Remaking Robert Talbott

Since taking the helm of the neckwear and shirtmaker Richard Cohen has been busy repositioning the product-driven company as an American luxury lifestyle brand

Richard Cohen has big plans for Robert Talbott. Since taking the helm of the California-based neckwear and shirtmaker last August, the former Zegna exec has been busy repositioning the product-driven company as an American luxury lifestyle brand. Cohen aims to double Talbott’s business—estimated at $50 million annually—in the next two to three years with expanded product categories, additional retail stores, improved distribution channels and a new multimedia advertising campaign—a first for the previously discreet brand. 

“Robert Talbott is a sleeping jewel—one which we are slowly awakening,” says Cohen. “We are going to do it with product first, marketing second, but, most important of all—especially in the men’s industry—is relationships.” 

And if there is one thing Cohen knows, it’s the men’s market. When he signed on as Zegna’s chief executive officer for North America in 1986, it was a family-run business, much like the Robert Talbott he inherited last year. By taking a family company like Zegna and running it like something else, Cohen transformed the Italian brand into a powerhouse men’s luxury label, growing Zegna’s U.S. business from $13 million when he joined the company to $200 million when he left 16 years later. His approach to Talbott, which up until now has been well-known for its understated classics—like the luxe Estate tie collection and Seven-Fold Tie—will likely be similar. Although ties currently represent 50 percent of Talbott’s volume, Cohen says there will be a natural decrease in that representation as the brand “gets into the tailored clothing business and higher price points.” Dress shirts will now compete in a price point of $250 and higher and have been slimmed down and shortened. Under Cohen’s guidance, Talbott has also added an outerwear collection, is expanding its women’s business and is scheduled to launch activewear as well as clothing over the next few seasons. “I’m not ready to announce anything yet, but we will end up with a complete lifestyle collection of Robert Talbott in the next 18 months,” says Cohen. 

To help convey that message, Robert Talbott will unveil a celebrity spokesperson in the next three to six months. “I really believe in that,” says Cohen, who notoriously signed Angelina Jolie as the face of the high-end women’s brand St. John Knits, where he served as CEO during an 18-month tenure. “It’s absolutely going to be bigger than a print campaign—it’s going to be a multimedia platform.” Cohen would not reveal any names but did say that “everyone will be amazed and fascinated by who it is.” The company also ran its first print ad in the February edition of Men’s Vogue. 

But perhaps nowhere are changes to Robert Talbott’s traditional format more evident than in its enhanced distribution strategy. As Cohen strives to grow the brand and accommodate an expanding market, larger accounts are becoming increasingly important to the iconic men’s label, whose business was largely built upon relationships with smaller specialty stores. 

“When I first got to Robert Talbott, someone could buy one tie—Mr. Talbott never wanted to say no to anyone,” says Cohen. “But there comes a time, 50 years later, when you still don’t want to say no but it might be a bit more cost-prohibitive.” Talbott recently started doing business with Saks Fifth Avenue, is currently the largest supplier of men’s shirts and ties to Nordstrom, and is hoping to start working with Neiman Marcus. 

The emerging strategy has fueled speculation and concern among some specialty stores—many of whom have been doing business with the company since it was founded by Robert Talbott Sr. in 1950—that new minimum-order requirements will cut them out altogether. Word has circulated that unless stores are placing orders of $10,000 or more each season, they will not be given the Robert Talbott book, which is traditionally the place from which many specialty stores make their seasonal buys. “My sales reps were telling me that unless you buy a certain number of dollars, you have to pay for the book,” said one retailer who did not want his name used. “Now, if you don’t buy a certain amount, we’re hearing you don’t get the book.” 

Cohen firmly discredits the rumors. “The minimums are significantly less than any others in the marketplace,” says Cohen. “We believe to be a Robert Talbott customer you should have no problem buying a small amount of shirts and ties.” Cohen would not disclose exactly what defines “a small amount,” but was candid about his desire to focus on partners who have the ability to increase the brand’s visibility. “As I branch out, obviously stores like Mitchells—the ones that have the capacity to help us— will become more important and rise to the top.” 

Specialty retailers have called Cohen’s new strategy everything from “informed” to “aggressive,” and many said, from a brand-building perspective, the changes made sense. “I think Richard will do anything he can to expand and grow the brand—he is a proven commodity and I hope it will go north,” says Howard Vogt, owner of Rodes in Louisville. “Ultimately, change is good—although sometimes it can be painful.” 

Changes will extend to staffing as well, where Cohen has designated longtime Talbott family friend and employee Kathy Spindler to head a new division solely dedicated to small accounts. “We will take it away from our sales force and give it to Kathy,” says Cohen. “She is going to personally look after the smaller accounts and help them to drive Robert Talbott to the best of their ability.” To better articulate Talbott’s new vision, Cohen is slowly increasing the sales staff and adding personnel to the design teams—including some high-powered professionals from St. John to work on the women’s collection, Audrey.

Cohen will also add Robert Talbott retail stores to the brand’s existing retail portfolio. Though cities have not yet been determined, Cohen says the company will focus on building a chain of stores on the East Coast. Currently, there are four Talbott stores: Carmel and Pebble Beach, Calif., New York City and Dallas. 

“All I want people to do is have some patience—there’s a huge expectation,” says Cohen. “Richard Cohen can’t do these things in five minutes.”