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NEW YORK — LF USA is building a contemporary portfolio and has now turned to Vena Cava, the American label by Lisa Mayock and Sophie Buhai, to lead the way.

This story first appeared in the April 9, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The U.S. subsidiary of Hong Kong-based Li & Fung Limited has inked a long-term licensing and design agreement with Vena Cava. Mayock and Buhai, who started their search for a partner last year, will continue to creatively spearhead their eight-year old label with access to Li & Fung’s extensive resources and retail contacts worldwide.

“We have been beginning to build a portfolio of better and more contemporary designers here,” LF USA president Rick Darling told WWD. “What really attracted us to [Mayock and Buhai] is their very specific understanding of a new customer that is emerging, that I think is very important to all of us in the industry right now.”

LF USA is looking to the Los Angeles natives to help tap further into the hot contemporary category and the desirable 18- to 35-year-old demographic.

“We are now pretty regularly looking to attract the right kind of talent that can elevate the company, and take it to the next step, and they are probably positioned to do that with this Millennial customer like no one else,” he added.

Vena Cava will be positioned in LF USA’s women’s apparel group alongside brands like Rachel Zoe, Sofia Vergara, Daisy Fuentes, Ellen Tracy and Keds Apparel.

Darling didn’t disclose specifics of the arrangement, but stressed that it wasn’t an acquisition. Instead, the deal involves a master license and a partnership with the designers, who will work closely with LF USA to expand with more categories and grow the distribution of their brand.

Sitting in their Broome Street showroom last week, Buhai and Mayock said that they had been searching for a suitable partner for over a year after realizing they needed support to maintain and grow the business.

“What we loved about Li & Fung when we first met with them is that they felt strongly about giving us total creative control, even with some really far-out branding ideas,” Buhai said. “We do ‘zines, dinner parties, videos and online garage sales, and they loved those kinds of ideas and were willing to let us do what we thought was right for the brand.”

Mayock added, “They understand we have something to offer — not just design, but our perspective as designers as well, the branding and everywhere we go from there.”

The two started their line in 2004 with the concept of creating styles that women could pass on to future generations, and inspirations ranging from vintage movies to travel and flea market finds. At its height, Vena Cava was sold in 80 to 100 stores, but, like many of their designer peers, Mayock and Buhai found themselves challenged to proceed without additional support.

The duo designed a spring 2012 collection, but decided not to produce and deliver it to stores, prompting speculation that the label was about to shutter, which Buhai and Mayock denied.

“We just hit a point where we realized that in order to take [Vena Cava] where we wanted to take it in terms of our vision, we had to get some investment help,” Buhai said. “We were in no way going to shut down Vena Cava, but realized that to keep running things, we needed to get some real support behind us. So we decided to take a little bit of time. We were just regrouping.”

For fall, which the duo quietly presented to buyers in their showroom, they were inspired by neo-Noir movies from the Seventies, with strong shoulders and small waists, and dramatic color combinations, including studded tuxedos, soft dresses in original prints and trenchcoats.

Barneys New York will be the main retailer to carry the label for fall, and has picked up the line for its Madison Avenue flagship, the Soho And Beverly Hills units, as well as

With LF USA behind them, there are many new areas the two are planning to explore.

“We now have all the production, sourcing and technical help that we could ever dream about,” Mayock said. “We have so many ideas we tried to execute in the past that just haven’t worked because we didn’t have those kind of resources and couldn’t figure out the best way to make something actually happen.”

Further down the line, Buhai added, “We have ideas for homeware and for men’s wear. We are interested in doing more print publications, little movies and eventually one day we’d like to have our own stores.”

Darling added that there could also be diffusion possibilities.

Perhaps even more key for Li & Fung is the designers’ input beyond their own label.

“There is great interest on our part, and the industry’s part, on identifying this 18- to 35-year-old customer and really understanding what makes them tick,” he said. “I think Sophie and Lisa are that customer, and of all the people that we have met, they have a clear vision of how to reach their customer, both male and female — how they buy, how they think and how you need to talk to them.

“Our plans with Sophie and Lisa will be to lead LF USA’s charge to go after that customer,” he added. “That will involve product extensions, footwear, accessories, jewelry, cold weather and home product. We think there is an ability to use them to drive that entire process to the customer. We look to Sophie and Lisa as our experts now. They will, of course, concentrate on their own line but we see their role here much broader than the Vena Cava line.”

Vena Cava is just one of several such contemporary deals in the pipelines. “Across the various businesses, we are starting to build out the portfolio, and Vena Cava fits right into it,” he said.

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