Designer and Nautica founder David Chu has launched a strategic partnership with golf legend Jack Nicklaus to develop the Nicklaus brands around a worldwide strategy and unified creative direction.

“I spent a lifetime developing my brand,” Nicklaus said in an interview. “We took it as far as we could as a family business. Now we want to ensure it grows beyond my lifetime and my recognition as a golfer. We spent the last year identifying the right person to take us to the next level, and that’s David.”

This story first appeared in the July 17, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Building the apparel business is a top strategic priority. The master license held by Hartmarx Corp., which was recently bought out of Chapter 11 by Emerisque, expires in 2010.

“I’ve been with Hartmarx for over 40 years, and I feel awful about their troubles,” Nicklaus said. “We’ll see if a relationship with Emerisque makes sense or not, and we’ll go from there.”

Already, a golf aficionado can visit a Nicklaus resort and play a round on a Nicklaus-designed course with Nicklaus clubs, while wearing Nicklaus apparel. However, the brand has lacked an integrated strategy for design, marketing and merchandising that reflects the founder’s value as a sports icon. The goal is for a message of excellence and style to be reflected in product, points of sale and media.

Over two decades, Chu built Nautica, where he was vice chairman, to worldwide sales of more than $1 billion when VF Corp. bought it in 2003. Now his firm, David Chu Management Group, will work with Nicklaus Companies to plan and execute a new vision for Nicklaus and the products of his Golden Bear, Nicklaus and Jack Nicklaus labels, including product design, distribution strategy, brand management and new business development.

Nicklaus is widely considered the greatest golfer in history, having won a record 18 professional major championships. He went on to become one of the most powerful people in the golf industry by designing resorts and golf courses and growing his marketing and licensing business, Nicklaus Marketing, which has worldwide sales of more than $250 million.

Most of those sales come from key Asian markets. In Korea, for example, there are 85 freestanding Jack Nicklaus stores. Only 10 percent of apparel sales come from the U.S.

“There’s huge potential to do more in North America and Europe,” Chu said.

The U.S. distribution is largely through golf shops, Dillard’s and Kohl’s. Overseas it is dominated by Japan, Korea and China.

“We have a brand but it doesn’t have a personality,” Nicklaus said. “It’s me, but not really. In China, golf is just getting off the ground, and not many people there know me. So we’re creating a lifestyle brand that needs to have an identity beyond me. It needs to have an identity in 50 years.”

That goal “begins with product,” Chu said. “We need to create more product, more relevant product, and distribute it in the right places. It needs to have great design, great value and great quality. There’s so much new technology for the golf industry. And we just want a really great foundation of product that people can wear on and off the golf course. Today, golf is a total lifestyle for people.”

Chu’s passion for golf is well known in the fashion industry. His Lincs brand, sold in better department stores, is golf-inspired. The Nicklaus partnership is his newest endeavor since parting with Tumi last year.

Chu has made an undisclosed capital investment in Nicklaus Companies, which is chaired by Nicklaus and majority-owned by his children and New York Private Bank & Trust, which invested in 2007.

The bank “invested in this business to grow it, so it’s our job to do that,” Nicklaus said.

“We’re going to focus first on where we’re most relevant,” Chu said. “There’s a lot of opportunity because the Jack Nicklaus name is so recognized, but the product and the relevance and the timing have to be right for the consumer to give it a shot. If you develop a reputation for high quality, then you can reshape the company. Once you have a successful fashion business…other categories come along.”

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