By  on April 18, 2007

Marshal Cohen remembers an early conversation with Maurice Marciano about the name of his new jeans brand. It went back and forth like an Abbott and Costello routine.

"I asked what it was called," said Cohen, a buyer at Bloomingdale's in the early Eighties and now a senior fashion analyst for NPD Group in Port Washington, N.Y. "He kept telling me, 'Guess.' I said, 'What do you mean guess? Just tell me.' This went on for about five minutes."

The California brand that melded the American West with European flair intrigued retailers from the start.

Guess credits Bloomingdale's with giving the brand its break. Cohen mostly recalls that it was a challenge selling the Guess concept to upper management.

"I did it with great resistance. [Taking on the brand] was not universally agreed upon. I had to fight, for this brand was going to change the dynamics of how we view the contemporary market," recalled Cohen. "Guess was not willing to play by the rules of everybody else. They told us what they needed to have to sell this product." In particular, they wanted their own space and visual impact.

Cohen said he played the part of a "referee, a politician and legal adviser."

The difference with Guess was that the brand brought a point of view. It wasn't just a product. And, most notably, said Cohen, "They were the first ones to sell sex."

Initially, Guess was placed in seven of Bloomingdale's then 13 stores. "The first two weeks, nothing happened and then … it just exploded," recounted Cohen. In six months, Guess was rolled out across the chain. "I was under tremendous pressure to get the brand out to everyone. The stores without Guess were ready to kill me."

Twenty-five years later, Guess' wholesale business has taken a backseat as the company forges ahead with its own retail store concepts. For fiscal year 2006, the wholesale business accounted for just 12.3 percent, or $146.3 million, of Guess' net sales of $1.19 billion. According to the company's 2006 annual report, the brand is found in some 970 U.S. department and specialty store doors, 398 of them shop-in-shop formats. Bloomingdale's, Macy's and Dillard's are Guess' largest wholesale customers. It is still an impressive business, but half of what it once was."The wholesale business used to be over $300 million," noted analyst Holly Guthrie of Janney Montgomery Scott in Philadelphia. "I think their wholesale business will continue to grow, but modestly."

Guthrie is not concerned about the shift. "Guess is a very strong brand, whether you choose to focus on the domestic wholesale business, retail or international. All of those divisions are growing nicely."

Nancy Shachtman, vice president of the wholesale division for Guess, said the company was "very happy with its retail partnerships. We are exceeding our sales plan and are very pleased with the [wholesale] business."

Department stores that handle the brand remain devoted.

Frank Doroff, senior executive vice president and general merchandise manager for Bloomingdale's, was a buyer at Bullock's in Los Angeles when Guess first hit the market.

"I don't remember a lot [from 25 years ago], but I remember the style number 1015. It was the Marilyn three-zipper jean. We couldn't keep it in stock," said Doroff, who handled the Guess brand at Bullock's and then again later at Bloomingdale's.

"Guess has stood the test of time very well at Bloomingdale's," added Doroff. "It is in their marketing of sexy clothes that make women feel great. Who doesn't like that?"

That Guess has been constructing its own retail empire is of no concern to Macy's, said Rob Smith, divisional merchandise manager for juniors at Macy's East."It has only helped our business when they open up a store. It just reinforces the brand," he said, adding he believed Macy's sales of Guess would continue to grow.

Smith has worked with the Marciano brothers for some 20 years now. What stands out is the company's ability to stay the course. "They are just incredibly committed to their brand and what Guess is," said Smith."They have laser focus. Most junior or contemporary brands are lucky to last five to 10 years."

Through the years, Guess' marketing ability has stood out. "I remember one event at a Burdine's store in Miami when one of the Guess male models appeared," recalled Smith. "It was a huge crowd. The girls and the boys were going crazy. Guess just has this ability to make their models celebrities."As a teen, Smith himself was crazy about the brand. "I remember in high school saving up money to buy myself a pair of Guess jeans," he reminisced."Who would ever think that I would [later] know the Marcianos, work with them and be their friend."

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