Economy bounces brands from Nordstrom to Macy's, Kohl's

NEW YORK -- Some of fashion's best-known names are playing musical chairs.

Faced with a consolidating department store industry and eroding sales, some labels are cutting ties with retailers that sold their clothing and betting their future with one chain.

Liz Claiborne Inc.'s announcement last month that it's moving its namesake line to J.C.Penney Co. from Macy's Inc. and other stores follows similar moves by other major brands like Tommy Hilfiger and Dana Buchman.

"You need some sort of chart ... with retailers and brands, where you are using erasable ink," said Michael Stone, CEO of The Beanstalk Group, a brand consultant. "They are moving around so much."

The brand-hopping can confuse shoppers who can't find their favorite label. But in some cases it means shoppers will be able to get a taste of designer names that only two years ago were far from their grasp.

In the short term, such confusion may hurt the brand, Stone said. But in the long run, the label "settles into its new identity" and becomes a powerful tool for the retailer to attract shoppers.

Some brands, like Liz Claiborne, had been the anchors at department stores for years but have hit hard times. Trading mass distribution for better exposure at one store could help them revive their labels. Brands also benefit by getting more prominent placement in advertising and increased real estate at the chain.

That's what happened when Macy's became the exclusive retailer of Tommy Hilfiger women's and men's sportswear; the exclusive partnership expanded to children's wear this past spring. Macy's has built Hilfiger's presence in women's and men's sportswear to almost 600 stores from about 400 before the tie-up, according to Jim Sluzewski, Macy's spokesman, citing strong sales.

Tommy Hilfiger fragrance, home furnishings, accessories and other products are still being sold at other stores as well as Macy's. The clothing also is sold at the brand's own stores and website.

The deals ease what had become increasingly adversarial relationships with stores. Retailers have made more financial demands to help pay for heavy markdowns as consumer spending dropped dramatically.

The exclusive arrangements more tightly intertwine the fates of retailers and the brands they sell.

Dana Buchman, known for career clothes with touches of animal prints that had been a mainstay at upscale department stores like Saks Fifth Avenue, has now been reinvented for more frugal shoppers at midbrow retailer Kohl's Corp.

Meanwhile, Ellen Tracy's stylish outfits fell out of favor for many executive women who now shun conservative outfits and are buying items from trendier designers. But its new owner is seeking new life exclusively at Macy's, starting next spring, and has a new licensee making the clothes after another licensee was forced into bankruptcy by creditors this summer.

The reshuffling is leaving these brands' loyal shoppers feeling a bit rejected.

Beth Hazlett, an information media executive from Pittsburgh, wasn't able to find her favorite labels -- Dana Buchman and Ellen Tracy -- last year at Saks and Nordstrom.

"I feel like they abandoned me in some way," Hazlett said. "I liked the way they fit and cut."

The price cuts that some of the deals entail are pretty drastic. Dana Buchman separates cost anywhere from $12 to $116 at Kohl's; previously, pants suits could go for as much as $600. Jackets under a revamped Ellen Tracy will cost anywhere from $99 to $149 when it's launched in 100 Macy's stores and online in March. That's a big step down from a range of $400 to $600 that was typical for the brand.

But don't expect Hazlett to follow Dana Buchman to Kohl's.

"I've never been to Kohl's," she said. "And I would not go to Kohl's."