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.
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