NEW YORK — From tires to bras to sportswear, and now back to intimates.

Helen McCluskey, president of the Special Markets Group of Liz Claiborne Inc., who earlier held posts at Sara Lee Corp. and Firestone Tires, has been tapped to become group president of Warnaco Group Inc.’s Intimate Apparel Division, WWD has learned.

This story first appeared in the June 17, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

McCluskey couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday, and Joseph R. Gromek, president and chief executive officer of Warnaco, was traveling in Tokyo and also unavailable for comment.

According to sources, McCluskey is expected to assume her post in July and report to Gromek. McCluskey would succeed Tom Wyatt who, as reported, resigned from his post June 1 to return to his home and family in Birmingham, Ala.

McCluskey will be faced with the challenge of repositioning Warnaco’s two mature bra brands, Olga and Warner’s, which in fiscal 2003 generated $180 million in combined worldwide revenues, down from $250 million the prior year. The entire Warnaco intimate apparel business garnered $573 million in sales in fiscal 2003 out of Warnaco’s total wholesale revenues of $1.37 billion.

McCluskey joined Claiborne in July 2001 as president, special markets and was promoted to group president in March 2003. The special markets group includes such brands as Crazy Horse, Villager, Emma James, First Issue and J.H. Collectibles that are distributed to discounters, mass chains and department stores, as well as Curve, an athleisure line launching exclusively at Sears, Roebuck & Co. this fall. According to sources, the Special Markets Group does about $400 million in revenues.

In addition to her sportswear expertise, McCluskey has a solid background in the intimate apparel field where she served as president of the Playtex Apparel division of Sara Lee Intimate Apparel from March 1999 until she joined Claiborne. She was vice president of marketing at Playtex in 1998, and earlier was vice president and general manager of the Bali mass brands unit of Sara Lee. She started her career at Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. as a member of the inventory-management training program.

Industry observers describe McCluskey as a strong strategist, with excellent financial skills and experience in the mass market and discount arena. As one executive familiar with McCluskey’s background put it, “Prior to Liz, she spent 18 years at Sara Lee Corp.’s intimate apparel units, and has held many ranks from marketing to operations and general management. This is a big deal for Warnaco, and I’m sure they are very excited.”

The marketplace is teeming with intimate apparel executives who would have liked to succeed Wyatt, but Gromek, a former president and ceo of Brooks Bros., has been described as an executive who thinks outside the box. Generally, a search of this nature would take three months or more. The accelerated decision to hire a successor underscores Gromek’s desire to curtail any interruption in the momentum of the company’s intimate apparel businesses, said sources.

From the start of the executive search, a number of industry insiders believed Gromek would buck the trend and reach out once again to another industry segment for creative talent. He did so in April, when Frank Tworecke was named group vice president of the sportswear division, heading three key units: Chaps, Calvin Klein Jeans and Calvin Klein Underwear. A former retailer, Tworecke had been president and chief operating officer of Bon-Ton Stores and, before that, president and chief operating officer of Jos. A. Banks.

In late May, Gromek told WWD he was looking for an “exceptional individual” who could take Warnaco’s intimate apparel business to a higher level of sales and operating revenues. “I am looking for someone with a diversified background,” he said. He added that Wyatt — whose résumé included executive vice president of strategic planning at Saks Inc. and chairman and ceo of Parisian Department Stores, as well as a 23-year tenure at VF Corp., where he served as president of Vanity Fair Intimates — “had a very interesting background in both the wholesale and retail businesses.”

However, at the time Gromek noted: “We are somewhat disappointed with the progress of our U.S. [intimates] business.”

Intimates is among the key apparel categories Gromek is keenly interested in developing. Sales in the intimate apparel division fell to $573 million last year from $614 million in 2002. Among the initiatives the company has recently undertaken are Lejaby Rose, a secondary foundations label with a young, feminine look, and the licensed JLo Lingerie by Jennifer Lopez collection of updated, girly lingerie.

Claiborne, which last year generated $4.2 billion in sales, reported wholesale apparel revenues for the quarter ended April 3 inched up 0.6 percent to $774.4 million, due in part to $57 million in revenues from the Juicy Couture and Enyce brands acquired last year, and a $22 million benefit from currency exchange. Offsetting these gains almost entirely was a $74 million decrease in sales, primarily attributed to a 28.8 percent falloff in the Liz Claiborne brand and an 18 percent decrease in the moderate-priced business.

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