This story first appeared in the July 5, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Saks Fifth Avenue is rebuilding a niche that’s been a laggard. But don’t call it “bridge.”

“That’s a term that doesn’t have the best fashion and product connotation,” observed Joseph Boitano, Saks’ group senior vice president and general merchandise manager, in an interview on “Wear,” an ongoing reinvention of the store’s bridge department. Saks’ Wear strategy, almost three years in the works, culminates in September with the completion of a remodeling and remerchandising of the 32,000-square-foot Wear floor, on the fourth level of the Fifth Avenue flagship. It will have 17,500 square feet for selling, reception desks, a 370-square-foot personal shopping area and possibly a new tag line, “Wear Now,” which as of last week wasn’t yet finalized.

These are the most visible signs that Saks executives see opportunity catering to a customer that requires a certain fit, doesn’t want to pay lofty designer prices and wants to look fashionable for work and casual occasions, and that the retailer is determined to revitalize a segment that was once a robust business — one that emerged as a $1 billion market in the late Nineties and early 2000s, but became overrun by markdowns, labels too heavily focused on suits and fashion misreads, and saw the disappearance of such brands as Dana Buchman, Emanuel and Ellen Tracy and the recasting of other brands, such as Eileen Fisher and Elie Tahari.

“The big thing here is that in our old presentation on the fourth floor, we had virtually no shops. Now we have carved out wonderful shops for vendors and designers to present them in an upscale way,” Boitano said.

In the following Q&A, Boitano discusses who Wear is targeting and what’s being done to drive the business.

WWD: Does Saks have an entire new strategy for Wear? Is it a repositioning?
Joseph Boitano:
Wear is a strategy we have [been] developing for years to replace the old bridge business. We knew that the traditional model of bridge was going nowhere. However, we knew we had a customer interested in fashionable clothes with an appropriate fit at a price-value relationship. She was in our store, but most likely we were not providing her with the kind of product, shopping environment and level of service she was looking for. The fourth floor is really the biggest step we’ve taken with Wear.

WWD: Who is the customer and what is she looking for?
She is looking for product that’s fashionable, exciting, quality, with an appropriate fit and priced well. It’s a zone priced at Saks between designer and contemporary. Generally, jackets are priced $500 to $700; trousers, $150 to $300; tops, $175 to $300; knitwear, $150 to $400. It’s definitely a more affordable price point [than designer], not a new price point, though it’s slightly higher than before.

There’s another difference which is very important — the fit. This woman is not always comfortable with a contemporary fit and she doesn’t want an old fit. She also doesn’t want a young contemporary fit. She wants a really modern fit. It’s a little bit more generous but still has shape and is still flattering, not boxy. It’s subtle things — the way the jacket fits, the armhole. These women exercise. They are more fit, but they are not their daughters. They have active lifestyles and they need clothes to go to work and for casual wear. The market has really been receptive to this whole concept.

WWD: What’s the potential here? Could Wear become the biggest women’s category?
We know this zone has the potential, the demographics, to serve a lot of customers. We have a major designer business and a strong contemporary business. We would like to see Wear be of equal importance. It’s definitely lagging. Wear is in every Saks store currently and could be bigger [in volume].

WWD: What are the key Wear labels?
We are going after core vendors, and we have most already. Ralph Lauren Blue was added almost two years ago. It’s exclusive to us. As of fall 2011, Rivamonti from Brunello Cucinelli will be exclusive, excluding the brand’s own stores. It’s growing from 18 Saks doors to 28 and getting a 637-square-foot shop at the flagship. We are also opening a 1,400-square-foot Burberry Brit shop, an 835-square-foot Tory Burch shop, as well as shops for M Missoni, Red Valentino and Boss Black by Hugo Boss. Lafayette 148 already has a 1,600-square-foot shop, and there are shops for Elie Tahari and La Via 18. Each brand has a fitting room, which have all been enlarged. DKNY, Sinclaire 10, Eileen Fisher and Josie Natori will also be part of the September launch.

WWD: How is the floor being designed?
It will have a residential, upscale feeling. All shops have three walls, and we’re using the perimeter walls more effectively, and less floor fixtures, to create an open shopping experience. There will be areas to present trends or a classification, like white shirts or a new vendor, to make sure there’s fashion excitement and a sense of discovery. The big difference from the designer floor is that Wear has more of an open flow between shops. Customers like to meander from product to product, line to line, and don’t want to be boxed in. We also exposed the Fifth Avenue windows.

WWD: Does private label play a role?
Yes. We are continuing to grow our SFA Classics from cashmere to related separates and outerwear. There will be an expanded presentation.

WWD: What’s currently selling in Wear?
Lots of color, colored bottoms, and feminine, versatile dresses. Prints are very important. The blouse and top classification is growing dramatically. Knitwear and our jacket presentation are still strong — novelty jackets with some versatility. Customers want something new, something she doesn’t own and something that excites her.

WWD: What’s going on with Wear at other Saks locations?
We are working to really bring the essence of it to Beverly Hills, Houston, Chicago, Boston and Atlanta doors, and will continue to roll it out.

WWD: Is the term “bridge” still relevant at all?
The industry still uses it. I don’t know if customers ever really used it. Two years ago we decided to longer use the word “bridge.” It’s no longer in our vocabulary. The old bridge business was not healthy for a long time.


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