Retail stocks must be back in fashion. On Tuesday, the apparel chain Express became the latest retailer to get involved in a big-ticket transaction when it filed for an initial public offering for $200 million worth of stock.The documents filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission didn't specify what percentage of the company will be at stake in the IPO, but private-equity funds handled by Golden Gate Capital spent $475 million acquiring 75% of the company from its former parent, Limited Brands (LTD), in 2007. The parent company of Victoria's Secret and Bath & Body Works founded Express in 1980 as a "fast fashion" retailer, and in 2001 merged it with its Structure men's chain to form one division.

At its peak, Express had over 1,000 Express and Structure stores nationwide, selling moderately priced fashion-forward merchandise. The chain has shrunk in recent years, as the company combined the men's and women's stores into a single-store concept for both sexes. As of January, Express had 573 stores, mostly in malls.

For the nine-month period that ended Oct. 31, 2009 -- the most recent span for which figures are available -- the company had sales of $1.17 billion, down 4.7% from the same period a year prior. The filing notes that Express plans to add another 30 stores this year, and is also looking to expand internationally. It currently has only a joint venture operating four stores in the Middle East.

Just the Latest in a Flurry

The stock offering, underwritten by Bank of America/Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs, will trade under the ticker symbol EXPR.The filing doesn't state when the IPO will happen or on what exchange the stock will be traded. The proceeds are expected to go toward paying off a portion of nearly $300 million being held in two loans. Anything left over will go to general corporate funds.

This is only the latest recent transaction involving a large retailer, as the prospect of an economic recovery draws investment dollars to merchants. Within days last August, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts filed IPO papers to take discounter Dollar General (DG) public, and apparel retailer Charlotte Russe went private in a $380 million sale to investment group Advent International. Vitamin Shoppe (VSI) went public in October with an IPO worth about $195 million.

KKR completed the Dollar General IPO in November, raising over $445 million. Weeks later, teen apparel retailer rue21 (RUE) also went public in an offering that raised over $115 million. More recently, investor Ron Bukle's Yucaipa Cos. has sought a larger stake in bookstore chain Barnes & Noble (BKS) and reportedly reached out for a controlling stake in luxury department store Barneys New York.

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