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A little more than a year into being part of the Liz Claiborne Inc. family, the founders of C&C California are finally grasping just how far they can stretch out.

“It’s still early,” said Cheyann Benedict, who founded C&C with partner Claire Stansfield in early 2003, only to sell it to Liz Claiborne two years later for an initial price of $28 million. The pair remain as co-presidents. “There’s a lot of opportunities for everything — bags, shoes, makeup. We always wanted to do swimwear. But we’re taking it slowly, just trying to catch our breath.”

When Claiborne picked up the fledgling contemporary company, it had generated net sales of $21 million in the 12 months before, its sophomore year — and had scarcely moved out of Benedict’s garage.

The new parent provided immediate infrastructure. But, noted Benedict, Claiborne didn’t hijack their company. “During the first six months, they were very hands-off in the creative — not the back end, thankfully — in order to let us get acclimated.”

Stansfield recalled Claiborne chairman and chief executive Paul Charron’s description of how the process would unfold: “It would be like a big ocean liner, initially slow coming in, but once it’s there, boy, it’s there.”

Industry sources put 2005 sales at $30 million.

“We’re still such a young company, still in growth mode,” continued Benedict. “They helped us meet our 2005 goal just by ensuring the infrastructure was in place.”

Indeed, C&C has had to adjust to a new parent and partner as it oriented itself to everything that comes with marketplace demand. “We were only eight people and hardly a well-oiled machine,” admitted Stansfield with a laugh. “That’s why it’s been great to have them. It’s like, ‘You mean someone will show up and fix all that? Someone will go to the shows for us?’”

Stansfield and Benedict said they went with Claiborne because the megacompany had so far shown it could work with entrepreneurs and grow the business, as it had for Juicy Couture. They were, in fact, spurred by Claiborne’s deal with Juicy, a company the C&C duo have always seen as a template for their own brand, albeit one with a different spin on celebrating the California lifestyle.

This story first appeared in the March 27, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

From the start, the C&C founders had their sights on becoming a global lifestyle brand — and being acquired to reach that goal. It just happened sooner than they imagined.

In early 2003, the former actresses began selling their first collection of colorful, semisheer T-shirts. With their longer bodies, the $45 shirts were snapped up by consumers seeking coverage from the ever-dropping waistlines of jeans. At 6-foot-1, Stansfield was only too familiar with the problem of avoiding navel exposure. Having brought Calypso to Los Angeles, where she witnessed how consumers collected the same favorite style in multiple colors, Benedict knew their concept had potential.

An executive from Oprah Winfrey’s production company spotted a C&C T-shirt on a fellow guest at her gym and bought some for herself. When the talk show star saw them, she spotlighted them on the biannual special highlighting her favorite things. Better department stores immediately phoned in orders. First-year sales reached $2 million.

Not long after the Claiborne deal, C&C launched colored jeans and cashmere T-shirts, rolled out the company’s first billboard campaign and opened a 2,200-square-foot showroom in the Cooper Design Space in downtown Los Angeles.

Among Stansfield and Benedict’s favorite aspects of the deal has been access to Claiborne’s trend team and library. “Cheyann and I don’t follow trends. We’re more concerned with what Ali MacGraw would’ve worn three decades ago. But we came to accept Ann [Cashill] and her team tailoring their seasonal presentations just for us. They have these closets filled with amazing vintage clothes. They have Vogues from the Seventies. They travel and find, say, a vase that could be inspiration.

“Cheyann and I don’t have time to travel like we want to,” Stansfield continued, “so since they adopted us, we could see the world through them.”

C&C baby and kids’ lines recently launched, prompted by the birth nine months ago of Stansfield’s son, Lucky. “He’s become our in-house fit model and he’s on the Web site,” she laughed.

“We’re really excited about these two categories,” said Benedict, who continues to oversee all design with her partner. Stansfield also oversees publicity and marketing, while Benedict doubles up with production.

That’s only the start. While it’s way too soon to talk freestanding stores, they insisted, it’s not out of the realm of possibilities. At the time of the deal, Charron noted there were “abundant brand extension opportunities in nonapparel categories, as well as in licensing and additional international distribution.”

In fact, the Claiborne group president managing C&C is Susan Davidson, who, besides apparel, also oversees cosmetics and accessories.

“It’s funny, a case of ‘Be careful what you wish for because it might happen,’” noted Stansfield. “We knew nothing about mergers and acquisitions. We didn’t even pursue it. But we knew we wanted to sell to Liz Claiborne when we launched, and that’s how it worked out.”

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