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Within Belk’s sprawling Charlotte, N.C., headquarters, in the 10,000-square-foot space housing the corporation’s $1 billion private brand operation, John Thomas talks about taking the business to the next level.

This story first appeared in the March 18, 2013 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“We’ve put on a ton of growth in private brands in the last four years,” said Thomas, executive vice president of private brands, who oversees a team of 90 apparel, textile, technical and package designers, product managers and logistics personnel. “We really got good at offering value and opening price points. We knew we were doing a great job in traditional, but our customer has been asking for more modern and contemporary styles. For us, the next learning curve is how to provide great fashion.”

Yet Belk takes a big step forward in its fashion evolution with this month’s rollout of an exclusive Cynthia Cynthia Rowley collection to 149 Belk doors and belk.com, representing close to half the chain. Apparel, handbags, jewelry, scarves, accessories and small leather goods, priced $80 to $200, are all part of the package, which will be displayed mainly in 500- to 700-square-foot shops. Some shops, though, could be as large as 2,000 square feet. Shoes will be added in fall 2013. Though Rowley is not from the South, her aesthetic could be, considering the look is feminine and dominated by colors, prints and florals.

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Thomas, who exhibits a cool, casual and animated style, gets even more animated when talking product. “Cynthia Cynthia Rowley is our first foray into true contemporary. Customers are not going to look at this as a private brand,” he said, adding after just two weeks of selling Cynthia Cynthia Rowley, all is well.

“Having a true designer work with us gives us authenticity. She really worked with us to understand the importance of colors and prints,” and those particularly suited for Belk’s Southern lifestyle. “She’s done some amazing dresses and handbags and jewelry. We are her single largest partnership. She’s a very engaged business partner.”

It also gives Belk some cred for going out in the market and securing other designer exclusives. Unlike some of its larger competitors, Belk is a neophyte when it comes to collaborating with marquee-name designers to create exclusive lines. And because of its smaller scale, the $3.68 billion Belk probably couldn’t pull off a pact on the scale of Macy’s and Tommy Hilfiger. Nevertheless, said Thomas, “We are working on a deal in the contemporary space.” He declined to disclose who that partner might be.

To further a reputation for homegrown fashion that’s updated, Belk signed quarterback Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers for an exclusive men’s collection of suits, sport coats, ties and sportswear called Made Cam Newton. It will bear the quarterback’s signature; offer fashion-forward, versatile, professional apparel for men, and have a young vibe with mixing and matching options. Made Cam Newton will be carried in 133 stores and on belk.com, and by next fall, the collection will add accessories and shoes.

“We decided there was a significant opportunity in modern, really good quality men’s sportswear that’s Southern-specific with a huge emphasis on color, fabric, quality textiles. Cam is a young guy who really loves fashion and has no airs that he is a designer.” It’s about looking cool, put together, without being flashy. “He’s big into family, which ties into the values of this company.”

While most of Belk’s private-brand growth occurred in the past four years, the decision to pump up the business goes back about a decade, Thomas explained, when it represented just 3 or 4 percent of Belk’s total volume, and other companies such as Macy’s and Kohl’s were building their stables of private and exclusive labels. Belk’s private-brand business has since ballooned to represent close to 30 percent of the company’s total volume, with such key labels as Biltmore For Your Home, which began in 2006 through a licensing agreement with the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C. It’s Belk’s biggest home brand, and it has expanded to Biltmore Bath & Body, the store’s first private-label personal care line. Additional key home businesses include Home Accents and Cooks Tools.

There’s also J Khaki, the largest in kids, and Red Camel, Belk’s oldest label dating back to 1931, found in juniors, young men’s, girls and boys. Two key private brands in the traditional zone are Kim Rogers and Saddlebred. Two new private-brand labels made their debuts in 2011 — the ND Weekend line of women’s casual and modern sportswear and Ocean & Coast, a modern take on a men’s relaxed coastal resort business. Jewelry and accessories under the Red Camel label were also introduced that year.

Last year, Black Brown 1826, a collection of modern men’s sportswear offered in partnership with designer Joseph Abboud and Lord & Taylor, started selling exclusively in the South at Belk.

Private brands touch every category of business at Belk, and the number of in-house designers has grown from three to more than 20 in the past four or five years. Belk has also become more efficient and faster, able to design, develop and roll out a seasonal collection in four to six months. In addition, the margins are “much” higher than the company as a whole, Thomas said. With the introduction of Made Cam Newton and Cynthia Cynthia Rowley, the portfolio extends to 23 labels.

“The scale and scope of this, the creativity, and the brand-building, is what I really love,” said Thomas, a 12-year veteran of Belk who was executive vice president and general merchandise manager of feminine apparel for Belk before shifting to heading up private brands.

“Internally, we could push that number up, but it would come at the cost of national brands. We want to have a good balance of private brands, exclusive brands and national brands.”

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