Ashley Stewart, celebrating 25 years in business, is elevating its marketing and opening its first new store since 2012.
“We are starting to get our story out on a national scale. Not in a very expensive way but in a different way,” James Rhee, chairman and chief executive officer, told WWD. “I call it new age strategic marketing — very quantitative, multimedia marketing.”
Rhee also disclosed that the plus-size specialty retailer’s first store opening in four years will occur at a lifestyle strip center in Newark, N.J., early next year. “It’s a prototype, a lab,” to test new products and formats, Rhee said. “It’s really an experiential store.” Rhee added that the 89-unit chain continues to renovate stores.
Ashley Stewart’s intensified marketing reflects its change in ownership last June. The Invus Group bought a controlling interest in the company from Clearlake Capital Group, and the FirePine Group founded by Rhee.
Since the sale, Rhee’s role has remained unchanged. He has been rebuilding the company, having taken it into bankruptcy in 2013, shuttering nearly 100 stores and injecting the business with a new tech savvy and positive attitudes.
“They are very strategic investors,” Rhee said of the Invus Group. “They’re not a classic private equity fund. It’s a family office. They get the vision.” They also have a long-term view to building up the company, he added.
In September, Ashley Stewart launched the #IAmAshley campaign and contest as part of its philanthropic platform, #ASGives. The winner of the contest will get to go, along with a friend, to CBS Radio’s “We Can Survive” concert at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles on Oct. 22. Ashley Stewart is a sponsor of the concert, which benefits the battle against breast cancer.
For the contest, customers share their personal photos, videos and stories on how they overcame a tough situation, on Twitter or Instagram with the hashtag #IAmAshleyContest, or on ashleystewart.com. Rhee characterized the contest as “inclusive” and sending out a message of showing strength and resilience in the face of adversity. All submissions get posted on ashleystewart.com/iamashleycontest.
The best 20 submissions will be determined by popular vote online, and the best of the 20 will be decided by the Ashley Stewart team. Rhee said the winner will be the one who most embodies the essence of Ashley Stewart and its stouthearted spirit. At the concert, the contest winner will meet and introduce to the audience one of the artists performing. Bruno Mars, Ariana Grande, Meghan Trainor and Charlie Puth are scheduled to perform.
Since the Ashley Stewart campaign launched Sept. 19, “people have been pouring out their hearts,” Rhee said. “We already have over 1,000 submissions, over 200,000 unique visitors to the video and over 83,000 votes.” CBS Radio commercials on 26 stations across the country promote the concert and Ashley Stewart’s contest.
In other marketing efforts, for the Circle of Sisters symposium at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in Manhattan on Oct. 15 and 16, Ashley Stewart will sponsor and stage a fashion show, hosted by Tyson Beckford. Also that weekend, Ashley Stewart will have birthday parties at its stores marking 25 years in business.
Last July, Ashley Stewart staged a “Rock the Block” event in Brooklyn, with makeovers, a model boot camp, beauty product demonstrations, panel discussions, fashion show, a sample sale and dancing, and the August issue of Cosmopolitan featured an Ashley Stewart bodysuit on the cover worn by Ashley Graham.
Ashley Stewart launched 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 [now owned by Macy’s], as well as European hair chain Provalliance-Franck Provost and Weight Watchers among other investments — was founded in 1985. It has more than $4 billion under management and offices in New York, Paris and Hong Kong.