Libby Wadle

“It can be easy to focus on how much has changed. It’s also super important to keep in mind how much has stayed the same.”

That was Madewell president Libby Wadle, ruminating on fashion retailing and recalling the past and how it informs the present, speaking at the WWD Apparel and Retail CEO Summit.

“Fashion and shopping have always ignited something pretty exciting in me,” Wadle said. “I love thinking about my earliest retail excursion, shopping at the mall with my friends at the Esprit department at Bloomingdale’s, or spending $50 for my first pair of designer jeans, or being inspired by movies like ‘The Breakfast Club’ or ‘St. Elmo’s Fire,’ for fashion ideas and inspiration. I did purchase a pearl necklace and tulle skirt like Demi Moore wore in that movie. I was definitely inspired by movies of that time. It’s no surprise that as soon as I was old enough to work, it was in a store,” in Columbia, Md.

“I love the energy of working with the customers. I loved keeping a client list. I loved unpacking the boxes, to see what was coming in next. I still remember that best-selling rugby shirt with rubber buttons.

“Technology has drastically changed how we merchandise our stores, but what remains unaffected is the importance of creating that same feeling of excitement and discovery that I had when I was a teenager at the mall. A Molly Ringwald movie may be replaced by the latest influencer. But shoppers will always want to feel like they are inspired and part of something bigger than themselves.”

The Madewell excitement comes from “creating a sense of community in everything that we do, from product that is inclusive to a store experience,” Wadle said. “So if you are a customer, you feel you have a friend waiting for you outside of the fitting room.”

She said the core of Madewell is denim and that the retailer is “a place for discovery for our customers. They come to us not only for great product but for artful styling and meaningful community initiatives. These are the things that we stand for. In every aspect of the business, we challenge ourselves to really move toward that goal. We stay focused on the big picture while never losing sight of the little details and connections.”

Wadle outlined milestones in Madewell’s relatively short history, including launching its first store in 2006 in Texas; relaunching the denim collection in 2013 with new fits and fabrics; later expanding into wholesale through a partnership with Nordstrom; shipping internationally; broadening the range of sizes; launching a loyalty program, Madewell Insider, and, most recently, introducing Madewell men’s denim.

“We have big aspirations to reach more customers and expand into new areas of business, but we remain focused on small details and consider every single connection with our customer as an opportunity to foster relationships, communicate our brand personality and really make them feel like they are part of our community,” she said.

“When we start planning a collection, we start with customer feedback,” explained Wadle. “We believe that’s the most organic way to grow, whether it’s through reviews on the site, comments on social media or in-person conversations in the stores with associates. We evaluate every single piece of feedback that we receive, and the men’s launch in particular had a lot to do with feedback.”

For Madewell Men’s, it took the team two years to develop the first collection. “The anchor was a 21-piece denim capsule featuring three fits. We went through countless fittings and wear tests, and really put our men in the office to work. We had to nail it right out of the gate. As you know, men are harder to win over but when you do, they are loyal. So guys, this is just the beginning. Expect much more from Madewell Men’s in the future.”

Wadle also highlighted Madewell’s efforts to introduce new makers and brands. “We developed a reputation for being a place where our customers can discover new brands, and a curated assortment so they will come back again and again.”

Sometimes, Madewell doesn’t have to go far to find something of a third-party nature that’s special. “We often look to people in our office to find brands they are loving and wearing,” Wadle said.

One time, Madewell’s head of brand creative was visiting family in Paris, where she bought a sweatshirt from a French brand that her sister introduced her to. She wore it to the office back in New York. “It caught our team’s eye. That was the spark that ignited our collaboration with the then direct-to-consumer brand Sezane. We worked with Sezane on four very successful collections with a special-edition sweatshirt that they made for Madewell. It was a bestseller. We were the first to bring them to the States. Now they have their very first flagship in New York.

“Whether it’s through the products you carry or the customer experience you deliver, to me it comes down to this — building a strong community is key to establishing a brand identity that can really weather the changes to the retail landscape. The community build is not only made up of customers. I believe a strong community has to start with your team, no matter what area of the business they touch. You need people who have a deep understanding and commitment to your brand ethos and a passion for bringing it to life.

“We work to create a community experience at every touch point, whether in store, digitally, or on a new social platform,” Wadle said. “Every interaction is an opportunity to invite them into our community and foster a really long-lasting relationship. We know that nearly two-thirds of global consumers consider brand trust to be of great importance. If you authentically build that trust, customers come back.”

Considering that Madewell, a division of the J. Crew Group, has its greatest opportunity to interact with customers in its stores, the company creates programs and spaces with individual communities in mind, Wadle said. She cited the 2011 launch of Madewell’s “hometown heroes” program dedicated to championing up-and-coming creatives. “We are selling their products and featuring their stories on our site,” Wadle said. “This program has been integral to how we have created communities locally.”

Wadle also cited Madewell’s introduction this past year of its first “experiential” store called Madewell Commons, which is situated in Austin, Tex. It features a flexible interior design to reconfigure space depending on what kind of event or program is being staged, whether that’s a performance, a basket-weaving class, a workshop or some other activity. Regarding the outlook for Madewell Commons, “Expect more in future and [different] iterations to come,” Wadle said. “Whatever makes sense for that community, it will not always be the same.”

Furthering the community spirit, Wadle said one of the brand’s biggest initiatives going forward is sustainability, to become a more responsible company, give back to communities and have a “profound effect on the business as the next generation of shoppers mature.…We have only just begun our efforts but already we know that our customers want to get involved.

“Our biggest indicator that customers want to engage with the brand, other than shopping, is our denim recycling program,” Wadle said. “Since 2014, we have been collecting used denim from our customers and recycling it into housing insulation donated to organizations like Habitat for Humanity.” Since the program started, Madewell has collected more than 500,000 jeans.

“Clearly, our customers are open to different ways of engaging with the brand. And we have an audience that is passionate about sustainability and in order to build a long-lasting relationship with the customer, you need to give them a community to be a part of and a lasting emotional connection.

“I don’t wear my pearl necklace and tulle skirt combo much anymore, but I will never forget the feeling that I had when I wore it years ago,” she said.

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