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“As you know, we’re doers. When we get something, we run with it.”
This story first appeared in the March 28, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
That’s the philosophy of Vince Camuto, and it’s what has driven him over the past six years to assemble a network of 22 licensees to make and distribute apparel, accessories and fragrances for the Jessica Simpson brand.
Camuto, founder and chief executive officer of Camuto Group, the Greenwich, Conn.-based master licensee for the label, projects the business will rack up $1 billion in retail sales by the end of 2012 — an astounding volume considering some celebrity brands don’t even make it to their second birthday.
Simpson’s success can be attributed to building a solid foundation in footwear, which will generate retail sales of $250 million this year, and then expanding into key categories including handbags, jeanswear, eyewear, intimate apparel, swimwear, dresses, coats and jewelry.
Camuto said he had a good feeling about Simpson the moment he met her. Although he was initially approached to do her footwear, he was actually more interested in creating a total lifestyle brand for her.
“I met Jessica and I really wanted to help her build her brand,” said Camuto. At the time, the master license was held by Andrew Kirpalani, chairman of JS Brand Management, which had it for about 10 months. “Six or eight months down the road, her manager called and said, ‘Would you be interested in buying the master license from JS?’ I made it clear that I just didn’t want to take another shoe license. We wanted to be able to create the total lifestyle of Jessica.”
In summer 2005, Camuto purchased the master license for $15 million. “At the time, people thought I was crazy. That was a lot of money,” he said.
With Simpson, Camuto was aiming for a younger customer — between the ages of 20 and 35 — but realized there was a swing customer, since younger girls liked her, too. “I thought the demographics were good. Jessica is likeable. She’s approachable. She laughs at herself.”
Camuto recalled that he purchased the master license at the time when Simpson’s movie “The Dukes of Hazzard” was being released.
“We launched it at the World Shoe Association show, and Jessica was on tour and wasn’t able to attend,” recalled Camuto. “We did the next best thing. We hired a lot of young, Southern girls and put them in shorts and cowboy hats. And we did a promotion at WSA with music, and customers loved it.”
The brand was positioned in the same areas as Steve Madden and Guess Footwear. Camuto said at the time there was a lot of sameness in juniors, “and this offered a lot more style and perceived value.”
In the first year, all of Simpson’s cowboy boots sold out. Initially, all the footwear was produced in Brazil. It is now manufactured in China.
“We wanted to give that junior customer the most perceived value that she can possibly get for $69 and $79. That’s our expertise and it turned out to be not just juniors, but a crossover customer. Moms and their daughters would be buying it at the same time,” he said.
Camuto’s footwear expertise gave him a leg up on the competition. A co-founder of Nine West who sold the company to Jones Apparel Group in 1999 for $1.4 billion, he started Camuto Group in 2001 and began making exclusive footwear brands for Dillard’s. Even before they had their first Simpson order, Camuto built a 7,000-square-foot showroom at 1370 Avenue of the Americas in Manhattan for the Jessica Simpson Collection.
“We were in Italy, and we bought the most gorgeous antique chandeliers, huge 19th-century chairs and white marble fixtures,” he recalled. “We hadn’t even sold anything yet. It was before we even showed the line. But we believed in it. We showed the retailers we were serious about this brand. People came in and said, ‘Wow,’ and they know you’re serious and not just looking for an easy buck.”
With footwear as the foundation, Camuto visited potential licensees.
“We did handbags, coats and eyewear after establishing the footwear platform,” he said. They were all licensed in 2006 for rollouts in 2007 and beyond. Coats had a soft launch in 2006. “When you put in this kind of energy and surround it with talent, you can start a trend. All of a sudden, celebrities wanted to do their own brand, and wanted to be Jessica Simpson,” he said.
The company hit a bump with a lawsuit between Camuto and Tarrant Apparel Group, which was previously sublicensed to make Simpson’s sportswear. Tarrant claimed Simpson had failed to promote and be photographed in her Princy and JS by Jessica Simpson lines, but Camuto filed a counterclaim seeking more than $100 million for the damages caused by alleged misconduct in breaching and abandoning Tarrant’s contractual obligations. The suit was resolved in November 2007, Tarrant relinquished the license and Camuto was free to reassign it.
Camuto turned to Jones Group for jeanswear, which launched at retail last fall, and is launching sportswear with Jones for fall.
“We started with jeanswear because she’s a denim girl,” said Camuto. “It was really perfect. It seemed like a natural, rather than starting with suits.”
Camuto selected Jones for jeanswear and sportswear for several reasons: “Jones is a big company, and they have the integrity, the inner workings and the sourcing capability,” he said. “Jack Gross [ceo of jeanswear for Jones] is hungry, super, and he’s passionate. We met a lot of people, and clearly they were the best for the classification. The jeanswear got off to a great start. There was great execution, and everyone’s happy, including Jessica.”
Going forward, there are still some categories Camuto is eager to sign. Among them are home, fine jewelry, tabletop and bath and body. They are also considering extensions like bridal and bridesmaid dresses and evening shoe collections.
Another growth vehicle would be to open freestanding stores to showcase the entire Jessica Simpson Collection. Camuto said he would look for a partner who was savvy and understood the market.
International expansion represents more opportunity. The collection is already sold in 28 countries, with footwear and fragrance having the biggest penetration. Asia, Western Europe and the Middle East are the main overseas targets for next year.
Camuto said another reason why the partnership works is that Simpson is very involved in the process.
“She can be at a meeting for eight, nine hours, or she can be working two to three days in a row. Her mom [Tina Simpson] is also very talented. We have an office in California, and Tina’s at work there almost every day,” he said. Camuto said Tina and Jessica approve every piece in every line. “Jessica knows her shoes and she has quite a good following — three million followers on Twitter.”
While the Simpsons are partners in creating and approving products, they aren’t owners of the business. They receive royalties based on sales. Camuto said he has a long-term deal with the Simpsons, with options to renew.
“I think we’re a good combination. We’re not looking to exploit her. We’re not just looking for a quick buck. [The Simpsons] feel positive about us, too. It’s in our DNA to make the best product and to give the best perceived value. The customer sees Jessica Simpson with great product, day in and day out, at a great price. That’s what makes it a success. She talks about it, she wears the product,” said Camuto, who heads a team of designers that produces more than 22 million pairs of shoes annually under the Jessica Simpson, Vince Camuto, BCBGeneration, Lucky Brand Jeans and Tory Burch brands, among many others. “I see every shoe that comes out of this company.”
Would he consider taking Camuto Group — which generates $2.5 billion at retail across all its brands — public some day? “I never say no. But we’re having too much fun,” he replied.
Camuto gets kudos for his impeccable timing.
“He’s an incredible merchant, and from the perspective of footwear, he knows how to build product. His footwear is trend-right and priced appropriately,” said Andrew Jassin, managing director of Jassin Consulting. “He hit the shoe cycle and accessory cycle full stride in the middle of when it was hot, and then continued to build upon it. He makes nice shoes, and you don’t have to spend $400 to be in fashion. It’s almost brilliant.”
Stores have had good success with Jessica Simpson’s products, and attribute it to Camuto’s understanding of product and his team culture.
Liz Rodbell, executive vice president of merchandising at Lord & Taylor, said Camuto “is consistently on target with emerging trends, and the organization has a strong production arm that produces timely, quality products at very accessible price points.
“The Jessica Simpson footwear business is performing well this season, and dresses are on track for substantial growth,” she added. “We’re very pleased with the performance all around. The Jessica Simpson lines are fashion right — on trend, which is something that’s very important to a younger customer. Additionally, the collections are nicely detailed with a feminine flair at great values. Vince and the team have a clear focus on what each of their footwear brands stands for and they maintain the visions consistently. All I can say is Vince is on the trends at the right time.”