View Slideshow

The Talbots Inc. has dug deep into its past to create a better future.

This story first appeared in the July 30, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

And it all begins Aug. 10, when a reinvented collection — which arrives after a year of corporate restaffing, widespread streamlining and rethinking the business — begins flowing into the company’s stores.

The classic looks the 61-year-old Hingham, Mass.-based chain has been known for are still present, but everything has been updated or, as officials prefer to say, “reinvigorated,” and in very apparent ways. The houndstooth patterns are blown up, jackets are more fitted and pants fit lower for a younger, sexier appeal. The twinsets are redefined with wraps. The flats have been jazzed up with prints and suedes, and the accessories have a richer look, with jewel tones, bigger brooches and bangles and a wealth of scarves.

Overall, it’s a more sophisticated look, replete with color, particularly the signature red that covers roughly 15 percent of the fall product.

Even the logo has been modernized to reflect the transformation.

“This really is a relaunch of a venerable brand,” said Trudy F. Sullivan, Talbots chief executive officer and president, during an interview at the retailer’s New York creative studio on Tuesday. “Dowdy is done. It’s wiped out.”

Sullivan explained that the brand DNA remains intact. “It’s not like we are trying to change what we’ve been. It’s about being reinvigorated. We are thrilled to be a Boomer brand. We’re not trying to go contemporary.”

“The most important thing to say about the brand is that it’s ageless and timeless,” added Michael Smaldone, chief creative officer. “That is the true platform we are working on.”

As far as the logo, it’s bolder, spelled out in capitalized letters, with a graceful, scripted “Established 1947” written right underneath for contrast. Previously, the logo was a scripted signature inside an oval.

This fall-holiday season is pivotal for Talbots, and a crucial test for the management team. At the $2.2 billion chain, modernizing the classics involved creating a “war room” stuffed with catalogues going back as far as 1957. The team used the archive to examine the retailer’s “iconics,” such as tweeds, houndstooths, duffle coats, ballet flats, stadium coats, plaids and jackets.

The better-priced misses’ chain has been struggling for several years, lacking fashion pizzazz and misreading the trends. In September, as the company was sinking, Sullivan, formerly a top executive at Liz Claiborne, became ceo, and triggered an upheaval by changing practically the entire senior staff, closing weak stores, cutting costs and eliminating the U.K., kids’ and men’s businesses.

A three-year turnaround plan was devised, with conservative financial objectives, given the difficult economy and the company’s own issues. Talbots forecasts top-line growth of approximately 3 percent, with the Talbots brand’s comparable-store sales seen decreasing 1 percent and the J. Jill division increasing 1 percent. Consolidated direct marketing sales are planned up in the midsingle-digit range.

“We have moved very quickly, but prudently,” Sullivan said.


The upcoming collection is the first real visible sign of the direction in which Sullivan and her team are taking the company.

“We’ve put the fit back, but the clothes aren’t tight. They’re shaped,” said Basha Cohen, executive vice president and chief merchant. “They were very boxy before, and not so flattering.”

She also described the color palette as having a point of view, and narrower. Before, for example, a turtleneck would come in 12 to 18 colors, now there are eight to 12.

“We want it to be trend right, not trendy,” added Cohen.

The executives highlighted other key changes that will be obvious to customers, among them:

l A faster flow of goods to monthly shipments, from four times a year previously, so stores are fresher with new fashion more frequently.

l Greater emphasis on wear-now merchandise.

l A redesign of Talbots store to reflect the overhauled collection for 2009. “We’re incubating ideas,” Sullivan said.

l A dressier holiday set, including organza tops with crystal buttons in varying shapes and sizes, “reimagined” satin trenchcoats that almost look like dresses and long “hostess” skirts, paired with three-quarter-sleeve turtlenecks.

l The first-ever full holiday gift assortment that’s weighted to colorful tops and accessories.

l Prospecting for new clients after a six-year hiatus, while diminishing television advertising. Talbots’ has a catalogue circulation of about 5 million.

In a sign that the overhauled collection has been well received, at least by Wall Street at this point, Talbots shares rose 10 percent last week after an analysts’ preview.

“The fabrics exuded quality,” analyst Jennifer Black of Jennifer Black & Associates wrote in a research report. “The colors radiated the classic Talbots styling, the lines were clean and simple, and the styling was timeless. The fall-holiday collection flows well together. The floor sets should move from one to another with ease, which we believe will help reduce broken assortments.”

Some questions regarding liquidity were resolved last week, when Talbots, which is majority owned by the Japan-based Aeon Inc., closed on a $50 million credit facility with a subsidiary of Aeon Inc. The new facility supplements the retailer’s existing working capital lines of credit of $165 million and brings the total borrowing capacity to $215 million.

On Tuesday, stock jumped 9.9 percent to $14.70. The Talbots Inc. operates 592 Talbots stores and 277 J. Jill stores.


View Slideshow