Maurices, the fast-growing, $1 billion women’s chain concentrated in small towns and midsized cities, is making a big-city move.

A Maurices design office opens Wednesday at 432 Park Avenue South in Manhattan, marking the company’s first move into New York City. “This will allow us to grow with speed and efficiency,” Erin Stern, Maurices’ chief merchandising officer, told WWD.

Having the in-house design team based in New York enables the company to be more competitive, flexible and faster designing and developing product by having greater proximity to the fashion market. There is also a bigger talent pool in New York, compared to Duluth, Minn., where Maurices is based. “We love the idea of being in a big hub, but our motivation is really about the health, strength and flexibility of the business,” Stern said.

Asked if the opening of the design office implies any significant changes in the merchandise or fashion direction, Stern replied: “Absolutely not. The location is new but the integrity of our design and face of our brand will remain intact.”

Maurices does not operate a store in the city. While there are no plans for one, “You never say never,” Stern said.

The new office, located between 29th and 30th Streets and occupying 9,000 square feet, will house design, fabric development, trend and CAD teams. There will be a total initial staff of 21, which is seen growing to 35 in the next year. Maurices has 450 employees in its Duluth headquarters, and more than 8,000 employees companywide. While the operation gets into gear on Wednesday, a ribbon-cutting is set for Aug. 4 with top officials from Maurices as well as those from the parent company, Ascena Retail Group Inc.

Maurices, with 930 stores catering to women in the twenty- to thirtysomething age range with sizes from one to 24, is growing fast and performing well. The chain expects to cap out at well over 1,200 stores in the U.S., and at least 35 in Canada. Through the recession, Maurices opened more than 250 stores and yielded 65 percent sales growth.

The Catherines plus-size division of Ascena is also performing well, though the Dressbarn and Justice divisions have been struggling. Lane Bryant is showing improvement but last fiscal year was in the red. Ascena is in the process of buying Ann Inc., which operates the Ann Taylor, Loft and Lou & Grey chains. The addition will lift Ascena’s annual revenues by about $2 billion to an estimated $7.3 billion in sales.

Maurices’ design office is an outgrowth of the brand’s decision three years ago to start designing and developing product in-house and creating a design team in Duluth, and rely less on buying from the market. Maurices also formed a sourcing team in Asia about four years ago.

The majority of the staff at the Manhattan design office has been hired out of the New York area while a handful of individuals are being relocated from the Duluth offices. The New York team is being led by June Beckstead, senior vice president of design and trend, who joined Maurices about a year ago from Sears Holdings Corp., where she was running the Sears/Kmart design team. Sears/Kmart operates similar to Maurices in that it has both an in-house design group and a team of buyers shopping the markets.

Maurices dates back to 1931, when E. Maurice Labovitz opened a small women’s clothing shop in Duluth.

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