Byline: Georgia Lee

ATLANTA — The Saks Inc. department store group has attained the license to manufacture and sell women’s apparel and certain accessories under the Laura Ashley brand.
Distribution in North America, outside of Laura Ashley’s 75 U.S. stores, will be exclusive to Saks Inc.’s department stores. The corporation also operates the Saks Fifth Avenue specialty chain.
The Laura Ashley brand will be managed by the Saks department store group’s private brand organization, based in Birmingham, Ala. The agreement gives Saks the right to produce and sell misses’, petites and plus-size sportswear, dresses, swimwear and outerwear, as well as leather handbags, small leather goods and jewelry.
The licensing agreement is the first of its kind for the department store group.
Starting with apparel, Laura Ashley will be introduced to all department store divisions of Saks Inc., or about 125 stores in fall 2002, with accessories launched into 125 stores by fall 2003. Apparel should roll out to all Saks department stores by fall 2003, and accessories will be in all stores by fall 2004.
In-store Laura Ashley shops, within various category areas, will include special design and fixturing, said Saks, which operates Parisian, Carson Pirie Scott, Younkers, Proffitt’s, Herberger’s, Bergner’s, The Boston Stores and McRae’s.
Product will vary somewhat from the London-based Laura Ashley line, but the U.K. designers will provide input. Signature Laura Ashley looks are based on English country lifestyle, with classic styling.
“The Laura Ashley name conjures up great things in the minds of our customers, such as femininity and classic, yet modern design,” said Peggy Eskenasi, executive vice president, private label and brand development, Saks Inc.
She added that while some people still associate Laura Ashley with staid florals and jumpers from the Eighties, the line will continue a modern evolution that is under way in the U.K. The Saks version of the line may target an older customer than the U.K. stores, which have reached out to younger women in recent years.
Eskenasi said Saks hopes to capitalize on the brand’s heritage, but also update the look.
The brand resonates particularly well, said Eskenasi, with the Saks customer. Stores are typically located in smaller towns or rural areas within America’s heartland, where customers are familiar with the brand’s reputation.
“Traditional is still a big part of business,” she said. “But our customer responds to new product. We can interpret new elements and make it friendly, understandable and not avant-garde.”
Saks Inc. has grown private label offerings in recent years, to currently 12 percent of total sales, and should increase to 15 percent in the next two years. Laura Ashley should represent between 10 and 15 percent of private brand business.
Saks Inc. will market the brand through direct mail and special events.
For Laura Ashley, with U.S. headquarters in Fort Mills, S.C., the deal is part of a plan to consolidate U.S. stores and concentrate on brand-building through licensing. It now licenses socks, cold-weather items and scarves through two licensees.
In the past two years, Laura Ashley has shrunk its U.S. store base to 75 units from 125.

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