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Over the years, Betsey Johnson has stitched her riotously colorful, charmingly mismatched style throughout 56 stores in 20 states and the District of Columbia.
This story first appeared in the July 22, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
If she has her way, the store count will double in the next five years, with further growth down the road. “We have the potential for 300 stores in the U.S.,” said Chantal Bacon, cofounder and chief executive officer of Betsey Johnson.
The company, which operates three stores in Canada and one in the U.K., plans to make an international push as well. “China would be a huge opportunity,” said Bacon. “So would [South] Korea and the [European Union].” There are also 14 stores in Japan, operated through a distributor partnership.
Pivotal to the company’s retail growth will be developing more product categories. “When you have more stores, you need a wide range of products,” Bacon said. “The idea of broadening the product line is going to be a key to expansion into other secondary markets.”
Another factor fueling growth is a majority investment last year by Castanea Partners, a Boston-based private equity fund. “That’s really been bringing on this growth,” Bacon said. Rebecca Blair, formerly vice president and general manager of merchandise and sales at Juicy Couture, recently joined the company to help it reach the next level of its expansion. “We pretty much have a formula,” Blair said. “As we grow, we will have to refine the formula.”
“We grew much faster than our infrastructure,” added Bacon.
Blair has been pouring through the Betsey Johnson archives, looking for inspiration for new product launches. “We’re doing a vintage collection only in our stores,” she said. “Vintage is in great demand for fall. Going back through 30 years of vintage-inspired looks, you can go through every decade and pick out top pieces. It’s a very rich history.”
The strength of Betsey Johnson’s handbag collection, shoe line and jewelry is seen as a good reason to make them major areas for growth. “In certain markets, there’s an opportunity to intensify certain products, such as accessories in Las Vegas and the Pacific Rim,” Bacon said. “We could also do accessories-only stores. If we were to produce children’s wear, we could do a kids’ store.”
Betsey Johnson stores will carry a “best of the best” selection to differentiate the merchandise from Johnson’s offerings at specialty stores such as Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus.
According to Bacon, department stores have never been a big part of the Betsey Johnson business model. To strengthen that component, the company is working on a collection for department stores focused on special occasion. “We want to put together a collection with a broader appeal,” she said. “We think there will be a strong interest from retailers.”
The reason retailers are so keen on the brand, according to Bacon, is Johnson’s close contact with customers. “We know what the customer wants,” she said. “We can know in two weeks if something is really strong. We start to see trends, colors and shapes.”
Retail has been a part of Betsey Johnson since the label’s beginnings. The year Johnson formed a partnership with Bacon, 1978, she opened her first unit in SoHo. A second Manhattan store, which opened in the Eighties on Columbus Avenue, continues to be one of the company’s top-performing units. It was also one of the few single-brand stores in the city in the days before every designer from Giorgio Armani to Ermenegildo Zegna opened a store (or two or three) in Manhattan.
In the early Eighties, a store opened on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. Johnson’s flagships are about 3,000 square feet in size, but the average store is 1,000 square feet. But, said Bacon, the company plans to double the average store size.
Johnson, who is known for the signature energetic cartwheel she does down her runway after the last look has gone out, brings the same exuberance to the store environment. Bright red, leopard-print polkadots and pink populate this girly-girl-cum-biker-chic fantasy.
“When you go into a Betsey Johnson store, you feel the [employees’] passion for the brand,” Bacon said. “There’s a real spirit than transfers to customers. It’s an emotional experience.”
An example of the close bond with customers is the consumer in Rhode Island who wrote the company saying she has an archive of more than 100 Betsey Johnson pieces. Johnson quickly dispatched her assistant to Rhode Island to meet with the customer.
“This is an exciting time,” Bacon said. “We’re building on the solid foundation Betsey created. We’re lucky because Betsey definitely has a point of view. Her designs have a certain attitude of fun.”