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2009: The Apparel Top 50

It's fair to say that no company went untouched during the past year of sweeping changes and economic crises. Still, sudden collapse of the market in fall 2008 did not impact all equally.

Some, already struggling, were driven to declare bankruptcy and in some cases completely remove their shingles: Mervyn's, Filene's Basement, S&K Famous Brands and Gottschalks are first to come to mind. Yet others continued to rack up sales and profits despite the collective boom of wallets shutting. The Buckle, for example, shows no signs of letting up.

In short, each apparel company on 
the Top 50 list has its own story to tell, but common themes will out: App
arel companies across the board are working diligently to generate strong cash flow, pay down debt by tightly managing inventory and expenditures and reduce overall company cost structure. Topping the list of priorities is a focus on streamlining brands while improving merchandise assortments and allocation.

Apparel companies continue to close under-performing stores and store concepts - just last month, Abercrombie & Fitch announced plans to shutter its Ruehl stores - while plunging real estate and store closings in many highly populated regions of the country have opened up new possibilities for retailers looking to expand.

Collectively, retailers are expected to open 4,000 stores in the United States this year and close 3,600 (according to the CoStar Group), while a heady mix of plans for international expansion include store openings across Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

E-commerce has been a virtually universal bright spot of growth and excitement, with many companies experiencing triple-digit sales increases. This will continue to be a focus, along with finding new and interesting ways to engage the consumer. One observation on this subject: More companies than ever - and not just the youth-oriented brands - are going social. Even Perry Ellis wants to be on your Facebook page.

Starting with True Religion, Apparel's Top 50 report explores some of the strategies that landed each on the list.

#1 True Religion

Topping Apparel's list for the second year in a row, this premium denim brand continues to find favor with its customers, who even in this tough economy are willing to shell out big bucks for the company's distinctive stylings. The average sales prices in the company's full-price retail stores in 2008? Those would be $207 (women's products) $202 (men's products) and $106 (kid's products), with some of its best sellers made with the Super Big-T stitch, a distinctive thread-stitch process patented by the company in 2007. Other highlights of 2008 are the newly introduced jean collections "XXX" and "Stealth," while "Disco" received a makeover with gold crystals. True Religion's Consumer Direct segment generated net sales of $75.3 million, or 27.9 percent of total net sales. At the end of 2008 the company operated 42 branded retail stores, and expects to add 25 this year.

#2 The Buckle

Growing from 222 stores in 1999 to 387 stores in 39 states at the end of 2008, this retailer of casual apparel, based in ...wait for it ...Kearney, Nebraska, has thrived in a retail environment dominated by much larger, vertical operations. The Buckle's successful formula includes selling a combination of national brands such as Big Star, MEK, Affliction, Sinful, Lucky Brand Dungarees, Silver, Hurley, Billabong, Fossil, Quiksilver/Roxy, Miss Me, 7 Diamonds, OBEY and Ed Hardy, as well as its own private label, BKE, which comprised 28 percent of its sales in 2008. Known for extreme personalized attention to its customers, The Buckle educates each salesperson on product details and how to create a complete look for the customer by helping each individual find the best fit and presenting merchandise as coordinating outfits. The company reported earnings up 44 percent in the first quarter 2009.

Get the full list here.

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