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J. Crew has finally decided to leap into the public market, and despite fears of an overall consumer slowdown, the long-awaited deal may be the hottest retail IPO of the year.

The specialty apparel chain run by Mickey Drexler, whose fashion genius gave rise to the


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empire, plans to sell 18.8 million shares at an estimated price of $15 to $17 a share, according to a regulatory filing earlier this week.

"J. Crew shares will create a lot of buzz on Wall Street because of their blowout sales numbers and the presence of Mickey Drexler," says Stephen Monticelli, president of hedge fund Mosaic Investments. "Current market conditions could be a hindrance. It won't get the valuation it could get if investors were more ebullient, but this is one of those IPOs that will do well, even in a down market."

For its first quarter, J. Crew posted a 36% jump in same-store sales, contrasting sharply with Gap, where sales have been in a tailspin for years in Drexler's absence. Despite having suffered losses in four of the past five years, J. Crew is now profitable. Its first-quarter operating income increased by $5 million to $28 million, and its net income jumped 60% to $8 million from $5 million a year earlier. Total sales for the period rose 15% to $167 million.

The move to the public market could mark the beginning of the end of a successful turnaround brought about by Texas Pacific Group, the private-equity firm that bought a controlling stake in J. Crew in 1997. The firm first filed to bring the chain public back in August, but it later delayed action without explanation.

"Texas Pacific is happy with the performance of

Burger King


," says Richard Peterson, research analyst with Thomson First Call, referring to the fast-food chain that the firm helped bring public in May. "With retail sales still doing pretty well despite high oil prices and rising interest rates, they're taking the opportunity to go ahead with this."

Burger King closed Wednesday at $17.37, above its initial offering price of $17 a share. The offering was not quite the whopper that investors hoped for after successful IPOs from restaurant chains like

Chipotle Mexican Grill

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. But the shares have exceeded the average performance for IPOs in 2006, which comes to a decline of about 1%, according to Peterson.

Meanwhile, Wednesday's inaugural performance by

VeraSun Energy

( VSE), which added about 23% for the day, heartened investors about the market's appetite for new offerings after the much-hyped


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deal went south quickly.

"People are wondering if maybe this is a sign of some sort of renewal," says Peterson. "J. Crew certainly has the potential of being one of the big retail offerings of the year."

J. Crew has applied to list its shares on the

New York Stock Exchange

under ticker symbol "JCG." Proceeds of the offering have been pegged to buy back its outstanding preferred shares. The company, which sells upscale casual clothing in about 200 stores and through catalogs and its Web site, plans to raise about $300 million. Goldman Sachs and Bear Stearns are underwriting the offering.

The company is a competitive threat in the specialty apparel space that includes Gap,




Abercrombie & Fitch

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) and

American Eagle Outfitters

( AEOS). Its chief competitor as a cataloger is Land's End, which is owned by

Sears Holdings



J. Crew will hit the road promoting itself tomorrow. It will arrive in New York City next Wednesday, and market sources are expecting the shares to price the following Tuesday.

"People have been waiting a long time for this one," says Monticelli.