Ashley Stewart Inc. found a new backer in The Invus Group, which bought a controlling interest in the company from Clearlake Capital Group and the FirePine Group.
The 89-door plus-size chain will continue to be led by chairman and chief executive officer James Rhee, who is also founder of FirePine. He has remade Ashley Stewart, having taken the company into bankruptcy in 2013, shuttered nearly 100 stores and sought to inject the business with a new tech savvy.
The company said it saw “record profitability, growth and market share expansion” while owned by Clearlake and FirePine.
“I studied the brand, got to know the people and I always thought that plus-size was an untapped industry,” he said. “Ashley Stewart was a very old-school ‘garmento’ retail operation with a corporate office that was disconnected to the stores. I’m not sure the business ever made money. It was a failed business model. What they didn’t mess up was the brand and the customer loyalty.”
Invus managing director Jonas Fajgenbaum said the brand had “an incredibly loyal and growing customer base” and that the investor would “support the customer-first, omnichannel strategy that has catapulted Ashley Stewart into becoming a next generation, multichannel retail leader.”
Rhee said Invus would “be bringing to bear its expertise in building great consumer brands as we introduce Ashley Stewart to the world.”
The retailer got its start in 1991 when developer Joseph Sitt needed to fill space in his urban properties and saw promise in the plus-size business. He came up with the name Ashley Stewart by combining the last names of Laura Ashley and Martha Stewart.
At one point, the chain had 380 stores in roughly 100 cities, but fell on hard times, going through bankruptcy twice.
Invus — which has invested in Bluemercury, European hair chain Provalliance-Franck Provost, Weight Watchers and more — was founded in 1985 and has more than $4 billion under management with offices in New York, Paris and Hong Kong.
Robert W. Baird & Co. acted as financial adviser to Ashley Stewart on the deal, the terms of which were not disclosed.