A couple of years ago, it became fashionable for retailers to part ways with their fashion directors in their quest to bolster the bottom line. But Belk Inc. took a different approach, actually adding the position to the mix when it was consolidating the company after a buying spree.

This story first appeared in the November 22, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

From 2002 to 2007, the Charlotte, N.C.-based retailer acquired several competitors — Proffitt’s, McRae’s and Parisian — solidifying its dominance in the South.

Arlene Goldstein had been the fashion director of Parisian, widely viewed as the most upscale and fashionable of those stores, and when Belk bought the business five years ago, Goldstein thought she was out of work, but Belk decided it needed to bring her on board.

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Kathryn Bufano, president and chief merchandising officer of Belk, said: “Our customers depend on Belk to bring them the latest fashion and best styles season after season, year after year. To do that, it’s essential to have a fashion director who is constantly in the markets to research the latest fashion trends and popular culture in the U.S. and abroad, and to bring back the best ideas to inspire the buying decisions of our merchants and the creations of our private brand designers. Arlene knows and understands the fashion needs of our modern, Southern customer better than anyone. She has a great eye for finding the next big trend or item and helps us interpret the trends in a way that resonates with our customers.”

Since joining the $3.5 billion company, Goldstein has instituted a number of initiatives to ensure that Belk is not only on trend, but provides a consistent message throughout its merchandising divisions and its 300-plus stores. “Everything should fit into the same style statement,” she said. “We need to make sure we’re all singing from the same hymnal.”

Perhaps her biggest contribution is the Most Wanted List that she provides to Belk’s merchant team twice a year. This was something she had instituted at Parisian and reworked for Belk. She also sends out a weekly Fashion Buzz e-mail to the company to let it know what trends are happening at that moment. “It raises consciousness,” she said of such pieces as wide-leg pants and high/low hemlines for women or rugby stripe shirts for men.

“We don’t have to be the first one in America to have something,” she said. “But we don’t want to be last either.” The goal is to “take it to the runway to the real way” through a common sense approach.

For spring, as an example, the top women’s trends are long skirts, striped dresses, boxy tops, colored bottoms, colorblocking, wide-leg pants and fashion wedges. In men’s, the top looks are colored bottoms, striped knits, bright plaids and checks, preppie sport coats, flat-front shorts, oxford shirts, novelty neckwear and straw fedoras.

That fashion message also needs to be relayed to customers and Goldstein said her goal is to “unify the visual team, advertising and marketing” to all promote the same message. She meets with each merchandising team, from women’s ready-to-wear and accessories to men’s wear, and helps them identify the items and colors that will work best for them.

A year ago, Belk instituted a rebranding initiative for its company designed to flaunt its more fashion-forward side. The tag line is “Modern. Southern. Style.”

“We were always headed in that direction,” Goldstein said, “but it was a lime green light saying that being on trend is even more important.”

That holds true in this economic environment as well, Goldstein said. “The customer is choosing fashion, and commodities are down-trending,” she said. “We can wear what’s in our closets for the rest of our lives, but fashion should seduce us.”

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