By  on June 18, 2007

Inside Talbots INC.'S spacious and serene headquarters, the sense is that the winds of fashion are shifting in the right direction.

"There is a move away from that more 'contemporized' look and back to a clean all-American sportswear look that's modern and not real trendy. That should be great for us," said Harold Bosworth, Talbots' executive vice president and chief merchandising officer. "Talbots is for the customer who is young at heart, but doesn't want to look like a trend-setting 25- or 30-year-old."

The fashion chain is coming off a challenging spring marked by soft sales in casual merchandise, but it is anticipating momentum this fall. It's a season for offering classics in a "crisp, modern way, with less contemporary styling," Bosworth said.

Misses' sportswear has been awash with embellishments, detailing, and washed out and pigment-dyed garments, but is becoming "cleaned up, less embellished, less styled and less distressed," Bosworth said. "We've seen the trend on the runways, on the streets of Paris, in fashion publications, and we see our customer gravitating to clean, simple, but elegant styles."

The Talbots team has charted a fall program that will be marked by men's wear-inspired clean, pinstripe or tweed separates offset by a singular romantic flourish or detail; layering with chunky cardigans, vests, tunics or lightweight knit tops; dresses, with an emphasis on crepe and simplicity; the color gray as a backdrop for jewel tones and subdued metallics, and classic American sportswear such as cuffed wide-leg trousers in lightweight wool gabardine, velvet blazers and short trenches. In shoes, kiltie loafers, platform pumps in a men's wear plaid and penny loafer slingbacks are key.

Bosworth describes the presentation as "colorful, feminine, wear-now and emotional." Fall goods begin to appear in August, and Labor Day week marks the real onset of the season. Nine months of work is required to get products in the stores, including an initial 13-week stretch from concept previews to final product recaps and walk-throughs, where goods hanging on grids are scrutinized before the merchandise is sent off to be manufactured.

As much as anybody in the organization, Bosworth must know the Talbots customer and the trends in fashion. He's responsible for merchandising, product development and design for Talbots' women's businesses in the stores, catalogue and online. In addition, he oversees merchandise planning and distribution.He joined Talbots in 1997 as senior vice president and general manager for Talbots Kids, and later Talbots Mens, which he launched. He was promoted to his current position in January 2003.

Before Talbots, Bosworth served as senior vice president of retail for men's luxury brand Ermenegildo Zegna. Prior to Zegna, he was senior vice president, and general merchandise manager at the former I. Magnin/Bullock's Wilshire.

He is also the father of actress Kate Bosworth. "I always tried to teach her that the more classic she was, the less money she would spend on clothes and the more she could intermix things. The trendier she got, the more money she would have to spend updating her wardrobe. If you look at her sense of style, it's pretty timeless, although she would never want me to know that. She's blessed with having a wonderful feel for fashion. I hope she got a little from me and her grandfather," who was a president of the former Jordan Marsh in Florida.

Bosworth depicts Talbots as having a clear mission that entails perpetual challenge, like striking a balance between getting too safe or frumpy, or too trendy and fashion-forward. The brand must stay true to the classics and constantly find ways to update them. "It's just as easy to play it safe as it is to chase trends," Bosworth said. "I get just as many comments from customers that we're becoming too fashionable as I do saying we're not becoming fashionable enough. Maybe that means we are hitting the middle."

Maintaining customer loyalty in an era of cross-shopping and increased competition isn't easy. While Talbots customers are about as loyal as they come, Bosworth believes loyalty is a precious commodity that's getting harder to maintain. The post-Baby Boomer generation could stick with one brand forever, he said. "With Baby Boomers, the level of loyalty is a little different. They have their favorite brands, but tend to cross shop everywhere — Talbots, Saks, Target, Bloomingdale's, Chico's, J. Crew. Plenty of 50-year-old women shop Zara and H&M today. That has been a major change over a 10-year period. You really have to create a real niche. It's a completely different playing field."Talbots also seeks to provide apparel and accessories that meet different lifestyles, from the professional woman to the soccer mom, with career and casual offerings, and develop a cohesive collection as if it's been conceived by one buyer, or one set of eyes. "We try to blend all the facets of her lifestyle to very versatile clothing, like taking a great Armani-inspired navy blazer over a pair of washed striated jeans," he said.

Talbots' "modern classics" target women aged 35 to 60, with the late 40s to 50 as the sweet spot. "We try to really create product that hits both ends of the age demographic," Bosworth said.

More often than not, he said, the Talbots presentation resonates with shoppers. However he acknowledged that for spring, sales of casual goods were off. "We didn't come up with the newness, and I believe we didn't react quick enough to this more cleaned up, crisp, uptown look," though Talbots' refined career sportswear benefited during the spring. "Plus, we came off really two and a half years of strong casual business. We just didn't comp it. I don't think the product was bad, but I feel very good about our casual assortments for fall. They are colorful, look better and are less moderate."

Perhaps Talbots' biggest slump came in 1997, leading to a major shake-up on the merchandise team. For a long time prior, Talbots was able to succeed by repeating items for more than one season, until customers began demanding more newness. "I do believe strongly that the effort to start to change and update at that time point was probably the right thing to do. We probably executed too fast and too dramatically and did a poor job communicating it to the customer. Moving on from old traditional classics was the right thing to do, but the brand went too far."

Talbots adjusted the assortment — and its staff — and, after 1997, enjoyed three of its most successful years. "You have to have discipline and not be afraid to move the product forward," Bosworth said.

That's even true for Talbots' signature items: classic navy jackets in wool blends, matte jersey or synthetics with high-tech hands, as well as quilted jackets, little black dresses, white blouses, gray flannel slacks, brown suede loafers and black pumps. "It's how you modernize them and make them look new," Bosworth said.Talbots may never be a big presence on the red carpet. Nevertheless, Bosworth thinks it could be time to elevate the profile. "We are pretty quiet, and maybe if we trump it up, more people will understand what we are doing. We've worked in the last four to five years to modernize the product. One of Talbots' great successes is with the quality we offer for the prices we charge. We've got Italian wool jackets made in Japan priced $228. The same jacket could be found in bridge or designer lines priced twice or three times as much. I know, because I worked in the luxury sector."

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