgment against Boxer in December 2000. The underwear firm found itself unable to pay the judgment because of its lackluster financial condition stemming partly from Graham’s penchant for costly media events that drained the company’s cash flow.

Aside from Joe Boxer, Windsong owns brands such as Como Sport, Navy Cutter and New Frontier. The company’s licensed brands include Geoffrey Beene Sleepwear, Colours by Alexander Julian and Body by Jake.

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