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NEW YORK — Chuck Nesbit, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the fast-growing Chico’s FAS, has a lot on his plate this year.

The former Sara Lee executive who spearheaded the development of megabrands Hanes Her Way, Barely There, Just My Size and Wonderbra, is helping put the Soma by Chico’s brand on the lingerie map with an aggressive plan to market the name on a new Web site and open an additional 36 Soma by Chico’s stores by the end of 2006. The new lingerie units, which will include in-store shops, will total 55 by year’s end. The company is planning to open more Soma locations in 2007 and 2008, said Nesbit.

“The [Soma] stores are averaging $1 million a store their first year. I think that’s pretty impressive,” said Nesbit, noting the first 10 freestanding Soma by Chico’s intimate apparel stores opened in August 2004 in seven top-performing areas: Dallas; Houston; Birmingham, Ala.; Scottsdale, Ariz.; Fort Myers and Sarasota, Fla., and several units in Atlanta.

The newest target markets for the $1.4 billion parent’s lingerie spin-off are New Jersey and Connecticut.

“We’ll be opening two to three Soma stores in New Jersey this fall and one in Danbury, Conn.,” Nesbit said. “Overall, we’ve been very pleased with Soma and the commitment to roll out more stores since we opened with 10 stores in fall ’04, while refining the business model. We’ll be testing new formats in a smaller store footprint. Today, it’s all about location.”

Nesbit said the average selling space at a Soma unit is between 2,200 and 2,300 square feet. The new units will be under 1,500 square feet, some of which will be a “boutique concept attached to a Chico’s store. We’ll probably have eight of these in ’06.”

However, he said, “A lot is predicated on getting the right retail space. We only want the good locations, of course. We want premium, high-traffic locations. But there are a lot of logistical challenges such as keeping up with product, supplying the demand and managing the product assortments a little less aggressively now that we have a base of product. We are in year two, so we are trying a lot of new things to see what customers would buy. We now have a clear picture of what she likes and is buying.”

This story first appeared in the May 22, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Among the key items the Soma by Chico’s customer is buying are fashion bras in the full-figure range.

“The demand has just been incredible and we have obviously expanded our assortments of DDD cup sizes,” he said.

He noted “other big news” is a burgeoning e-commerce business.

“The [Soma] results have been phenomenal on our chicos.com Web site,” he said. “We see a huge potential on the e-commerce side for Soma by Chico’s and we are in the process of developing a Web site for Soma which we hope to have up by the holiday season.”

He predicted the lingerie Web site will become a “huge piece of business,” noting that it will feature “a high level of service and shopping aids for customers to interact with us.”

The firm, which also operates 503 Chico’s stores, 200 White House|Black Market units and about 11 Fitigue activewear boutiques, purchased a 50,000-square foot building in Winder, Ga., this year to accommodate its growing e-commerce business, he said.

Nesbit noted that Chico’s is looking at activewear as an area of potential growth that will attract new customers. In February, the company acquired Fitigues, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based line of activewear in European luxury fabrics and relaxed silhouettes, and purchased a 15 percent stake in lucy.com last fall. Lucy.com is an activewear e-commerce business.

“Lucy.com is venture capital-owned and is targeted to an affluent Baby Boomer and Gen-X customer,” said Nesbit. “We sell casual activewear within Soma, but it hasn’t been a strong emphasis for us yet. However, we’ve had some nice business and Chico’s also has some spa-inspired activewear items which have done nicely.”

Meanwhile, Nesbit, a 20-year veteran of Sara Lee Corp., where he served as corporate vice president and chief supply chain officer for Sara Lee’s U.S. and Canada apparel operations, and president and chief executive officer of Sara Lee Intimate Apparel, will be receiving one of the innerwear industry’s highest honors: the 2006 HUG award.

The annual HUG award, an acronym for Help Us Give, is bestowed in recognition of community service and contributions to the fashion industries.

“Eric Wiseman will introduce me at the Nov. 1 event,” Nesbit said. “He was my friendly competitor when I was at Sara Lee and he was at VF Intimates. Now, we do a little bit of business together.”

Wiseman is president and chief operating officer of VF Corp.