BUILDING ANNE KLEIN TO BITE BACK

Byline: Eric Wilson

NEW YORK — Anne Klein may have a little bit of a roar left after all.
The legendary American sportswear label has taken a few rough blows over the past decade, having gone through five confusing incarnations under the direction of different designers and, ultimately, a new owner in 1999.
But reflecting the imagery of its iconic lion logo — recently brought back into play by Charles Nolan, senior vice president of design — new management of the brand is attempting one of the noisiest and most aggressive comebacks the bridge market has seen in years.
“We intend on being one of the most successful designer vendors in the market,” said John D. Idol, who joined Anne Klein’s parent company, Kasper ASL, as chief executive officer in July after spending four years at Donna Karan. “We’re very serious about competing at the bridge level and the better level, and we ultimately expect to become one of the largest vendors in the industry.”
The label has gone through a number of evolutions since it was founded by the late Anne Klein as a designer sportswear resource 33 years ago, having been carried on by Donna Karan and Louis Dell’Olio after Klein’s death. In the Nineties, Richard Tyler and Patrick Robinson designed collections for the label, which was eventually pared down from the designer market to bridge in 1996 with Ken Kaufman and Isaac Franco at the helm.
Nolan was recruited from bridge rival Ellen Tracy in February and after scoring points with retailers for taking the line in a more sportswear-oriented direction with his resort collection, he showed his first full collection for spring last week. That also marked the unveiling of several developments for the company, including the renaming and repositioning of the Anne Klein bridge line and its better-priced counterpart.
With the spring collections, Anne Klein is becoming Anne Klein New York, a move Idol said is intended to build upon the American heritage of the brand at a time when the brand is also looking to build sales in Europe through a new showroom opening in London in January.
Anne Klein 2, the better-price line that originated as Anne Klein II, is becoming AK Anne Klein and being redefined from primarily career dressing to a denim-based lifestyle collection.
Since joining Kasper, Idol also has initiated several changes aimed at improving operations and returning the company to profitability within the next year, while also building the Anne Klein labels into a $200 million business, which would bring the brand back to a level last achieved in 1996. To help build Anne Klein, he has brought former Tommy Hilfiger women’s president Bubbles Bott on board as president of Anne Klein, and Lee S. Sporn, from Polo Ralph Lauren, as senior vice president, general counsel and secretary of Kasper, while Arthur S. Levine, Kasper’s longtime chairman, has stepped down.
It’s an ambitious program, particularly in the current economic and political climate, but also considering Anne Klein products manufactured by the company currently have total sales of about $70 million, according to market sources. Counting licenses, total Anne Klein sales are estimated at around $400 million.
On top of those circumstances, Kasper is currently in default under the terms of its senior notes, with outstanding direct borrowings of $64 million under a credit facility led by Chase Manhattan Bank. The company is discussing a financial restructuring with a committee of its lenders, a situation that does not preclude the possibility of a bankruptcy filing.
Addressing the speculation that has surrounded the firm since it entered the liquidity crisis, Idol said: “The company continues to work very closely with an ad hoc committee of the bondholders group to resolve the long-term issue of the senior notes.” He added that new management has taken a serious look at the company’s problems and is working to come up with a business plan.
In addition to the firm’s Kasper and Albert Nipon brands, which have been performing solidly, Idol feels the Anne Klein brand has a strong base to build upon, considering its consumer recognition and heritage. He stressed that the image being presented under Nolan’s design will be maintained for at least two years before any more significant changes are put in place, to help reestablish an identity for Anne Klein.
“That stands for great, clean American clothes,” Nolan said. “It’s about creative problem solving to satisfy the needs of American women, helping them dress intelligently and taking that American slant on it.”