Brooks Brothers has hired its second guest designer, a collaboration that will culminate in the launch of its first girls’ collection this fall.

This story first appeared in the January 12, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The comprehensive 100 stockkeeping-unit line, slated to hit 15 stores in the U.S. and three internationally for back-to-school, will be the first foray into the girls’ business for the 192-year-old retailer.

“This is probably the most-requested product category we have,” said Claudio Del Vecchio, chief executive officer of the New York-based chain.

To support the launch, Brooks will dedicate two stores to the concept: a new freestanding unit in Westport, Conn., as well as the conversion of a boys’-only store in Kansas City to a children’s store. It will also be merchandised heavily online.

The line will have its own label — Fleece — which incorporates the company’s trademark sheep illustration in blue lettering against a white background, tied with a red ribbon.

The designer of the collection is Nikki Kule, who has her own children’s wear collection called Kule. Her upscale line for girls and boys is sold primarily on the Web and at trunk shows, and is described on her Web site as “part Bazooka, part root beer, a little bit of Nantucket, a pinch of Tretorns, and a dab of everything that was cool in prep school 20 years ago.”Kule has quietly been working on the girls’ collection for Brooks Brothers for the past year. The collection will make its debut for the press next month at the company’s twice-yearly preview.

Initially, Del Vecchio said, the launch of girls’ started out as a “small project, but we all fell in love. It was supposed to be a few test pieces, but now it’s a real collection and a real launch.”

Kule described the line as “a full and broad range for the lifestyle of a girl — playwear, everyday wear and special occasion dresses.” It also includes accessories such as shoes, hats, scarves and tights. “We want them to feel that they can come to Brooks Brothers for everything they need.”Knits, shirts and casual bottoms will retail for under $50; dresses will be $100 or less, and outerwear will be $198 or below, said Claudia Scala, Brooks’ vice president of merchandising.

Brooks has been offering boy’s wear since its founding, and over the years, Del Vecchio said, many girls would buy the boys’ merchandise. “That’s how women’s started too,” he said. As early as the Thirties, the company realized its polo coats for men were being worn more often by the ladies attending Miss Porter’s School for Girls. Its pink men’s button-down shirts have also been popular with women over the years. Brooks opened its first women’s department in 1949, and the category accounts for around 18 percent of the retailers’ $850 million in annual sales.

The girls’ project is the company’s second guest designer collaboration, the first being the Thom Browne-designed Black Fleece line, which debuted in fall 2007.

“The guest designer concept enables us to get design creativity without the designer coming into the corporate life,” said Lou Amendola, executive vice president of merchandising for Brooks. “It gives them total creativity and lets them do what they love to do. It also allows us to start a program faster by dedicating a person to it. It can really kick-start a business.”

The deal with Brooks is a “dream job” for her, said Kule. “Classic Brooks Brothers-style clothing is what I design, so it was really natural for me. I love argyles, classic plaids and tartans, and it was easy to mesh that here.” She said she included Brooks Brothers icons such as the navy blazer, the sheep logo and the gold button but infused them with modern touches. A navy blazer, for example, offers the same Loro Piana wool as the men’s line, but has a puff sleeve. There are gingham sport shirts, stretch corduroy pants, tartan kilt skirts, printed cotton dresses and velvet coats with quilted linings.

Amendola said the line “still has the Brooks Brothers DNA of quality and value” but is priced right, particularly in this economic climate. “We’re not doing $400 dresses or cheap polyester versions of our women’s line.”

In addition to the girls’ line, Kule has also “reengineered” the company’s boys’ collection, Amendola said. “In the past, we just made mini versions of the men’s wear,” he said. “It was almost an afterthought,” Del Vecchio admitted.

The focus until now has been on suits, sport coats and dress shirts, but sportswear will play a much bigger role in future collections.

Starting this spring and rolling out for fall, Kule has expanded the boys’ offering, focusing on fleece, T-shirts, casual pants and outerwear. There are knit pants with piping, puffy vests and football jerseys. “It’s much more youthful and has a sportier look, but still classic,” she said. The label has also been reworked and will be similar to the Fleece girls’ label, but the background will be blue and the lettering white. It will also be tied with a red ribbon.

Turning back to girls’, Del Vecchio said it’s still unclear where the collection will be merchandised in the store. It might hang next to boys’ or in the women’s area — or both. “Or we might put the inventory on one side and a mannequin on the other,” he said, noting the girls’ line will definitely have “some kind of representation in the women’s store.”

The addition of girls’ helps Brooks Brothers become a true “lifestyle brand,” Amendola said. “It helps complete the package,” Del Vecchio said.

He declined to provide a volume projection for the category, saying: “We know it will drive traffic, but with [the collection being carried in] just 15 stores, it won’t be a huge part of the business. But we’ll let the customer decide how big this will be.”

Amendola reiterated that within five to 10 years, the goal is to grow women’s to 25 percent of sales, and with children’s, “if it were 5 percent of the total, that would be great.”

Del Vecchio also declined to project the number of children’s stores the company could eventually have, saying: “It won’t be in every mall in the U.S., but we could have others.” The Kansas City boys store is next door to a women’s store, and a men’s unit is located nearby, he said, while in Westport, the children’s store will be located next to the men’s store. It will be around 700 square feet. There is a separate women’s store in Westport as well.

The executives said the success of Black Fleece, which Del Vecchio admitted started out as a way to generate publicity, was what prompted the latest collaboration. “Black Fleece has evolved into a label with its own identity,” he said. Although there were some growing pains in the beginning, the association with Browne has grown and become more successful. And while the designer recently sold a controlling stake in his business to an outside investor, Del Vecchio said the association between the two has not changed. In fact, Del Vecchio said, “we would expect that we would lengthen our relationship with Thom.”

Amendola hinted there may be other guest designer collaborations in the future. “In men’s sportswear, for example, if we wanted to expand our active-ski merchandise, we would look at getting someone to do that. Our guest designer program has created a new business model.”


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