By  on April 20, 1994

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Ellen Rohde, president of Marithe & Francois Girbaud, wants to get back to basics.

"There's been too much attention on marketing vehicles, fixturing and image building in the past," said Rohde, who was named president of Girbaud, a division of VF Corp. in November.

"You can't hide a bad product behind a great fixture or an event," continued Rohde, during a recent interview at Girbaud's headquarters here.

The jeans company had been faltering over the last year, and a 2.8 percent slip in operating profits in 1993 for VF's jeanswear business was attributed to Girbaud's weakness and provisions for reorganization costs.

While VF does not break out Girbaud's sales and earnings, industry estimates place the company's volume at its peak at roughly $150 million. It is by far the smallest of VF's three major jeans companies. The others are Lee and Wrangler. In 1993, the companies had combined sales of $2.1 billion.

Rohde, who had been president of Healthtex, a VF division, was largely credited with guiding it into profitability by focusing on product. She's brought the same philosophy to Girbaud -- with, she hopes, the same results.

Rohde said that Girbaud, best known for its fashion jeans styles, lacked a defined customer base. It was trying to reach consumers anywhere from 13 to 40 years old, she said. Other complications included a fashion concept that Rohde said was perceived as "too sophisticated" for American consumers, and a policy of releasing new product 36 times a year, obscuring its direction.

A new product focus is still only part of Rohde's overall agenda for Girbaud, where the main challenge is to clarify its image in the face of competitors such as Guess, which have carved a clearly defined niche.

"Guess, Lee, Wrangler and Levi -- all these companies have strong statements, and retailers know exactly who they are," said Rohde. "We want to put our stake in the ground by better defining our target consumer."

After months of researchthe company released a positioning statement to its retailers at the beginning of April. Highlights of the new strategy include:

  • Targeting product toward three distinct age groups: 13 to 17, 18 to 25 and 25 to 40.
  • Defining a company image based on innovative product, comfort and fit.
  • Introducing more value-priced merchandise.
  • Releasing new goods five times a year, rather than 36.
  • Improving women's product with lighter-weight fabrics, softer silhouettes and more feminine tops.
  • Introducing new fabrics and fabric treatments in the more fashion-forward collections.
To get the new movement going, Rohde hired five new vice presidents for the operations, human resources, retail, consumer and brand marketing divisions. They replace senior management lost last year."We're starting over with a clean slate on how to operate," she said.

The most dramatic change is the move to segment product by age group. Rohde said she felt that was long overdue."A 13-year-old's needs are vastly different from a 40-year-old's," she said. "We were trying to be young one season and old the next, which understandably confused retailers."

For the 13-to-17-year-old group, which represents 20 percent of Girbaud's business, a new line, called MFG Girbaud, will be tested with six retailers in June. If it's successful, it will be rolled out to all doors by the end of 1994.

Prices have been lowered slightly. MFG jeans wholesale for $24.50, compared with $29 for the existing Marithe & Francois Girbaud line. Logo sweatshirts wholesale for $19, compared with $24.50, and logo T-shirts are $10.

"This consumer wants the status of Girbaud, but can't afford trend product," said Rohde. "We have to have a message for value."

Value pricing is important for the 18-to-25-year-old group, which brings in from 60 to 65 percent of sales. Adding this more volume-oriented group, Girbaud is not developing a separate label, but adding value-priced items, such as a fleece sweatshirt that wholesales for about $24.50, compared with $32.50, and more novelty knits to wholesale at around $20.

Jeans will be offered at $29 wholesale, with logo T-shirts at $14 and logo sweatshirts at $24. Both of the younger groups are denim based and more mainstream and basic than in the past. The changes and additions are apparent in the line now being shown for early fall retailing.

"We have to understand how value and price work," said Rohde. "The customer is willing to pay more, but we have to make it very clear why the product is worth it."

Trend product and innovation in fabric and color are continuing, but the target customers is seen as the 25-to-40-year-old. "This group is value oriented, but is willing to pay for innovation," said Rohde.

New fabric ideas, such as Tencel, and lighter-weight denims, such as a 7-ounce, for tops and bottoms, are being added to attract consumers interested in innovations. New treatments include such ideas as one Girbaud calls "Broken Stitches," mixing shades on the same product. The number of sportswear pieces on the line has been increased. The innovative product will aim at the "A stores" of Girbaud's established accounts in department and specialty stores -- such as Macy's Herald Square and Bloomingdale's Manhattan flagship, Rohde said. The firm has also begun to work with retailers to set up in-store promotions.

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