In its recent past, Liz Claiborne has resembled nothing so much as a large and rather unwieldy oil tanker: battered and lashed by stormy seas, and not nimble enough to escape to safe harbour.

It says much that CEO Bill McComb can scent some sign of recovery in a fourth quarter which is, by his own admission, likely to result in another double-digit sales decline.

It's not that things are suddenly good with the apparel group - it's just that they are less bad and, in the circumstances, that becomes something to cheer about.

"I definitely feel a little less melancholy about what the fourth quarter could have brought," he told analysts.

Perhaps that's not surprising, coming on the back of a nine-month period in which the company recorded a mammoth loss of US$251m.

Third quarter comps were ahead of the company's own guidance, but the declines still make pretty grim reading: Juicy Couture down 13%, Lucky Brand down 16%, Kate Spade down 3%, Mexx down 13%, Liz Claiborne down 13%.

But the grounds for Captain McComb's confidence lie in early indications from the vital fourth quarter, in which Juicy Couture, Lucky Brand and Kate Spade are all displaying positive comps - but being dragged down by the poor performances of Mexx and Liz Claiborne.

The company continues to suffer, not just because of the economic downturn, but because it is paying the price for past sins, and specifically a longer-term strategy of aggressive expansion and acquisition, built on an unwieldy and high-cost sourcing and distribution model.

Much has been done to shift the ballast and make the company a more trim and seaworthy vessel, but McComb told analysts that it could be another year before Liz Claiborne's eponymous brand returns to the black, thanks to a deal with JC Penney and new, Isaac Mizrahi-designed items.

Until then, the company will have to ride out some more rough seas and pray for calmer waters.

Click here for Liz Claiborne's third quarter results.