“Our intention is to be noticed,” said Echo Design chairman and chief executive officer Steven Roberts from the brand’s spacious showroom in Midtown Manhattan.
While that might seem like a funny thing to say, coming from the head of a 90-year-old family-run brand that has played an important role in the U.S. accessories and textile market, Roberts, grandson of the founders, isn’t playing coy.
Despite having a robust business, which includes the production of Echo scarves, wraps, cold weather and technology product, outerwear, beachwear, home goods and handbags, as well as a licensing partnership with Polo Ralph Lauren and a private-label business for museums and corporations, Echo is in transition. RELATED STORY: The Creative Minds Behind Echo's Designs >>
Echo, which heralds itself as a design company as much as it does a brand known for its vibrantly colored scarves, is focusing on the future, which includes fresh advertising and marketing campaigns, the development of innovative materials and product — and even a possible signature store rollout.
All of this is part of its quest to achieve what so many brands today are striving to obtain: lifestyle-brand status. The Echo team points to American lifestyle brands such as Ralph Lauren as role models, while Roberts, a self-professed Francophile, looks to European luxury groups like LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton for inspiration.
What separates Echo from many of its American contemporaries is that it rests on a solid foundation that includes strong long-standing relationships with leading retailers such as Macy’s and Lord & Taylor, manufacturers, and institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian Institution.
“We’ve had remarkable relationships with retailers,” Roberts said. “We’ve worked with Nordstrom for over 60 years. We’ve worked with Saks and Marshall Field’s from the beginning when we opened. We really value these relationships. When you have a company that is 90 years old, you have a different perspective. We’re here to build for the long term. We don’t want to build anything in the short term that would sacrifice the long term.”
It’s the long-term heritage and values that has kept the company afloat — and thriving — despite economic recessions, wars and other turbulent periods in history.
Founded on Sept. 27, 1923, by Theresa and Edgar C. Hyman — on their wedding day — Echo began as a scarf company with $10,000 behind it, of which $5,000 came from the couple’s savings and the other half from a bank loan. The Hymans’ daughter, Dorothy Roberts, continues to be active in the company, serving as chairman at the age of 84. She is Steven’s mother. RELATED STORY: Q&A With Echo's Dorothy 'Dot' Roberts >>
According to Steven Roberts, the firm was named after his grandfather’s initials E.C.H., with the “O” deriving from the “O” in “Co.” or “company.”
“ECH,” the ceo said, invoking a guttural sound, “would have been a terrible name for a fashion company.”
Joking aside, the firm, with offices located across from the main branch of the New York Public Library, began as a scarf company, and it remained unchanged for more than 50 years.
“We were selling in the front and shipping in the back,” he said. “In 1978, there were 30 people in the company, and they had lunch together every day.”
Despite its relatively small size, Echo began to branch out in the Seventies, thanks to “The Echo of an Interesting Woman” ad campaign by Peter Rogers and a fortuitous phone call from the Smithsonian in 1974. Roberts said the museum commissioned Echo to create a replica of an 1876 World’s Fair commemorative scarf. That partnership essentially launched Echo’s custom design division, which today supplies product to brands such as Coach and Brooks Brothers and museums including the Met and the Museum of Modern Art.
In the mid-Seventies, Echo was bringing in $8 million in business, of which $1 million in sales came from the Met and $1 million came from its business with the Smithsonian, Roberts said.
In the Eighties, with 60 years of experience under its belt, Echo expanded its scope beyond scarves and began to focus on design. That ideology was spurred by its exclusive partnership with Ralph Lauren, started in 1984, to license scarves and cold weather product for its brands. Today, Echo holds the licenses for Polo, Lauren Ralph Lauren, Chaps and Lauren Jeans Co. divisions. Echo’s annual volume at retail is about $250 million, according to industry sources.
According to Lynn Roberts, Steven’s sister, who serves as Echo’s vice president of advertising and public relations, the company really hit an inflection point around that time.
“I started at Echo 37 years ago,” she said. “When I began, there were 10 employees; now the company has 150. Until 1981, everything was designed in-house. We hired our first trained artist and designer in 1981, and that designer was Meg Roberts [Steven’s wife]. Since then, our design team has grown tremendously. We have three teams of designers — one for Echo, one for Ralph Lauren and one for private label.”
In the Nineties, Echo jumped into home wares, focusing on print, pattern and color — three areas of design that remain central to the brand’s story.
Entering the home category “changed the business substantially,” the ceo said, explaining that the company realized it could use print, pattern and color to “tell stories.”
It hired a robust design team to evaluate what categories would be “most sensitive” to design, he added. Echo targeted home goods, which includes categories from wallpaper and decorative fabrics to bedding, bath, decorative pillows, tabletop, area rugs and throws.
Currently, Echo has two licenses in the home category: JLA Home for window treatments and bedding and bath, and Kravet, which carries decorative fabrics and trim, as well as wall coverings and rugs.
Following home, Echo launched swim. That business segment came along seven years ago in the form of beachwear. Echo had dabbled in beach cover-ups, a natural extension of scarves, which led to swimwear and accessories, such as beach bags and hats.
Handbags became the next stop for the brand. In 2011, it entered the highly competitive and congested marketplace with a simple idea: to create a classic yet vibrant nonleather collection priced between $78 and $128 that mixes functionality with fashion.
“We didn’t think the world needs another leather handbag from us,” Roberts said.
Jeffrey Sherman, Echo’s president and a former longtime executive with Bloomingdale’s and Hudson’s Bay, added that the consumer, especially today’s more cost-conscious shopper, is looking for fashion at a price. This has been, and continues to be, vital to Echo’s success, he noted.
“We absolutely believe that any product with print, pattern, color, fabric, value — string all of those words together — those words make a difference to our customer,” Sherman said, adding that Echo’s growth opportunities are limitless as long as it can offer a product that encompasses those five core components.
“Our borders are kind of wide,” Steven Roberts added, noting that the brand is able to jump into new categories because Echo has “earned the trust [of its consumer] over decades.”
For its 90th anniversary, Echo is stretching those boundaries a bit more with a collection of higher-priced bags and wraps. While the bags will retail for just a little more than usual, around $250, some of the wraps will sell for hundreds of dollars. One in particular will retail for $800 to $1,000 and will comprise gold-plated silk woven with cashmere.
“It surprised me that no one knew how to figure out how to do that,” Roberts said enthusiastically. “That’s the fun of what we do. The fun is to challenge ourselves or for our customer to challenge us. We are in fashion — we are supposed to surprise people. We are supposed to delight people.”
Sherman turned to Echo’s new phase, that is, transitioning into a lifestyle player. The duo questioned if it is possible to become a lifestyle brand without possessing its own retail doors. Few brands have been able to achieve that status without freestanding stores, partially because it’s difficult to showcase an entire product range, from home to swim, in a department store in-store shop.
“I wouldn’t express [our lack of retail] as holding us back,” Sherman said. “The business objectives were satisfied without doing that. The [role of] a wholesaler is to satisfy your customer and build in those growth strategies. If you want to go into retail, you need an expertise that doesn’t necessarily exist. You need a different mind-set if you go into retail. We haven’t had a driving need to do it.”
But Roberts remained philosophical, offering, “At some point we will have to have more interface with the consumer directly. The question is, how do we do that and how does the consumer want us to do that?”
Having experienced some strong feedback from its pop-up-shops in Japan, Echo is “seriously contemplating” opening its first freestanding store there, Roberts said, adding that the brand has been “working to draw up a template” for a U.S. store.
“There is a good possibility that the first Echo freestanding door will be in Japan and not in the U.S.,” he said. “We know what our store should look like if we opened one today.”
But Roberts and Sherman both underscored that what’s more important is solidifying the message behind Echo to its retail partners, as well as to its direct shoppers.
“It’s more important to spend your time building your relationships with your consumer than opening a store,” Roberts said, noting that Echo product is sold in 1,600 specialty stores and in all the top department stores.
Marketing, advertising and public relations have become vital to that quest for Echo, as it looks to highlight its wide array of products, which now include technology-inspired goods such as gloves that can be used with touchscreens and miniature stereo speakers that work via Bluetooth for the beach.
As a result, the firm is focusing on promoting its e-commerce site and working with bloggers, editors and retail partners to communicate its brand values and design heritage.
“We love our history. We embrace it every day,” the ceo said. “We look back to celebrate and to learn to go forward.”
With that mantra in mind, Echo p.r. chief Lynn Roberts walks a tightrope, bringing that past to light without overburdening the consumer with too many details of its rich heritage.
By remaining fresh and modern through viral campaigns and innovative product, Echo hopes it can remain front-of-mind to younger consumers.
“I think we’re building a much stronger lifestyle approach and enhancing our consumers’ lives,” she offered. “The Web site becomes our store, and we have to merchandise all our products together there. We’re focusing on that.”
While a slew of freestanding stores might not be in Echo’s immediate future, Sherman pointed to a hefty business expansion.
“What’s on our agenda is a very expanded presence in the marketplace, expanded in terms of whom we do business with and expanded in product categories,” he said. “The agenda is to make it bigger, make it better, make it more dominant.”
While working with new business partners may be a given, the question might be what else can Echo produce given its already extensive product line.
“You know,” Steven Roberts said with a smirk, “anything that has a surface.”
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