With 35 years in the apparel business, J Brand jeans cofounder Jeff Rudes has seen his share of ups and downs. But a second California coronavirus shutdown “could cripple the industry,” the seasoned executive said, trying to stay upbeat as he chatted about the resilience of his contemporary brand, L’Agence, which is venturing into a new category — footwear — for fall.
“We’re in a very good financial position, but it was a huge cost to close our company for 90 days-plus, pay our people and not ship anything,” Rudes said of the first shutdown, as California Gov. Gavin Newsom and L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti tease another one now that California has surpassed New York in COVID-19 cases.
But Rudes is forging ahead, for now. And while house dresses and yoga pants may be just about the only fashion trends anyone is talking about these days, the architect of the skinny jean in the early Aughts isn’t giving up on sexy just yet (jeans make up 50 percent of his volume at L’Agence).
“When you look at L’Agence, what’s it all about, it’s not runway, it’s not tricky,” he said. “It’s California lifestyle with French attitude. On our shirts, we don’t even have the top two buttons, we start where we feel a woman should open her shirt, we do things like that. Our woman — we know her well — wants to feel sexy.”
L’Agence was launched in 2008 with Rudes financing the operation; he joined as chief executive officer and creative director in 2017 with the goal of creating a multichannel lifestyle collection. Footwear, launching for fall, is a key step, he said. “It goes back to the jean, so we started with a three-inch heel,” he said.
Other styles include a slide, a formal slipper, similar to the ones Rudes wears himself, and a Mary Jane heel launching in October for holiday. Priced $350 to $450, they will be available at Lagence.com and the brand’s stores at Melrose Place in L.A. and on Madison Avenue and Greene Street in Manhattan.
Accessories have been in the works since January, but when Italian factories shut down because of the pandemic, the production was stalled.
Rudes prefers domestic production for apparel. L’Agence makes jeans, T-shirts and some cut-and-sew knits in L.A. “We know how to turn things fast; we’re going to pay a little more, but we’re willing to sacrifice on margin during this period to not charge our stores more. You can’t beat the speed to market of Made in the USA. So we have an advantage there, and there’s beautiful fabric here.”
On his predictions for recovery, he said, “It goes back to the medical side. Shoppers have to feel comfortable to be in stores. Online business is 20 to 25 percent for major retailers, so to lose that brick-and-mortar is huge. What’s happening now with infections multiplying exponentially, certain women are afraid to shop…So there’s a lot of buying online but we can’t lose that brick-and-mortar. If we only had to survive on direct business, we wouldn’t…”
The brand has pulled back some of its department store distribution in the last year and a half. “We brought back our Saks and Neiman’s business from a wide amount of doors to 10. We had to prove those stores were working and profitable for both of us. They want you in 30 stores because it makes the department store legit, but if you are strong, you can narrow it to a profitable business. It has to be done smart and right.”
Rudes said L’Agence is seeing sales comparable to last year in specialty stores, which are experiencing slower traffic but higher ticket sales. “We pulled some miracles between spring and fall…we said they are going to need new merchandise, so we gave them a big discount,” he said of his wholesale strategy over the past few months. He’s also resisted discounting in his own stores.
Looking ahead to September, he’s concerned about how brands will book business with stores, and keep relationships going. “Budgets were cut to travel and there’s really no market..New York Fashion Week and IMG are trying to make something happen. But look at the news, will it be safe? So the concern is the connection with the store and will they have the support they need to sell all the product they are buying. Because they are still buying in a strong way. People didn’t cut budgets for winter/holiday by 50 percent. There is still a lot of business to be done.”