THE PRIME OF ELLEN TRACY
Byline: Janet Ozzard
NEW YORK — What’s wrong with Ellen Tracy?
Nothing, according to retailers.
The bridge sportswear company has managed, over its 45-year history, to build an enviable roster of retailers who heap praise on the company, its chairman Herb Gallen and its design director, Linda Allard.
In the last three years, the company has grown by 40 percent, according to Gallen. Although he won’t divulge the company’s volume, industry sources peg it at about $200 million.
“It’s a very well run company,” said LaVelle Olexa, vice president of fashion merchandising at Lord & Taylor. “A big money-maker for the store,” said Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president and fashion director for Bloomingdale’s. “They really care about what’s going on,” said Gerald Barnes, vice president and divisional merchandise manager at Neiman Marcus. “Customers can become loyal to it,” said Lynne Ronon, vice president and divisional merchandise manager of bridge and contemporary sportswear at Saks Fifth Avenue. “They cater to a career woman with high-quality product and consistency,” said Benny Lin, fashion director of Macy’s East.
That customer loyalty is inspiring stores to give Ellen Tracy some of the best and biggest real estate in retailing. Two years ago, when Saks’ flagship here dedicated its fourth floor to bridge, it put in a 2,000-square-foot boutique for the line, which is one of its largest spaces, said Ronon. At Macy’s flagship here, it’s a 3,500-square-foot boutique, said Lin.
And as for its dominance on the bridge retail floor, one executive explained: “They were one of the first resources to do bridge, so they’ve always been dominant in that area. A few years ago, a lot of people came out with a bridge line, but not all of them succeeded. The customers really did the sifting, so that the only ones that stayed were the Ellen Tracy, Anne Klein II, DKNY, Dana Buchman lines. It isn’t that they took space from other big names; it’s that they grew to fill space left by people who went out of business.”
What inspires the outpouring of positive reinforcement from stores? The secret, according to Gallen and Allard, is simple: Target the customer, keep designs and quality consistent, and make sure that relationships with stores are glitch-free.
It isn’t that Allard, who has been the line’s design director since 1964, is on the cutting edge of fashion. On the contrary, the designer said that while she always tries to offer “some fashion” in each season, there’s no glitz or sleaze.
“That’s part of what Ellen Tracy is about. We stay away from that,” Allard said. “We deal in investment clothing, although we do try to offer some fashion because our customer does demand that. I think it’s one of the reasons we keep constant: We study our customer, we have the same viewpoint. I design for a woman who has a career or a profession and wants to feel fabulous in her clothes, but it isn’t the be-all and end-all of her world.”
Ellen Tracy wasn’t always a bridge company; it has crept into that market slowly, evolving from a junior sportswear company to a better company to a contemporary company to its current incarnation as high-end bridge, with wholesale prices ranging from $40 for a satin stretch tank to $235 for a silk shantung three-quarter coat.
That evolution has partly to do with the growing number of women executives, Allard said.
“There are a lot more women in powerful positions today — that’s one reason why Ellen Tracy has gotten progressively more sophisticated,” said Allard. “I think the word bridge has only existed six or seven years,” said Gallen. “But we were doing that a long time before it was named bridge, because we were always one step ahead of better.”
But while the company makes its money providing salable clothes, it does not neglect to build its image with the public.
Ellen Tracy did its first runway show at Bryant Park this past October, delighting the big guns of retail who lined up in the front row to view a collection of beautifully styled and salable clothes.
Gallen said that he spends “a considerable amount of money” on advertising, although it’s limited to print, outdoor — including a billboard at Seventh Avenue and 46th Street — and direct mail marketing. For fall, the company spent between $4 million and $5 million on its ad campaign.
“We did a TV commercial years ago, and it was the worst thing you ever saw,” said Gallen.
And the line has very little of what many fashion customers consider the staple color: black. “If [other designers] do a lot of black, we do green,” said Gallen. “We’re the color people.”
“I think it’s a mistake to take New York as an example,” said Allard. “In other parts of the country, women are not so confident in black. They ask me for color.”
In fact, when asked if different color stories sold better in one region or another, both said no.
“Whatever colors sold in San Diego sold in Chicago,” Gallen said, noting that plum retailed well this fall.
The company didn’t stop at producing high end bridge sportswear for the executive woman, though. In fall 1991, it introduced Company by Ellen Tracy, a casual career counterpart that was less suit-driven and had more separates and items. It wholesales from $40 for a cotton cashmere sweater to $140 for viscose and linen blazer.
It also has a few selected licensees, including hosiery, handbags, eyewear and scarves.
However, Company had some critics who said that the line tried to be too trendy. That’s being corrected for spring shipping and a more unified point of view was presented. In addition, Company’s wholesale prices for spring have dropped 30 percent.
While its retailers may not have gripes, Gallen and Allard do. They say that while they would like to manufacture more in the U.S., the textile market and the tariff structure is uncooperative.
“We’re trying to do more here,” said Allard. “It’s just easier in the Orient.”
“They’re willing to experiment with new machinery and new ideas, and they’ll do anything to make the garments right,” added Gallen.
“Plus there’s a high duty rate on finished goods coming into this country,” Allard said. “If you want to bring merchandise from Europe here, the duties are staggering, but to bring it to the Orient is not as expensive.”
“The problem is that textile quality here has deteriorated,” Gallen claimed.
“The mills here only want to do hundreds of thousands of yards,” Allard said. “The European mills will test things for you; they’ll make 20 yards or 100 yards of something so you can test it. American mills are not as cooperative.”
Ellen Tracy now employs about 300 people and occupies almost three floors at 575 Seventh Ave. and a distribution center in northern New Jersey.
Gallen, now in his mid 70s, still sits in on design sessions and photo shoots for the ad campaign and accompanies Allard when she goes to stores for personal appearances. But while she’s addressing the crowd, he’s shopping the competition.
While Gallen is still very much involved in the day-to-day operations, the company brought in Howard Rosenberger about two years ago as executive vice president. Rosenberger had been at Bidermann Industries before that, working on Ralph Lauren Womenswear.
Retailers say they like the fact that the company’s senior executive is still very much involved.
Neiman Marcus’s Barnes said he was especially impressed with the way the firm keeps on top of its performance in the stores.
“They call to get selling every day and keep up with the business, and they really care about what’s going on,” he said. “Mr. Gallen gets updates by the week on our business. For a lot of collections that is unusual for the guy who owns the company to know what’s going on on a weekly basis.”
The line consistently performs well because it perfectly serves a specific customer, Barnes added. It is stocked in all 27 stores, and sales are running ahead of last year.
“We don’t even compare it to other lines — it’s kind of its own entity,” Barnes said. “Linda really designs for the target customer: a 35- to 55-year-old woman who is looking for a lot of value and wants to be very well dressed without spending designer amounts of money. They really do a good job of that.”
Changes in the line are gradual, he pointed out, praising such new offerings in the spring collection as unconstructed shirtjackets that are well priced and work well with pants, plus the addition of more printed blouses.
Color is one of the strengths of the line, he said, adding, “I don’t think it’s priced too high. For the price, the value is there.”
Ellen Tracy’s deliveries are more timely than most companies, he noted.
Color and prints are also key for the Macy’s career customer, said Lin — as well as the company’s judicious integration of fashion.
“They’ve always provided great fashion and very high quality, so even at the bridge price it’s investment clothing,” said Lin, explaining the appeal.
“Allard has a look that the working woman truly relates to, and she uses a color palette such that the Ellen Tracys you own can recombine and work together from season to season,” said Bloomingdale’s Ruttenstein.
“They have great deliveries, it’s great quality and good value. It used to be a junior resource, then it was contemporary and now they are bridge, and in some cases, designer. I guess they grew up with their customer.” “Linda Allard is very much in touch with who her customer is,” said Saks’s Ronon. “Customers can become loyal to it. The company really strives for that, and it has a tremendous structure. Yes, it’s expensive, but the customer doesn’t seem to balk at that.”
Lord & Taylor’s Olexa said: “It’s been an excellent resource for us. That’s certainly due to the fact that it’s a very well run company, and they understand their target customer. It’s all those things: delivery, price, consistency and value. “I think the construction and quality level is strong and consistent. It takes a long time to build that. They’ve also done direct marketing to the customer, and that makes a very strong impression when the manufacturer or designer reaches out and creates an image.”
In fact, the only negative that store executives could come up with is that it’s not “the most exciting line in the world,” but the executive noted, “the customer who is buying it is not the most exciting customer.”
But the customer is very opinionated, as Allard said she has learned during personal appearances.
“Women come up to me and say, ‘You don’t do enough long skirts,’ or why don’t you do that blue jacket again,” Allard said. “One woman came up to me in a store with an outfit in a bag that was probably 10 years old — a dirndl skirt and a sweater — and said, ‘This is my favorite outfit. Why don’t you make it again?”‘