Libby Wadle

Denim has been the key driver in Madewell’s surge to exceed $500 million in sales in the last fiscal year.

Libby Wadle, chief executive officer of the 12-year-old division of J. Crew Group, said the company identified denim five years ago as its “core competency,” and since that time, has centered its growth, store experience and message around offering “a great-fitting pair of jeans.”

It has created a community of women — and now guys as well — who shop its 130 stores and online for jeans and related products that fit their needs.

Recently, the company opened a Madewell Denim Edit store in Nashville that was “devoted to the world of denim” and also included a men’s shop. At the opening event in March, Wadle said the response was so strong that the company kept the store open late in order to ring up sales. “There was a lot of trying on jeans at the denim bar,” she said.

Wadle said Madewell got into the men’s business in a “careful and thoughtful” way last fall. “We got in because to be a great denim brand, we needed to get into men’s,” she said. The launch started online only and there was a pop-up in the Meatpacking District in New York, but Nashville is the only permanent men’s location.

Beyond denim, Madewell has instituted a number of other initiatives that have helped connect it with customers, and subsequently boost sales.

Wadle pointed to its Hometown Heroes program as a way to enter markets in a “differentiated way.” This program features handmade, small-batch goods made by local creatives, makers and artisans where products are sold online and in-store and the makers are featured in pop-ups or panel discussions in stores. Last year, she said, Madewell hosted around 2,000 of these events around the country and they have proven successful for both parties.

Madewell recently expanded the program further by partnering with Nest, a global nonprofit that brings makers and small business owners a broader stage by connecting them with bigger brands. This initiative, called the Hometown Heroes Collective, also provides business coaching advice, mentoring and grants.

Madewell has also been a leader within the sustainability movement, a cause that is important to its customer base. About five years ago, Wadle said, the company created a Blue Jeans Go Green denim recycling program. Since that time, some 500,000 pairs of jeans have been collected and that material has been repurposed into home insulation products used by organizations such as Habitat for Humanity.

Programs such as these help connect Madewell with its customers. Wadle said despite the strength of the online business, the retailer still gets the bulk of its new customers from its store base. Younger people, in particular, she said, are attracted to the brick-and-mortar space because it allows them to shop with their friends and also take advantage of everything the mall and lifestyle centers have to offer. The denim bar within the Madewell stores are of particular interest to  shoppers, she said.

That’s not to say online is not an important part of the business, however. “As much as we can, we connect the channels so it feels seamless,” she said. Wadle pointed to the “dot-com try-on bar,” where customers find a piece online and then visit a store to try it on, as key to achieving this goal.

Collaborations have also been a draw for customers, she said, singling out Sézane, the Paris-based women’s collection, that it helped introduce to the U.S. market. “Our Madewell customer expects a sense of discovery when she comes to us,” she said. “Our foundation is jeans, but she still expects an element of surprise.”

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