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Expanding the Designer Business

Nordstrom's women's businesses are headed by two veterans of the store.

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SEATTLE — Nordstrom’s women’s businesses are headed by two veterans of the store: Loretta Soffe, executive vice president and general merchandise manager, who has been with the retailer for 22 years and handles all women’s, excluding designer, and Jennifer Wheeler, vice president of designer apparel, who has been with the store for 23 years.

Last September, Soffe became gmm over women’s, triggering a streamlining of the team down to one from five. “The structure enables us to make quicker fashion decisions more in line with a total women’s strategy,” Soffe said. “Casual and contemporary are working really well. Wear-to-work and career are lacking. The challenge is to get the existing mix correct.”

Departments are segmented by lifestyle, for style, fit and price, rather than by brand. These include Brass Plum in junior, and t.b.d. and Savvy in contemporary. Now the Nordstrom team is working to more sharply define the departments to make it easier for customers to shop.

Last year, Soffe put together a new organization the company describes as a national leadership structure, with decentralized buyers that enable Nordstrom stores to appeal to local tastes. The new organizational structure includes nine national merchandise managers and two corporate merchandise managers and buyers who report to them from around the country.

“Gold Range is on our radar,” Soffe said, with such brands as Max Mara generally priced between bridge and designer. But Nordstrom continues to see its main opportunities in the designer, career, casual and contemporary sectors.

In designer, Wheeler oversees a national buying structure that’s not decentralized.

While Nordstrom reports that its overall women’s business accounts for about a third of total sales, it does not break out designer sales. The company acknowledges designer is a small piece of the business, but one it considers to be extremely important, a top-performing category and ripe for growth. Designer collections have been sold since the late Seventies.

Forty-eight of Nordstrom’s 99 stores carry some designer merchandise, but the offering is not uniform. The goal is to have a comprehensive offering in about 25 stores that encompasses shoes, accessories and ready-to-wear from established designers.

The designer business is segmented into three departments: via C, collectors and couture. “Via C,” launched in 1999, spotlights designers Nordstrom considers “rising stars” and is in 45 doors. Via C has featured Tory Burch since fall ’05; Phillip Lim since holiday ’05, Rachel Roy and Basso & Brooke, a duo out of London, since spring ’06, and Basso & Brooke. “It’s really like a boutique within our store,” Wheeler said.

Collectors departments are in 48 stores. They feature European and American designers including Burberry, Dolce & Gabbana, Armani, Chloé, Roberto Cavalli, Missoni and Michael Kors. Recent additions to the mix are Dries van Noten, Martin Grant and Rick Owens; Jil Sander will start selling at three stores in the fall.

Blumarine is also in this department, but started in via C. Nordstrom says it is the first big-box fashion specialty store to carry Blumarine in a major way.

Full couture departments, currently in 11 doors, offer ready-to-wear, including gowns from Oscar de la Renta, Valentino, Yves Saint Laurent, Lanvin, Chanel, Badgley Mischka and Vera Wang. Nina Ricci is being added to four stores and Givenchy to one. There is a Chanel boutique in the Seattle flagship and two more are being added — to the Topanga and Mall of America branches. Some “couture” labels are sold in 19 additional doors.

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