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Ready or not, Stewart furniture makes debut

By Paul Nowell

Associated Press

HIGH POINT, N.C. -- As Martha Stewart's lawyers prepared to hand over e-mail and phone records to congressional investigators, the fashion diva was in a High Point showroom giving retailers a sneak preview of her new furniture collection.

It's the latest indication Stewart has no plans to let her mounting legal problems prevent her from doing what she does best: marketing everything from paint and carpet to sofas and dining room suites.

For that, Alex Bernhardt could not be more pleased.

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"This might be the biggest thing ever to hit the furniture industry," said the chairman and chief executive officer of Lenoir, N.C.-based Bernhardt Furniture Co. His company is moving forward with plans to unveil the Martha Stewart Signature Furniture collection at the International Home Furnishings Market in October.

"I couldn't be happier," Bernhardt said late last week, at the end of a private showing of Martha Stewart pieces for about 100 furniture dealers. "I've been in this business for 37 years and this was probably the best week I've ever had."

Bernhardt announced the Stewart license last November, before the first allegations of insider trading surfaced and began to tarnish her public image.

Stewart is being investigated to determine whether she had inside information that led her to sell stock in Imclone Systems Inc. just before an announcement that federal regulators had rejected the company's application for a new colon cancer drug.

Sharon Patrick, president of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc., is very confident consumers will support the furniture collection, which includes casual and formal designs inspired by two of Stewart's homes. The furniture is one component of a three-pronged marketing program that also includes designer paint and floor coverings.

"The Martha Stewart Signature program, of which furniture is the centerpiece, is just jaw-dropping," she said. "We are selling the room. ... What is most exciting about it is how it all works together."

The new furniture collection underwent rigorous market testing, Patrick said.

"Our consumers are concentrating on the products," she said. "They know the Martha Stewart Signature line is beautiful, functional and affordable."

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Kathleen Heaney, an analyst with Brean Murray &; Company Inc. in New York, said Bernhardt Furniture has the luxury of time because the Martha Stewart collection won't be in stores until March 2003.

"I hope it will be resolved one way or the other by then, good or bad," she said. "She's got a great relationship with her fans and a large demographic base. The advertisers want to be there, but not when she's on the front page."

Bernhardt said the success of the dealer preview tells him the insider trading scandal has not hurt Stewart's appeal with her most loyal fans.

"We had more dealers come than we expected and in every case they took more space than our mandated minimum," he said. "They liked the product, identified with it and saw its potential."

Michelle Lamb, co-founder and chairman of Marketing Directions, Inc., said few details have leaked out about the Martha Stewart Collection. Lamb said the timing of the furniture line's debut could have been better.

"I think the whole situation is so regrettable," she said. "Like her or not, Martha Stewart has always driven commerce. To think about the possibility of her empire collapsing is a sad thought for me."

But Patrick, the president of Stewart's company, said the introduction of the furniture line shows the company is moving ahead.

"This is our newest child," she said. "We are here to support it every step of the way."

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