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In the beginning, there was the tracksuit.

Slim-fitting, low-slung, fuzzy in its options of terry or velour and ultimately utterly sexy, the tracksuit Juicy Couture introduced in 2001 instantly became the required uniform for L.A. women, famous and otherwise. And just so, it was coveted by masses of teenage girls, “Sex and the City”-obsessed singletons and “yummy mummies” internationally eager to cop the casual luxe that embodied Los Angeles style.

This story first appeared in the March 27, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Juicy Couture and its founders, Gela Taylor and Pamela Skaist-Levy, came to represent more than another fashion brand. The duo — brimming with California cool served up in a self-effacing quirkiness that continues to shout, “Girls just wanna have fun” — showed early marketing savvy, putting themselves out in front of the cameras and brandishing “Love P&G” across clothing labels and T-shirts.

They wrote the book on product placement through the Hollywood suite, in those early days inviting celebrities, stylists and editors to the Chateau Marmont penthouse and presenting them with tracksuits.

But even this duo, driven and dynamic as they were, knew that fulfilling the promise of becoming a lifestyle power brand would take more than wit, instinct and guts.

“We call it the ‘Peter principle,’” Taylor said recently, referring to her friend, Hard Rock founder Peter Morton. “There comes a point in business where it outgrows you and those around you, and you have to really give it a hard look and determine whether it’s time to relinquish some control to get to the next level. We realized it was time for us to do that.”

So in March 2003, Liz Claiborne Inc. acquired 100 percent of Juicy Couture. The price tag was reportedly between $38 million and $40 million. Based on information included in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing made by Claiborne, the company could end up paying $98 million or more to the founders — who remain under contract as salaried co-presidents.

At the time of the deal — the casual luxe brand was the 31st in the company’s stable — Liz Claiborne chairman and chief executive Paul Charron said that “with its appeal to a more fashion-conscious and affluent consumer, Juicy Couture adds another dimension to our portfolio, further broadening our ability to offer apparel and accessories across a wide range of consumer lifestyles and tastes.”

For Taylor and Skaist-Levy, it was a whole other dimension, too.

“Without that kind of financial backing, a company like ours — which was quadrupling its growth annually — would’ve never been able to do what we can now,” continued Taylor.

Right now, nine years since its inception, the brand is approaching $500 million in sales in its quest to reach the billion-dollar mark, as reported. It has mounted massive product expansion, including a Juicy Couture eyewear line, licensed to Safilo — ranking in sales behind Chanel and Gucci; Juicy Couture footwear, licensed to Schwartz & Benjamin; 17 freestanding signature stores in coming months, including four in New York, a flagship in Tokyo, three in Europe and a flagship in San Francisco this fall; and a Juicy Couture fragrance and baby line due in the second half of the year.

In Europe, the brand has a site in Milan on the Via de la Spiga, and is on the hunt for locations in Paris and London.

Among other cities, as reported, retail space has been secured in Atlantic City, N.J.; Boston; Scottsdale, Ariz.; Malibu, Newport Beach and Santa Barbara, Calif.; Orlando and Coral Gables, Fla.; San Antonio; Oyster Bay, N.Y., and in the Ala Moana and Royal Hawaiian shopping centers in Waikiki. In addition, a second site in San Francisco has been selected. In all, the Juicy brand could exceed 250 to 300 stores, according to Trudy Sullivan, executive vice president of Claiborne.

Also new to higher-end retail doors this season is the extension of the founders’ vision into the designer category with Couture Couture. The collection launched this spring with items such as jewel-speckled dresses. The average retail price for Couture Couture is $680, compared with Juicy Couture’s $180 retail tag.

This is no vanity project, either, they insisted. “Everything we do is to elevate the brand,” said Skaist-Levy. “Claiborne thought it was important for our brand, too.…well, after a little convincing.”

From the start and through today, Juicy’s m.o. remains the same, and its parent company appears to do everything to preserve that: “Gela and I create what we want to wear and what we want to own,” continued Skaist-Levy. “That formula works. Claiborne recognizes it. It’s a large business now, but from the creative end, it still feels like it was when we started. We still keep it very personal and very real. Claiborne totally let us be. We’re completely Juicy.”

To hear the Juicy founders tell it, an outsider would be hard pressed to recognize there’s a corporate parent involved as they tour the new facilities in Pacoima, Calif., a dusty industrial enclave north of Los Angeles, which includes a yoga studio, among other amenities. “Liz Claiborne is absolutely in the background,” Skaist-Levy added. “But that was important to them, too. We’re really lucky we picked a fabulous partner. Most stories of partnerships don’t work out this way.”

The founding pair met in 1988 through a mutual friend and quickly embarked on a denim line cut for burgeoning pregnant bellies. The two segued into launching a T-shirt and jeans line called Juicy Couture in 1997. But it was five years before the brand shook up fashion with its tracksuits. When the “Juicy girls,” as they became known, turned up for a public appearance at Harvey Nichols in 2002, a line of fans cued around the block. Men’s and children’s wear followed.

In 2004, 20 months after the Claiborne deal, the first Juicy Couture door opened, inside Caesar’s Palace Forum Shops in Las Vegas. Two more stores opened in 2005, in Phipps Plaza in Atlanta and at Dallas’ NorthPark Center.

With Claiborne, Juicy jumped right into category expansion, mostly through licensing. Jewelry, accessories and swimwear have been particularly profitable enterprises. “Right away, we were able to do whatever we dreamed of,” said Taylor, who noted that adding handbags was high on her list following the acquisition. “They don’t propose anything. We propose and they weigh the pros and cons. They’re just very patient and very amazing. They really believe in the brand.”

Without prompting, the two pay enthusiastic homage to Claiborne execs. “Paul Charron — he’s just amazing. He supports young talent. He’s very fair. We really look up to him,” said Skaist-Levy.

“Paul Charron said to me, ‘Don’t ever let us trample on you,’” continued Taylor. “Whenever I felt their idea for Juicy was wrong for Juicy, they listened to us. They let us be autonomous. We asked them not to use our name in interviews, and they respected that we wanted to keep Juicy apart from Liz Claiborne.”

“Mike Scarpa [senior vice president, finance and distribution, chief financial officer] helps us with the financial pieces. We can always call him, and there’s no question too big or too small for him,” said Skaist-Levy.

Her partner continued, “Angela Ahrendts [former executive vice president, and now chief executive at Burberry Group] was beyond incredible. She was instrumental in bringing us to Liz Claiborne. We’ll miss her. But Susan [Kellogg, group president overseeing bridge and contemporary apparel] is amazing. She and her team have really become Juicy girls.”

Not that selling Juicy came easily, despite their friend Morton’s words — or even advice from Gene and Barry Montesano to do it, based on their positive experience when they sold Lucky Brand Jeans to LCI.

“It was scary,” recalled Taylor. “The day we sold, we sat on the bathroom floor crying. We were happy. We were scared. But we were not, as many people think, in Hawaii drinking piña coladas. We’ve been working hard ever since.”

In fact, the pair were coy about a new development with the brand, slated to happen some time after the fragrance launch this year. “It’s huge,” enthused Skaist-Levy, who, along with Taylor, won’t disclose the terms of her contract with Claiborne, but confirmed retirement is nowhere in their near future. “We can’t say what it is. But it’s never been done before.”

Added Taylor, “We really feel we’ve just begun.”

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