As part of its plan to build a better arsenal, Hampshire Group Ltd. is restructuring its recently acquired Marisa Christina division and relaunching the knit brand for fall.

After buying the better knit label in May, Hampshire scrapped Marisa Christina’s operations end and replaced it with the parent company’s back office. With a new head of sales and design director, Richard Metzger, formerly design director for GarfieldMarks, Marisa Christina now can focus fully on design and merchandising, which Michael Culang, interim president and chief executive officer of Hampshire Group, hopes will translate into a more attractive product.

“When you ask most people about Marisa Christina, they may say, ‘Is that label still alive?’ or, ‘Didn’t they make Christmas sweaters?'” said Culang. “Although we have some educating to do vis-à-vis the label, really in today’s market, product comes first, and if the product is great, the label will be resurrected.”

For the fall launch, the brand returns to its knitwear roots, with woven complements, including bottoms. The prices for the cashmere- and merino-blended pieces range from $48 to $220 wholesale, which reflects about a 15 percent increase.

Along with David Brooks and knit line Spring + Mercer, Marisa Christina is part of the $350 million, predominately moderate vendor’s new better area, which it hopes will grow to $50 million in wholesale volume by 2010.

“The moderate business is not exactly the emphasis of the better department stores,” said Culang. “We’ve tried to develop a strategy to get into the better department and specialty stores.”

The 30-year-old Hampshire bought the publicly traded Marisa Christina in May for $4.8 million. Founded in 1971 and known for its knitwear, Marisa Christina at the time did $18 million in sales and was sold in more than 700 specialty stores and upscale department stores. Culang said his challenge is to convert Marisa from being a purely specialty store business into a better department store and higher-end specialty store brand.

Hampshire is spending $3 million to $4 million on marketing for all of its women’s lines this year, up about 30 percent from last year — the bulk of which is going into the better sector, Culang said. After buying David Brooks in October 2005 and then Marisa Christina, the company remains on the acquisition prowl for more brands in the higher-margin better business.

This story first appeared in the January 29, 2007 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

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