Banana Republic, like so many other retailers, is tired of being just part of the retail pack in the mall. It wants to become a “lifestyle brand.”
And it’s banking on creative director Marissa Webb to do it.
The $2.9 billion, 700-unit division of Gap Inc. has seen growth stall over the past few years, fading in the shadows of J. Crew, H&M, Zara and other chains with greater style and identity. But Gap Inc. surprised the fashion world last April by tapping Webb and, in an unusual move for the retailer, taking a stake in her own line to lock her in and turn her into the face of Banana Republic. It probably helped the deal that Webb worked at J. Crew for a decade.
On Wednesday, Webb appeared in Banana Republic’s women’s store, located in the Flatiron section of Manhattan, wearing a gray wool tunic that was cut higher in the front and lower in the back. It’s one of the fresher items for fall, suggesting the brand’s recent forward movement and its efforts to wean itself off an overdependence on traditional careerwear and, season after season, repeating the same products. The new holiday collection reflects an eye for detail, different fits, a mix of proportions and higher-quality fabrics and offers skirts with high-low hems, zipper details, leather trims, quilted leather jackets, long sweaters, skinny pants with stretch, and lots of neutrals with pops of red, blue and pale pinks.
Webb, a contemporary designer who left J. Crew to start her own label in 2011, is involved in everything at Banana, from design and styling to windows, store presentations and marketing. At this point, she’s had some impact on how the collection is styled and presented but less so on actual product design, given that she has been on the job only six months. Her imprint will be most evident with the summer 2015 collection.
Webb wouldn’t give too much away about how she’s evolving the collection, but she did say, “There will be a lot more color, more patterns, new proportions. We will be pushing accessories, handbags, shoes and jewelry,” with more advanced styles but not necessarily a greater number of styles. Layering will be different, and, going forward, the overall mood will be “less serious and more how people dress, not necessarily head-to-toe suiting but more mixed up,” she added.
It wouldn’t be the first time Banana Republic reinvented its look. Years ago, the retailer abandoned its original safari image and adopted a sophisticated urban professional appeal. The look eventually got tired, and Banana devolved into a price-promotional, predictable “rack” operation. Banana Republic’s comparable-store sales fell flat in the second quarter of this year; they were down 1 percent in the first quarter and down 1 percent for all of 2013. “We fell into the trap of being too safe,” Webb acknowledged.
The cookie-cutter perception is there, yet something is going on at the 9,000-square-foot Banana Republic women’s store on Fifth Avenue near 16th Street. In the back, there’s a 1,100-square-foot space called Room 3 that launched during New York Fashion Week. It’s what Webb and the team regard as a lab or incubator for styling and visual ideas with an edgier attitude. The room is all white but has touches of whimsy, including paintings by Banana’s creative staff and a wall with the word “never” repeated over and over until, at the bottom, the phrase “never give up” appears. The mannequins are styled by Webb. As Banana begins to dabble in third-party vendors, the assortment is sprinkled with gold-plated jewelry from Odette, a Brooklyn designer; Hudson Grace candles; MB Art Studios plaques and vases, and Baxter of California candles.
“When I first started at Banana Republic, I wanted a store to explore and experiment with, where we could try out new things and have more fun,” Webb said. “This store represents more of who we are and what we want showing up. We’ve been very scrappy about it. I think we are on a great path. It doesn’t have to take months and months of work to get there.” She added, “Being able to move forward in a very short amount of time, to me, that’s liberating.”
Webb said the specialty retailer “won’t walk away from our core classics,” which are typically shirts and blazers versatile enough to wear from day into evening. “It’s about how you mix classics in with fashion. We are really going forward, making the collection feel different.”
Webb wouldn’t disagree with the observation that, in recent seasons, Banana seemed too muted and predictable, even boring. “Maybe that was the image from the outside, but, internally, if you met the team, you would be blown away by the energy. It’s just about giving them the green light” to loosen up and advance the look. Or, as she put it, “unbuttoning that top button a little bit.”
Banana Republic, which most directly competes with the likes of Ann Taylor, Nordstrom, Vince and J. Crew, will continue to be a destination for suiting and careerwear, though Webb said the company is “moving forward to more of a lifestyle brand,” so shoppers can better exert their own personalities and not feel uniformed. “We don’t want them to come in here just for suiting. We want people to come here for weekend, for holidays, for any occasion,” Webb said. “There will be greater fashion incorporated into everything, and we will incorporate greater color, though not a rainbow of every color on the planet.”
She sees Banana Republic targeting a broader base, not just a young urban professional. “I think it’s for everyone. It’s the way you put it together so it can be someone who is 15 or 70.”
“Banana has been kind of a yawn on the women’s side, but, this season, there’s higher quality in the garments,” said Jennifer Black of Jennifer Black & Associates. “There’s simplicity, yet it looks elevated with novelty twists. Even if it’s a basic piece, they’re utilizing a lot of great fabrics. I like the way it drapes. The collection is becoming versatile and a little edgy, but I don’t think they want to introduce a whole lot of patterns or busyness.” While in the past Banana has generally been associated with 20- to 40-year-olds, Black said, “To me, the collection looks pretty ageless.”
“There are a lot of things going on at Banana Republic,” said Rebecca Duval, vice president and equity analyst at BlueFin Research Partners. “The company got so stale. There was not enough newness on the floor” and too much of the same classic trousers, suitings and traditional office attire, she noted. “Now, they are really focused on more fashion, edge and making it modern” and opening up to outside ideas, Duval said. Recently, there was a meeting in New York with suppliers. “They are relying to a greater degree on vendors to show them innovation, not just on talent that’s onboard,” Duval noted, adding that the Banana team also has begun to gather insights from stylists at Intermix, the contemporary chain owned by Gap Inc. “In the retail world, gone are the days of the reiterations of the bestsellers,” Duval said.