‘THE FULL STORY’
CAROLEE DESIGNS HAS EXPANDED ITS BRAND MESSAGE TO REFLECT A FULLY ROUNDED OFFERING. NOW, IF ONLY DEPARTMENT STORES WILL FOLLOW THE LEAD.

Byline: Wendy Hessen

For shoppers perusing the Carolee boutique in the Bloomingdale’s New York flagship, it’s easy enough to comprehend that Carolee is about jewelry. Of course, the Carolee brand is much more than that, but they may never come to realize it because the company’s handbags, scarves, bridal and home accessories are nowhere nearby.
What Carolee Friedlander and a growing number of her colleagues have come to realize is that, in part because of the sector’s aversion to multiple product merchandising, department stores are not always the best incubators for an accessory brand’s growth.
So like Prada, Gucci and others, Carolee Designs has become a disciple of the idea that if you want your brand story told in the right way, you’d better do it yourself.
As president and chief executive officer of Carolee Designs, Friedlander’s doing just that with a newly renovated store and Web site of her own, both part of a strategic plan to make sure Carolee’s brand image keeps stride with its diverse and vital assortment of products.
According to Friedlander, the process of expanding the brand message was not easy.
“You need to keep reinventing yourself,” she said during a walk through of her revamped store just off the main shopping street of tony Greenwich, Conn. “It’s been a gut-wrenching, but fabulous learning experience. For the first time, we did focus group research. We found that our customer ranges from ages 21 to 55, and she relies on us to provide tasteful, well-designed merchandise that is both timeless and of the moment. In the past two years, our merchandise has evolved, but our look didn’t reflect that. This was an exercise in identifying the characteristics of the brand.”
Friedlander’s pride in the results is obvious. “The new store concept allows us to combine personal accessories with home accessories, bath and body and our whole bridal accessories range. It was one thing to create a financial plan and see the blueprints, but when it all came together, it was something else. This is the first time we’ve had this number of classifications together, and we now see the potential impact we can make with so many categories.”
The process started 18 months ago, when Friedlander engaged Vignelli Associates, an international multidiscipline design firm, to reassess nearly every element of the company. Vignelli, with capabilities ranging from graphics and signage to product, furniture and interior design, has handled such diverse assignments as the new American Airlines terminal at JFK International Airport, the Designers Collezione stores in Japan and corporate identity programs for Lincoln Center and fashion firms such as Tahari and Laundry.
Simultaneously, she enlisted Fry Multimedia, creator of e-commerce sites for 1-800 Flowers and Eddie Bauer, among others, to develop the company’s Web presence.
The physical manifestation of Carolee Designs’ brand message is centered around an artful presentation of an assortment that includes jewelry, handbags, small leather goods, scarves, bridal and home accessories.
Unlike the company’s presentation in department stores, 80 percent of the jewelry in the Greenwich store comes from the pricier bridge line, called Signature, instead of the costume jewelry line.
Another crucial difference from the Carolee portrayed in department stores is the cross-merchandising. In the Greenwich unit, pieces are merchandised by lifestyle or fashion theme, in open-sell cubicles and drawers. Natural-colored and straw handbags are mixed with bead bracelets, wooden boxes and frames. The bridal area offers jewelry, gifts for members of the bridal party, photo albums and guest books, and bath and body items.
“The entire bridal and home arena is explosive for us,” Friedlander noted. “In future stores and on the Internet, the category will be greatly expanded, and we’re adding a whole engraving concept as well.”
At press time, Friedlander said the firm was on the verge of signing a license for home fragrance products, which will include candles, potpourri, room sprays and soap. An eyewear license is also expected to be signed shortly, and the firm is also considering entering the tabletop and china markets.
At the Greenwich site, white walls and limestone floors of the 600-square-foot space impart a serene, understated atmosphere that draws the consumer’s eye to the merchandise. In addition to a full-length mirror, one wall features a horizontal band of reflective glass that adds a greater depth to the narrow space. It is also just the right height for trying on accessories, since it reflects the customer’s image from the top of the head to just above the waist.
Light opens up the space. Expansive windows let in natural sunlight throughout the day, and light wood shelves are lit from underneath rather than above.
Jewelry is housed in four wood and glass units, each with 16 drawers. The first two rows of drawers feature glass fronts and tops for easy viewing. The tops can be opened and closed, allowing consumers easy access to the jewelry. Pieces are displayed on movable silver metal grates and grouped in themes, such as freshwater pearls or turquoise. The lower drawers hold extra stock. Once purchased, each item is packaged in a gray, pleated silk pouch. The company logo has also been updated, from a loopy script to a cleaned-up and more contemporary print version.
The store’s design concept is one that Friedlander would like to see duplicated in all the 800 doors that currently market the company’s merchandise.
She said the firm’s eight largest boutiques — in Harrods, House of Fraser, Mitsukoshi and the Bloomingdale’s flagship here — will be converted to a customized version of the new look almost immediately. In addition, 350 department store counters will incorporate some elements of the jewelry displays from the Greenwich prototype.
Like others who have devoted considerable time and money to nurturing a strong brand message among their targeted consumers, Friedlander conceded to feeling frustrated over the limitations of the department store framework. Still, she said she remains optimistic about being able to sell store executives on the benefits of the multi-product presentation that anchors her renewed brand strategy.
“Consumers today buy brands,” Friedlander said. “Part of the disadvantage with department stores is the segregation of products. Customers want to see how it all works together. We’re not doing anything that is that different from any other strong brand. We think this concept is quite convertible to department stores.”
However, should retailers fail to embrace her strategy, Friedlander said she would not rule out the possibility of opting out of department store distribution. The Greenwich store model is one that could easily be interpreted in just about any upscale mall in the country. The company expects the freestanding store concept to log sales of more than $1,000 per square foot, versus department store performance of $500 a square foot, in the top doors.
“Every major brand has its own stores or Internet site,” said Friedlander. “It’s time to build something that is bigger and better.”