Josie Natori needed a few minutes to compose herself Friday morning, while telling her staff that her son Kenneth has been promoted to president of her company.
“It was emotional. He was in a crib when I started my business almost 40 years ago. I used to keep the Telex machine in his room and it would be going off all night when the orders would come in,” she said.
While her tears momentarily concerned a few employees, Natori, chief executive officer and chief creative officer, said assuringly, “I’m not going any place. Having someone to take the company to the next level is the smart thing to do. It’s a great thing to bring in another generation that has a fresh mind-set.”
Asked if she envisions a time when she won’t be working, Natori said, “Oh God, no.”
In house, the brand handles sleepwear, ready-to-wear, loungewear and eveningwear, and through licensing deals there are bras, bedding, towels, rugs and fragrance. The company has 65 staffers in its Madison Avenue office and about 35 in a Secaucus, N.J., warehouse. Last fall, the company relocated to a 45,00-square-foot warehouse, nearly doubling the space. There are also about 400 employees in the firm’s factory in the Philippines. A second New York store is being considered for next year, as well as one in the Philippines. Given the breadth of products, it’s not surprising that Natori may collaborate with a hotel resort to showcase “bedding, decor, caftans — the whole nine yards — but made in the Philippines.”
“My approach has always been reigniting or reimagining,” Josie Natori said. “When I got into the business, I never understood this idea of departments because I’ve always approached it as a lifestyle. From day one in lingerie, I was trying to sell pillows and fragrance but I realized there is only so much you can do in that department.”
Last year’s total retail volume was $200 million and the aim is to become a $250 million operation in 2017. Natori plans to unveil hosiery, socks and leggings during next month’s legwear market and footwear is another area of interest. Last fall, the brand launched its first mail-order catalogue for ready-to-wear and this spring another featuring rtw, bras and home decor will be shipped to about 40,000 consumers. “The combination of e-com, our own direct [mail catalogue] and working with stores has been incredibly helpful to us,” Josie Natori said.
After consulting for a few months, Charles Soriano is now vice president of design operations, product development and production at the company.
In the nine years since the designer’s son joined the company as vice president, he launched its e-commerce business, ramped up licensing and steered public relations and marketing efforts. A Stanford MBA grad, who worked in international sales at Lehman Brothers, he offers a different version of the camera-ready executive, having been a reporter at Bloomberg LP for five years. Through his Bloomberg News connections, he continues to cohost a special radio show, called “Titans of Retail.” In addition to CNBC and other on-air appearances, he and his mother tag-team for HSN appearances. In October, the company started selling via a shopping channel in Canada.
Ken Natori stressed the importance of having a family behind the brand as well as dedicated production capacity.
“Other brands don’t know the conditions of their factories or where their stuff is made,” he said. “In addition to creating luxury product, we need to convey the fact to customers, whether that’s through social media or public appearances, that we are different. We’re not just some licensed brand that is one of 13 licensed brand at the same company.”
Another voice at the company is Natori’s wife Anika, who blogs for the Josie by Natori collection as “The Josie Girl,” aimed at shoppers between the ages of 20 to 35.
“The customer of tomorrow thinks differently. They want to be entertained, they want to feel good,” Josie Natori said. “How do you approach that? How do we see our market in the future?”
With distribution in Japan and the Phillipines, the company has not paid as much attention to global opportunities as it could, but that is now among Ken Natori’s priorities. Increasingly, whether it’s Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Dillard’s or Bloomingdale’s, Natori said she is “finding more and more now, stores are saying let’s do it, when I suggest something new.”
“We’re very nimble. There’s no bureaucracy here. If my mother has an idea, she just makes it happen. We have our factory. We have our own warehouse,” he said. “Going forward as the environment becomes more difficult, consumers are less loyal and retailers are asking more and more from us, we have to maintain an entrepreneurial spirit. But in order to run more efficiently, we have to have more attention to detail in terms of our strategy, our resource allocation, planning. We’re kind of like a yin and yang — she sees something and wants to go do it and I want to put a process behind it.”
Proof of Natori’s zeal would be launching eveningwear one month after her publicist Paul Wilmot suggested she get into the category. Then there was the February day in 2013 she showed up at the office and said she had signed a lease for an Elizabeth Street store, which she opened in May.
The mother-son team plans to celebrate the promotion once she returns from her monthly weekend visit to Manila. One matter that is still under debate is whether Josie and Ken Natori will share an office — she says yes, he is not convinced.