Marie Oliver, a Greensboro, N.C.-based contemporary sportswear brand, is riding out the pandemic by working closely with its specialty store base, focusing on digital initiatives and expanding its direct-to-consumer business.
But it hasn’t been easy.
The brand, which was founded five years ago and generates about $5 million in wholesale volume, is known for its vibrant colors, patterns and silhouettes. It was on track to generate substantial increases in 2020, but is now happy just to break even, said Sarah Evenson, founder and creative director. She attributes that to a lot of creativity and hustle during these turbulent times.
“We’re agile enough to be very reactive and move and adjust as we need,” she said. “Our collections are smaller and tighter. We’re still delivering newness and new prints and bodies. We’re also cutting closer to order, which is a huge part of it.”
Since their launch in 2015, Evenson and her business partner and husband Peter (both native North Carolinians) have grown their wholesale business year-over-year by 50 percent, and online sales by 61 to 72 percent. Their most significant growth was 2018-19, which was 52 percent ahead. Prior to COVID-19, they were tracking to hit 60 percent growth in 2020. In light of the pandemic, Evenson worked one-on-one with her specialty store accounts to keep the momentum going, figure out inventory solutions and collaborate on creating digital assets to help move product.
Evenson oversees all creative aspects, while Peter is responsible for strategy and day-to-day operations. Marie Oliver is named after the middle names of both of them.
“When all of this started, we had a good amount of business in,” Evenson said. She had a videographer do a video that they sent out to retailers. “We learned a lot from that process. As trade shows have been canceled, the digital platforms and options out there are endless,” she said. She has worked with Joor for a long time, which is rolling out new things such as video and photography assets, and is looking at other assets. “It is consuming to navigate the options, what’s viable and what’s not viable. No one knows what retailers are going to take to it,” she said.
She has always participated in Coterie, which was recently canceled, and the trade show decided to go digital with NuOrder. “They’ve rolled out a platform where brands that are not on NuOrder can do a one-time showcase. Alongside, Joor is doing their own thing. There are a lot of duplicate models out there, and trade shows are picking certain platforms that are their ‘exclusive platforms.'”
On Joor, they give a brand profile, and people can access look books. “Now instead of being static, you can upload video. They have rolled out a new video platform you can platform with them on, it’s a 360 view. They’re encouraging people to connect on Zoom and screen share.”
Marie Oliver has showrooms in New York, which has yet to reopen, and Los Angeles and a strong regional presence at the markets in Chicago, Atlanta and Dallas. She recently participated in the Dallas market and played catch up on fall and then wrote into winter and resort deliveries. She also has salespeople on the road calling on current accounts.
For March delivery, they had shipped about 50 percent before lockdowns began. The balance they put on hold, and worked with stores. The brand worked with retailers on terms, flopping in different styles. The dress business suffered through summer.
She manufactures her wovens in Asia, artisan novelties in India, woven sweaters in Italy, and cut and sew in Peru. Marie Oliver sells 250 specialty stores across the U.S., including Monkee’s (a franchise with numerous locations), Verishop.com, and Julian Gold, the multiunit Texas retailer, as well as Charlotte’s in Raleigh and Charlotte, N.C., Poppy’s in Atlanta, M-Boutique in Shreveport, La., and Simply Megs in Greensboro, N.C. She also sells some resorts such as The Ritz and the Omni, “which has been interesting to navigate,” she said. They will probably be the last to rebound, she said.
The company employs nine people and her whole team is in Greensboro, N.C., where the company owns its warehouse and ships everything from there.
North Carolina’s lockdown only lasted three weeks — from March 26 to April 17 — and throughout it “we were continuing to ship,” she said. “Things slowed down significantly, but it helped keep the ball moving. Once everyone came back to the office, we’ve been able to strategize what we’ve been dealt.” The wholesale and digital teams had been very independent until now. “With wholesale going digital and investing more into our direct-to-consumer business, they’re becoming more intertwined,” she said.
(However, North Carolina, as in many states that opened early, has recently seen a record resurgence in coronavirus cases, according to local press reports.)
She said “above the keyboard dressing” is selling well right now, including tops and maxidresses. “The short, occasion driven dresses have been stagnant,” since people aren’t going to cocktail parties or to work. She does a lot of shorts, which are a core product for the company.
Eighty-nine percent of Marie Oliver’s business is in wholesale. She said she does well equally throughout the country, but it’s all a question of timing of deliveries.
Marie Oliver has shipped about 80 percent of pre-fall orders. “It’s really promising. Pre-fall is smaller deliveries, people are picking orders and there aren’t conversations about discounts. “If their [stores’] business isn’t back, they’re optimistic it’s coming back.” She said stores that have an older demographic are having a harder time, since that customer isn’t going out. Her core customer is 35 to 45, who is going out once again.
“I do think there will be fall-out of retailers, just like there will be fall-out of brands. It will create opportunities once the uncertainty subsides a little bit and we have an understanding of whatever the new normal will be. Those brands [will survive] that offer a commercially viable product. I’m grateful we’re in print and color. People have bought necessities for so long, they want to reward themselves,” she said.
Meg Strader, owner of Simply Megs, a contemporary boutique in Greensboro, N.C., said of Evenson and Marie Oliver: “One of the main reasons that we love her so much is she’s a Greensboro gal herself and is based in our community. She just truly understands a woman’s body when it comes to how to fit a garment. One of the beautiful things about her line is all ages love it. It’s timeless and it’s classic. The beauty of her line is I can dress it up and go to a cocktail event, or I can throw on a Golden Goose sneaker or sandal with it and dress it down for work, a luncheon or going out to dinner with girlfriends. She picks the most unique and beautiful patterns, I love that she designs a lot of them herself.”
Strader said that during the pandemic, Evenson went “above and beyond.” She came to Strader’s house one night and they came up with a virtual trunk show on Instagram since her store was closed. Simply Megs doesn’t have a web site because her inventory changes so quickly.
When the pandemic began, Marie Oliver started a campaign called #StayBright, which ran through April and May, working with retail partners and direct-to-consumers. They asked their customers to post a picture of themselves in the brand doing something new with their kids or friends, and share it. “It was hugely successful and created a lot of momentum around the brand. They use it in social and it resonates with what the brand is. It moves the conversation away from the doom and gloom of it. It’s about bright colors and bright prints, but it’s also about optimism,” Evenson said.
The company started making masks in China and has completely sold out for wholesale. They placed a second order to restock and will also do them for fall, refreshing the prints using deadstock. They sell them online for three for $36. They’re pleated silk and hand washable. They’re doing sequins for holiday. They’ve also coordinated masks to a dress or shirt.
One of their strategies for this year was to invest more in their online operation, which was launched with their wholesale business. In the second quarter, their web business was up 32 percent versus a year ago. For the first 10 days in July, the web business is up 88 percent. “Our wholesale business in June was up 40 percent,” she said. “Part of that was pre-fall. We were on plan to grow significantly at wholesale this year. We should finish the year flat to what we did last year,” she said.