BOSTON — “This speaks to a lot more than just shiny glass.”
New Balance chief executive officer Robert DeMartini is sitting in his company’s global headquarters, a newly built, cruise ship-sized building that reflects both the sky and the brand’s ambitions. “When I look out the window, I can see our previous three offices. It speaks to our deep commitment to the community,” DeMartini said.
With the new headquarters, New Balance has made a public statement about what it believes in and where it intends to go. DeMartini said the $3.7 billion brand, which has been growing at 15 percent annually for the past five years, can double in revenue within five years. To reach those goals, New Balance needs to do better in women’s apparel — much better.
“Think of every woman who works out,” DeMartini said. “None of them buy apparel from us.”
Added Deirdre Fitzgerald, New Balance’s vice president of apparel, “When we talk about where we’re going, apparel is a critical element. To be successful as a global athletic brand, we have to be successful in apparel.”
Fitzgerald, who joined New Balance a year ago after stints at Brooks Brothers, J. Crew and Talbots, said the appeal of New Balance footwear — which has shed its “white walking shoes” stigma — “has given us a platform” for apparel.
Over the years, New Balance has struggled with women’s apparel. By internal assessment, it was too techy, too boxy, and resembled the men’s product too closely.
“We’ve spent quite a bit of time recalibrating,” Fitzgerald said. “We are working on telling a story, emphasizing color and print direction, and flowing in new fashion at more regular intervals.”
The company has reworked its fits and abandoned their linear grade rule. Now a size 12 is not just bigger than a size two, it’s shaped differently.
In addition, “story” has become an important word around New Balance’s offices. The company is producing a catalogue shaped by lifestyle: women running or stretching, athlete profiles, information about its Girls Night Out fitness events. DeMartini said the catalogue has bumped traffic to newbalance.com and piqued the interest of wholesalers.
“The reaction to our higher price points has been encouraging,” Fitzgerald said, citing an asymmetrical vest and seamless hoodie that have been among the strongest pieces. She said the line’s core is “designed for movement,” not a particular sport. But the company is addressing sport-specific needs, such as running, with premium pieces featuring ultralight fabrics, sonic welding, perforation, UV protection and other properties. They are developing a new base layer system to debut in 2017.
During a recent visit, the company’s fall 2016 merchandise was displayed in a shiny new showroom. (For competitive reasons, the company would not allow WWD to photograph it.) It is appealing stuff, with body-conscious shapes that nod at Lululemon. A pair of leggings is done in distorted floral of navy, black and yellow; black capris are enlivened by mesh knees and gold hem detailing. There are jackets with duster hems and cowl-neck sweatshirts. The looks make sense, and could be worn both to workout and — critically — afterward around town. One mannequin grips a racket wearing the company’s head-to-toe Grand Slam Tournament looks.
“We’ve really elevated apparel within the whole corporation and made it a priority,” Fitzgerald noted.
That’s evident in the headquarters design. The old office had no showrooms; instead, traditional conference rooms were awkwardly rigged to hang clothing. In the new space, there’s an entire floor devoted to showrooms. The centerpiece is a huge glass-walled space that can be set up any possible way, including as a retail environment.
The quarter-million-square-foot new space features a soaring lobby lined in rustic wood. In a nod to domestic manufacturing, a vintage cutting machine anchors the leather reception desk. A brand ambassador is there to walk visitors through 100-plus years of company history — Jim Davis bought New Balance in 1972 — including a “maker’s corner” with hammers, awls and fabric swatches.
The floors are open, with low-walled workspaces, flexible common areas for meeting and socializing, adjustable desks and wide, colorful pathways of Mondo, a performance track surface.
Women’s apparel has been on the company’s To Do list for a long time. The company is emphasizing distribution to newbalance.com and New Balance stores first — “If we can’t sell apparel in our own stores, how can we ask others to sell it?” DeMartini noted. Company stores are being retrofitted with dressing rooms; new stores will have them.
DeMartini is realistic about how challenging it will be to carve out space in a crowded category.
“I can’t think of a competitor of ours who’s not pursuing this space,” he reflected. “The world doesn’t need us in this space — so we have to give her a reason to want us.”
And that may start with their foot(wear) in the door. Could New Balance activewear eventually be sold as a capsule in J. Crew, a la the successful shoe collaboration?
DeMartini responded: “Yes, it should be. You’ve had the same thought we’ve had.”
The lobby at the New Balance headquarters.