It’s been fairly quiet on the Escada front since Megha Mittal bought the well-known but troubled German designer brand in late 2009. Mittal is not prone to making big statements, and when Iris Epple-Righi, an alumnus of Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein Europe and the Breuninger specialty store, was appointed Escada’s chief executive officer in 2016, she also opted to keep things close to her chest for her first months at the helm.
But now with June’s announcement that Niall Sloan was joining as Escada’s new global design director, a marketing and communications vice president hire not yet made public, and the brand’s upcoming 40th anniversary in 2018, Epple-Righi and Escada seem poised to step out of the shadows. WWD met with the Epple-Righi at Escada’s headquarters outside Munich to find out what changes are in store for the German heritage brand in today’s changing and challenging market environment.
WWD: It’s almost as if Escada has been on hold for the last few years, but now it seems you’re getting ready to push the start button again. Or is it a reorientation?
Iris Epple-Righi: I would say we’re ready to push the start button. Escada has been focusing on its loyal customer and her lifestyle, but our customers are changing and I have to reorient the brand to a customer who is more casual and digitally influenced.
For nearly the last 10 months, we have been working and looking at basically everything in the company. My biggest focus so far has been on product because I’m a strong believer that product is key. You have to be able to deliver a very convincing product.
WWD: Escada has such an iconic history, though your power suit, Alexis Carrington, “Dallas” and “Dynasty” past could almost be considered a liability.
I.E-R.: I think it’s a beauty to have that wealth of heritage. I’m not saying you only take the heritage and make it relevant again for today. I think the world has changed so much, and women have changed a lot in the way they’re dressing, feeling and acting. It’s the whole 360. The Escada woman is a very strong and confident woman, and I want to portray that again, and give her much more of that luxurious feeling, but with modern product. And we want to be with her from Monday to Sunday, morning to evening. We’re still very much connected to cocktail and evening, and I want to stretch that to more occasions during the day or on the weekend. I think that’s something new for Escada because we’ve been centered in business and evening.
At the moment it’s much more about feeling good. Feeling good is the new looking good. Escada has so much to offer there because we have incredible quality and really great fits, but also we’re really making adjustments for today’s times.
WWD: What would that mean?
I.E-R.: With a blazer, for example, how is the shoulder? How is the lapel? How do you feel [in it]? Does it make you feel comfortable but also confident? The look is now a bit more deconstructed and easy, but you still want the smart look when you wear a blazer.
The other key theme is casualization, and we have big opportunities there. We haven’t been giving our customer so much of an outerwear offer. And although Escada was founded as a knitwear company, for some reason over the years we’ve had less and less knitwear, whereas now knitwear is such an important part of your wardrobe. From easy wools to cashmeres to blends, we are exploring a much bigger range of knitwear and a bigger variety of outerwear, from down jackets to wool coats.
Another big topic will be accessories. We won’t make an accessories company out of Escada, because our heart is ready-to-wear, but on the other hand, why wouldn’t [our customer] also want a nice Escada bag or shoes when she’s shopping with us? You’ll see more in store for fall 2017 because it’s part of the lifestyle. Nowadays you have to tell more stories, not just have clothes. I feel it will be a strong addition to our presence.
WWD: What drew you to Niall Sloan?
I.E-R.: This was a very important hire for us. What clicked is that he has an amazing and significant background with 10 years at Burberry, especially working with Christopher Bailey closely on Prorsum and also runway and celebrity dressing. So he knows all the icons of the Escada main line: The craftsmanship, the tailoring and the fit. He has a very good hand there. At the same time, he’s pretty young: 36. He didn’t see the brand in its heyday — but he’s totally inspired by the heritage and believes Escada is the jewel. I really liked his Hunter experience, as well.
We position the Escada main line as luxury, though we think of it more as approachable luxury because we definitely don’t have the price points of the Chanels and some others. But then we have Escada Sport, which is really much more in the high premium section. We are now working on a clear segmentation of both.
WWD: When Escada Sport was introduced in 1994, the idea was to catch the daughter.
I.E-R.: It’s now much more about shaping Sport and making it clear. We know today’s customer shops from high street to luxury, from Zara to Chanel, if she can afford the luxury part. And it’s something we see in our stores, where she’s shopping Escada main line, but then probably wants an easy top or a denim pant, and so [she] also shops Sport.
WWD: Do you see the main line and Sport cohabitating?
I.E-R.: We do have some doors with both, but only if they have a specific size because I think Sport has to be separated in store. You will see that more casual part in main line in a much bigger way for fall 2017, but you will also see now how different the [main line and Sport] looks are. I’m not saying it’s a different customer, because I think the customer is so flexible and is going a bit more easy whatever her lifestyle. And there are lots of people who mix, wearing a chic top from the main line and then jeans from Sport. That’s how modern women dress today, not head-to-toe very casual or very chic.
Coming back to Niall, he can do both [casual and chic], and his being 36 is a cool element for us because he has a much more Millennial mind-set. Plus I like the idea that it was not such a predictable move. It’s good that people are thinking, “Oh, wow, what’s happening at Escada?” Because there’s a lot happening that will get people interested in the brand.
WWD: Who is the Escada customer these days? Did some of the daughters come in?
I.E-R.: We know her pretty well because as I said, we have a very loyal customer base. She lives a very diverse and busy lifestyle, since in a lot of cases, she’s a working woman and has to juggle all her family and work. And yes, she is a bit more mature, but my philosophy is that if we make her feel good and look good, we will automatically get her daughter. That is, if we start touching all our consumer touch points: how are we online, our [ad] campaign, the store experience, how does the store look, the whole brand experience.
The interesting thing is that in gowns and cocktail, we already have young customers. And a lot of women come with their daughters. But many people don’t really know what Escada is, and are surprised when they come to the store. Our job now is to communicate all that the brand is.
WWD: How? What are the plans?
I.E-R.: First of all, we’re celebrating our 40th anniversary next year, and we will have more exciting news to share. We hired a new marketing and communications vice president, though I can’t name names yet, and definitely want to change the way our campaign looks. For fall it’s already getting into a much more modern look but also going back a bit to the heritage with a bold use of colors. It talks a lot about casualization with a great coat, a beautiful sweater. Other images go back a bit to what you think Escada is about: The chic day dress, a coat over knitwear, or a cool [pants] suit. And we got so much response to a jacquard blazer, which for a lot of people is probably the old Escada, but young people will want to wear it with jeans and a T-shirt. This one really talks to both [camps]. It depends on how you style it.
WWD: Will the look at POS change?
I.E-R.: In retail, you are never finished, for by the time you’ve done the last store you can start again on the first. So it’s an ongoing topic and we also look into our store experience. As you know, we launched our lounge concept last year in Düsseldorf. We’re opening a new store in Sloane Street [in London] and you will see elements of the lounge concept there. However, I think that in the future, when you go to London it will probably have a slightly different feeling than when you go to Tokyo, but always recognizable as Escada. That’s crucial.
WWD: In your view, what are the biggest challenges facing Escada and the industry in general?
I.E-R.: I think the challenges are the changes of the world. A lot of people think fashion has so many changes and challenges, but all industries do. Look at what the auto industry is dealing with. Five years ago, they had just started to talk about electric cars. And now there’s car pooling, or Car to Go or DriveNow — young people don’t even want to own cars anymore. And the next stage is autonomic cars.
I think fashion, in comparison, hasn’t changed so much. People still wear clothes. The biggest change is how much information does the customer have today versus a couple of years ago, and how do they shop. Which is why e-commerce is a key topic within the company. Till recently, our e-commerce site was with an external partner, but we took it in-house and just relaunched it three weeks ago.
E-commerce is never going to go away. You can’t even say it’s the future because it’s the now. It’s the way you tell stories and where we can really showcase the brand in the best way. Our customer goes online, shops online, and all those studies say 60 to 70 percent of all consumers first go online to see and check before they go to the store to buy. There’s also still much potential for us with social media and we are taking it more seriously. To me, it’s the world today. I’m on Instagram every morning just to see what’s going on, and I didn’t do this five years ago. There was no Instagram five years ago.
WWD: And influencers?
I.E-R.: Influencers and VIP dressing have always been important to Escada and you see this reflected on our social channels and digital communication. We will be further developing and ramping this up once we have the new vice president of marketing and communication on board.
WWD: How would you describe your management style?
I.E-R.: I’m a team player and especially when I came here, I spoke to so many people and just listened. It was like speed-dating. I’m a very open person, very direct, and I really speak my mind and try to also get the people on board with a new vision. To get people [moving] in a new direction needs lots of communication. It’s important to talk a lot and interact. I would also say I’m a people person.
WWD: How’s Escada doing in America? It’s such an important market for you.
I.E-R.: Yes, it is. We have our strongest and most loyal customers in the U.S. And [our customer in America] also represents the bold woman. She’s colorful, not shy, very confident, loves prints and really loves the brand.
WWD: Wholesale developments?
I.E-R.: In business terms, America is still a big wholesale market, but our [own] retail presence is also very strong. I was just there in March and had meetings with Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue, who are two great partners. We have such long relationships with both of them. We’re also trying to accommodate their changed needs and listen to what the stores are asking for.
WWD: Such as?
I.E-R.: The trend overall is that department stores want more unique selling propositions. They want something exclusive, to attract the customer back to them. Also, their online business is growing really fast. But with us, sometimes an advantage of not being superfashionable is that you have a very stable business and that’s how I’d describe it with Neiman’s and Saks. At Saks, as we have made the two brands more clear in terms of their purposes, Saks has already taken that forward. They will open six new doors for Sport in fall and more next year, as well as selling Sport online.
WWD: Globally, is there anywhere you want to pick up the pace?
I.E-R.: I strongly believe we can grow in all markets, but will probably grow in well-established markets even stronger because we have this good presence there. Escada is really globally spread. I was in Japan a few weeks ago and we have a very strong business there. In Russia, one can see a pickup, and we also hear the amount of traveling has increased again.
WWD: With everything going on, what’s the scale of investment?
I.E-R.: Our owners are very committed to the brand and will enable us to do all the changes we are planning. And that’s probably as much as I can tell you. We’re a private company, which is why we don’t disclose any numbers. However, the Mittal family is very dedicated to Escada. Megha comes regularly to Munich, I’m often in London, and we’re on the phone several times a week. Megha and I have an excellent relationship and we share the same vision.
WWD: And that vision?
I.E-R.: It’s not only about looking good, but great. Our woman still wants to look feminine. Women today can be women, and femininity is an important topic for Escada. We really want her to look her best, feel good and feel the femininity. There are no rules anymore and I think that’s the nice thing.