Tommy HilfigerTommy x The Chainsmokers press preview, New York, USA - 05 Sep 2017

Can longstanding legacy brands meet the challenges of today’s rapidly changing retail environment?

At least Tommy Hilfiger and David Jaffe of the Ascena Retail Group believe so.

“It’s so important to reinvent, take risks and listen to the consumer,” said Hilfiger, who was among the speakers at the Retail Leaders Circle conference at the Mandarin Oriental on Tuesday in New York, where 150 attendees heard from seasoned industry veterans on how to survive seismic changes and challenges enveloping the industry. The theme was “Reconfiguring, The New State of Retail.”

“I’ve pushed and evolved and reinvented many times,” said Hilfiger, who retold his story of how he started in business as a bored teenager from Elmira, N.Y., who wanted to look like a rock star and opened People’s Place. The store “was an experience,” Hilfiger said, with music, incense, a café, bell-bottoms he purchased in Manhattan’s East Village, vinyl records and “cool people hanging out.” That led to his sketching designs and getting clothes made by local seamstresses. “I wanted to build a brand.”

His business persevered despite his naysaying father, a bankruptcy and various backers, but always Hilfiger maintained a focus. “I wanted something different, casual, laid-back with a preppy look that didn’t exist. I always had that dream of forward American classics.”

Hilfiger, interviewed by Marigay McKee, former Saks fifth Avenue president and currently chief executive officer of MM Luxe Consulting, said consumers “don’t want to see a fashion show in February and wait until September to buy it in the stores.” His last see-now-buy-now event had 2.2 billion impressions and a 18 percent increase in e-commerce, the designer said. His next show will be held in London next week.

Executing the see-now-buy-now strategy meant the $7 billion Hilfiger brand, which has 1,600 stores around the world and is part of PVH Corp., had to re-create its supply chain and manufacturing, design and delivery functions. “It was a seismic shift,” Hilfiger said. “We changed the entire calendar. Fortunately, it worked. The store of the future is about bringing the runway to the audience.”

Hilfiger’s own prescription for business success during transformative times also calls for:

• “The fusion of fashion and music” and selling in conjunction with rock concerts, pop-ups and other experiences. There’s risk involved, Hilfiger acknowledged, though PVH is “totally behind it.”

• Collaborations with influencers and celebrities, including Gigi Hadid, the global brand ambassador for Tommy Hilfiger since January 2016 with whom he does a capsule collection.  “She’s the cool kid on the block with attitude. Gigi is not only a model, she’s an influencer,” Hilfiger said. “We gave her pen and pad and said you design. Her fans knew she was actually doing the collection, not just wearing the brand,” bringing an authenticity to the label.

• Marrying with technology. “I really believe it’s about partnering with digital innovation,” including Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram.

According to Jaffe, “I see two main efforts required. You’ve got to develop great product. It all starts with the merchandise.” And then, “You’ve got to give them an outstanding experience.” The Lane Bryant large-size division of Ascena is trying to, by forming the Lane Bryant Studio where customers can have personal shoppers, similar to what some upscale department stores provide, Jaffe said. Ascena, with 5,000 stores and 70,000 associates, also operates Maurices, Dressbarn, Ann Taylor, Loft, Lou & Grey, Catherines and Justice.

Jaffe also advised:

• “Social media is the most cost-effective media out there, and it’s interactive.”

• With Amazon’s private label getting better, companies should consider “distorting toward more fashion to encourage customers to come to your store to find something that can’t be found anywhere else.”

• Make stores more than mere places to get things. Millennials, he said, “want stores that stand for something.”

“Disruption waits for no one. The wind is continuing to blow. I believe it’s time for everyone to strike,” Jaffe said. “As legacy retailers, we are all in a strong position to take a lead in reinventing retail. The key is not to view these shifts and challenges as barriers…but as opportunities that inspire us.”