NEW YORK, United States – Ann Inc., the $1.6 billion owner of the Ann Taylor and Loft women's clothing stores, is exploring a sale and has reached out to potential buyers, people with knowledge of the matter said.The New York-based company, which said in an October regulatory filing it planned to review strategic options, is working with JPMorgan Chase & Co. and has contacted potential suitors including rival retailers in recent weeks, said the people, who asked not to be named because the talks are private.Ann is talking with at least two buyout firms, two of the people said, without naming them. The company also has considered selling a stake or preferred shares to a private equity firm, known as a PIPE investment, another person said.Ann has been under pressure to explore a sale since at least August, when Engine Capital LP and Red Alder LLC said the company could fetch $50 to $55 in a buyout -- at the time, Ann was trading at less than $40 a share. Ann entered into a confidentiality agreement with Golden Gate Capital, the retailer’s biggest shareholder, last year in order to share nonpublic information. It’s unclear whether Golden Gate has plans to make an offer for the company.The San Francisco-based private equity firm reported a 9.5 percent stake in Ann last March. It paid less than $35 a share on average for its stake in Ann, regulatory filings show. Golden Gate has made other retail investments, including Eddie Bauer Holdings Inc. and Zale Corp.Golden Gate said in August that it didn’t plan to acquire the entire company and that it intended to work with the retailer “as a long-term public investor.”“We do not invest with the intention to put companies ‘in play’ or to change management or directors,” Golden Gate said in the letter to Ann last year.Representatives for Golden Gate and JPMorgan declined to comment. A spokesman for Ann didn’t respond to requests for comment.By Ed Hammond, David Welch; editors Mohammed Hadi, Elizabeth Wollman, Nick Turner.