After weathering the most challenging year in their history, major contemporary and designer sportswear firms have entered 2021 with a sense of hopefulness.
They are making investments in their direct-to-consumer businesses, keeping a tight lid on their inventories after experiencing numerous cancellations last year, improving their virtual selling methods, seeking out more specialty stores, especially those in the South, and in some cases, opening more brick-and-mortar stores and launching new categories.
Many of these brands have added a casual component to their businesses in light of women working from home, especially if they have been known for dressier, wear-to-work and going-out apparel.
Here, a snapshot of how several key independent brands coped through the pandemic and what they foresee for the first half.
“As a brand, we’ve always dressed the working woman. She’s our girl. She dresses in our cool pants and blouses for work, and wears our dresses on her dates and buys our evening dresses for her friend’s weddings. So what we’ve done throughout the year is just pivot to make the collection more casual,” said Stacey Bendet, chief executive officer and chief creative officer of Alice + Olivia. Bendet said the brand launched its “Casual for a Cause” campaign, where each casual pant benefited a certain charity over the holidays and a line of sweatpants.
“They’re cozier pants, but they’re chic. You can wear them with a sweater, or a blouse and a jacket and can wear them to work or Zoom work. My idea was I’m not going to change the clothes we make completely, that’s who we are, but I’m going to revise how we’re buying them,” said Bendet.
Rather than dresses, she said they need to have casual sweaters be their biggest category. “Knits have been driving a lot of business, so have more casual bottoms,” she said.
“When I look around at Malibu and L.A. life, it’s a little bit more like the women who dress here than how the women dress in New York,” said Bendet, speaking from her Malibu home. “I feel that the world is living an L.A. lifestyle. Our goal is really to pivot the collection to fill the needs of what women need right now. Women need less, but need things for the home,” said Bendet.
This month, Alice + Olivia will be launching printed yoga leggings and mats at Saks Fifth Avenue.
Like most fashion companies, Alice + Olivia is focused on direct-to-consumer right now. “We see a lot of places where we were going through the motions, where in truth, we have to build those teams in a more robust way,” she said. That’s one of their goals for this year.
Alice + Olivia has 36 stores worldwide and Bendet said they’re doing OK now. She said Asia handled the whole crisis better than other areas, and her Palm Beach and Dallas stores are doing great. “I have five stores in New York, and New York has just gotten crushed,” said Bendet. She said there are no tourists, so her Madison Avenue and SoHo store have no traffic. The Bryant Park store is closed. “I think my teams have done a really good job, but there’s just no foot traffic,” she said.
The brand is launching vegan sneakers and flip-flops for the spring. Last month, it also launched a collection of iPhone and iPad tech accessories with Casetify.
Bendet said that the spring business was planned realistically down. “We definitely wanted to be conservative, we just planned things down, because we don’t feel that demand will be back until next summer. I think the world will open up in June when it’s warm again. Even if everyone’s vaccinated in March/April, I don’t think the tourism will be back until next fall,” she said.
Her media budget is down, too. “We’re keeping things really lean, we’re not doing any events or any major marketing,” she said. Bender had an in-person show in September, but said her February show would be virtual.
Tanya Taylor said digital selling with wholesale platform Joor has worked well for the company. “We’ve had to incorporate a lot of video and movement into our Joor platform so we could give the experience of buyers being in the showroom as much as possible. We want to have the ability for buyers to touch and feel as much as they can. We make all these swatch books for them.”
Taylor also said spring bookings are flat to spring 2019, “which is what we expected.” “At no point are we looking for high-growth right now, other than e-commerce,” she said. “For wholesale we just want to really stabilize and make sure our relationships are healthy and get to a point where people are shopping and we can prove great sell-through.” (Spring 2020 business was down 40 percent due to cancellations and merchandise that moved later).
As for current business in department stores, Taylor said, “Casual is definitely moving. We had a T-shirt that we launched for holiday and that’s been one of our bestsellers (a graphic T-shirt with a big lipstick on it). Soft and cozy knits are moving,” said Taylor.
She noted that she’s getting the best response from specialty stores in Florida and Texas, as well as other places in the South. “There’s still comfort with shopping, and there’s an enthusiasm around shopping,” she said. “What’s been really clear over the last year is just the importance of specialty stores to our business,” said Taylor. They have started hiring freelance, local specialty coordinators in Los Angeles and Atlanta, to service the areas where they can’t fly and get to right now. They’ve been able to pick up seven or eight new accounts in the last six months.
Based on a successful launch with Summersalt Swimwear last June, Taylor decided to start manufacturing swimwear in-house with shipments to begin in May. In addition to continuing their pajamas, they are exploring kids and home.
Taylor said their e-commerce business was flat to 2019 because they had to pull back on inventory. In August, they brought in a consultant to rebuild the e-commerce plan for this year, “which is pretty ambitious.” Taylor plans to reinvest in paid media and affiliate programs and expects “tremendous growth” in-commerce this year. She said the media budget is up 60 percent in the first half.
Still, Taylor is keeping a close eye on inventories. “I’ve never been of the mind-set of sitting on a lot of inventory at the end of the season, it just feels wasteful,” she said. Due to the cancellations and the inventory that was left this year, they made a huge donation of “hundreds and hundreds of units” to Dress for Success.
She said in February, she will host a virtual event for the industry to showcase fall 2021.
Ramy Sharp, founder and creative director of Ramy Brook, said that she’s been selling her spring and summer collections virtually through Joor, and it’s gone well. Overall, she said the stores are “cautiously optimistic,” and spring/summer bookings are currently up 42 percent. She said sweaters are really booking well, as is the swimwear, which was launched for resort.
In February, Ramy Brook will launch a new loungewear collection on its web site and its own freestanding store. It plans to start wholesaling to other stores in the summer. The loungewear consists of separates such as tops and bottoms, hoodies, sweatpants and T-shirts in bright orange, yellow, turquoise, coral and black and white. The loungewear will be in luxe viscose blend, linen jersey, pima cotton and heavyweight cotton. It’s all merchandised with the ready-to-wear. There are 67 stockkeeping units in the spring line, and 62 stockkeeping units in the summer line. The loungewear retails from $65 to $245.
“Our web site has been our priority for over a year or two,” said Sharp. She said the company has invested its money, resources and time in building its web site, and is continuing to do so.
“It’s still great to have a store on Madison Avenue. We love it and we can still sell and do FaceTime out of the store. It will take time for people to come back and feel comfortable shopping in the store,” she said. She said for holiday, they sold a lot of giftable items such as hats, gloves, masks and candles. They recently started a new company called Crazy Strong, which features candles exclusively. They are available on Crazystrong.com, and at the Ramy Brook boutique. The candles sell for $48.
3.1 PHILLIP LIM
Wen Zhou, chief executive officer and cofounder of 3.1 Phillip Lim, said they’ve built their business on specialty stores and department stores. “It’s been challenging, but fortunately, we’ve been able to have a very stable and secure group of wholesalers that we have been partnering with, and we have regional reps, some of them might still be able to visit or have close connection with. We’ve been relying on our technology and our regional reps and FedEx to send samples around the world,” she said.
They have managed their spring business in a very realistic way. “We didn’t overplan, we took a conservative measure to manage our business, and I have to say, we have overachieved our business,” said Zhou.
The company launched a direct-to-consumer business called Live Free, which is a reasonless capsule collection and direct-to-consumer only. It debuted in November with sweat-wicking fabric and performance details such as scuba zippers. “It’s the influence of ath-leisure, but it’s not performance-driven. It’s made for day-to-day living,” she said.
It is being sold at Lim’s eight global freestanding stores (including New York, L.A., Hawaii, Japan, Thailand, Shanghai) and its web site.
From a business standpoint, she said they’re making a bit less, but being more purposeful with the things that they put out. Spring bookings are flat compared to a year ago, she said. She attributed most of that to a huge growth in their China business that was able to compensate for declining numbers elsewhere. In China, they do business with JD.com, Farfetch and Net-a-porter.
3.1 Phillip Lim has a collaboration with Fila China for apparel, footwear and accessories for women and men, which is going on three years. A new collection will launch in 2021.
She said the company is focusing efforts on the web site: “We’re investing heavily into technology and our content and brand image making.”
Stephanie Unwin, president of Veronica Beard, said the company’s digital business has been a priority.
“We feel very fortunate coming into this year, we had done a lot to enhance our digital business and e-commerce business. In the middle of last year, we had re-platformed. We had a number of tech enhancements that have really helped us this year to accelerate the e-commerce opportunity,” Unwin said. She said they’ve been working on that for quite a few years, and their growth in that time was almost triple digits year-over-year. “We saw a material shift into our e-commerce business,” she said.
As far as spring bookings, Unwin said, “Ready-to-wear has been the most challenged throughout the pandemic. Spring 2021 is expected to be very challenging. We are growing jeans and footwear, but we are seeing a reduction in Q1. However, we are showing growth across the board in Q2 forward year-over-year,” said Unwin.
Veronica Swanson Beard said when they went into lockdown, they reacted very quickly, including shifting a lot of their business from collections to jeans. “We knew we had to casualize the offering. We really went after jeans and we really went after T-shirts,” said Swanson Beard. They canceled styles they knew wouldn’t be relevant six months afterwards. “We were lucky to be in a position for fall where we had incredibly strong outerwear. Our jackets had come back because people were wearing jackets. Dresses were down, but our jeans were exploding. T-shirts were doing well.”
Unwin said they have a significant digital marketing budget.
They also started using Hero, which Unwin called “a great tool that merges your online and offline, and customers can have a live chat with an educated sales associate. “It’s been phenomenal for our associates,” she said. Stores are doing as well as they can, she noted, saying that the reality in markets like L.A. and New York is that traffic is incredibly depressed. “The people who make it into the stores have a lot more intent, so our conversion is much higher, but there’s significantly less traffic.” They’re having more traffic in suburban markets such as Manhasset and Greenwich, Conn., and the Southern markets as well.
Veronica Beard is launching an active capsule this month, which includes leggings, bras and jackets. “It’s a full head-to-toe look,” said Swanson Beard. “We want to expand into these categories around her lifestyle,” she said. They added more loungewear, sweat suits that can be worn out for lunch and to do workouts in, and expanded their swim business, which has coverups that women are wearing as dresses. It hits the stores this month at wholesale accounts and their own d-to-c channels.
The brand is also opening more stores. It will be opening its 13th unit in Boston in January and Chicago in late spring, as reported, and is planning to open more stores in fall 2021.
Deirdre Quinn, cofounder and chief executive officer of Lafayette 148, has grown accustomed to the digital nature of the business, from wholesale selling to retail and events. “We’ve definitely adapted to this new environment. It’s just the way it works right now.” They use Threadvine for a digital selling platform and also used Proximity, a British-based company, for their digital clienteling app. “All of these investments are making it easier to show the textures and the details and make virtual events more interesting. It’s investments you have to make,” said Quinn. She said they would absolutely continue to use these tools after the pandemic.
“It’s been a tough year. I do think we’re going into 2021 in a really healthy position,” she said. “Our inventory levels are probably too low, but I don’t care. We have the factory and we can react. It is so important. I don’t know what Q1 is bringing and I don’t want to make a mistake. I thought Q4 we’d be better off than we are, so I don’t want to risk Q1. I have to watch my cash flow. I would rather have less, sell-through better and survive,” she said.
She said spring bookings were exactly to their plan of down.
Asked how department stores are faring, she said, “I think they’re also having a challenging year. It’s survival mode for everybody. They’re selling more direct, less store traffic. It’s getting better every month.” She said the product zone that they’re in is already a challenge, and the Web business is down single digits. “That to me is up, because the zone I’m in is way down,” she said.
Quinn said her collection definitely has a luxury leisure feeling about it. “Of course we’re struggling with what a woman wears between work and home. It’s kind of blurred at the moment. But Emily [Smith, creative director] is crafting a collection with an eye towards how she’s dressing now. She’s coming to work every day in more of a luxury casual feeling. But our heritage collection of suitings, jackets and coats is part of who we are. Our jeans are here to stay. We have fabulous denim that’s selling really well and cashmeres. Knits are through the roof. We’re selling less basics. People are living off their basics right now,” said Quinn.
There’s big focus on opening stores. In 2020, Lafayette 148 opened three full price stores: Phipps Plaza in Atlanta, Short Hills, N.J. and Bal Harbour, Fla. In 2021, they’ll be opening in Dallas, Bloor Street in Toronto and Greene Street in SoHo.
“Obviously it’s the best expression of our brand. The success we’ve had on Madison and Manhasset, we need to open stores to let customers have the full Lafayette experience. There are retail opportunities right now and we’re definitely taking advantage of it.”
She said AtelierDirect, a new division of their business launched in 2020, is working out well. There are 25 cities they’re selling in directly to the consumer. They sell in their homes. “It’s just another form of luxury clienteling,” she said.
The company’s media spend for the first half is basically flat, with a healthy mix of digital and print. They will increase the budget in the second half because it’s their anniversary.
“I believe that Q3 or Q4 we’ll be in better shape. I think it’s not back to normal until 2023,” she said. “It’s never going to be the same. It’s going to be the new normal. The biggest mistake we can make it to think we’re going back to what it was. I don’t want to go back what it was. As I was building this brand, growing sales and getting bigger is part of what you did. I don’t feel that way anymore. I feel it’s more important to take care of the customer you have, be the best and make sure she loves you,” said Quinn.
Jamie Habanek, director, brand marketing and customer strategy for Eileen Fisher, said they have a virtual showroom where they’re presenting to their wholesale accounts. “We wish we had evolved into that world earlier, but that’s been working really well,” she said. They use online wholesale platform NuOrder as a tool.
“We’re feeling very optimistic about spring. Bookings are looking good. We’ve made some changes to our line overall and going back to our foundational principles. We’ve focused and reduced the number of styles to be a very simple and easy way of dressing,” she said.
She said the firm has been investing in its e-commerce business. “It’s definitely the bread-and-butter right now, but stores are still really important to us, and we’re finding new ways to reach those customers digitally. We’ve been having a lot of success through virtual styling events through Zoom, and FaceTime shopping appointments in our stores.” she said.
“They’re looking for comfort but are using for fewer, better pieces that will last longer. They’re trying to do more with less,” she said. The brand has been offering the Take Back Program for over 11 years and is serving a new kind of customer making a choice about sustainability. “We’re making new fabrics and materials out of the take-back product. We’re really committed to circularity. I think the pandemic has really elevated awareness of wanting to make better choices,” she said.
In the spring, they’re rolling out a few updates. One is around fit intention. The system of dressing will be identified as classic shape, e.g., boxy, loose and slim fit.
As far as inventory, she said, “We’re focused a lot on sample inventory and how we can reduce waste within the sample process. A lot of that goes back to how much you need for photography. We learned during the pandemic more nimble ways to shoot photography.” The media budget has been scaled proportionately to the size of the business. Year over year, it’s a little less. They’re focused on digital advertising and paid social.
She said the Eileen Fisher stores are down year over year. There are 50 mainline stores and eight company stores. “Stores are very important to who we are because we’re such a high-touch business,” she said.
Last month Ulla Johnson opened its first corporate showroom at 270 Lafayette Street, having previously done its sales through the Findings showroom. Donata Minelli Yirmiyahu, ceo of Ulla Johnson, said, “One of the most exciting parts of having our direct-to-consumer business is that over the past year and a half we’ve really chosen to use it for a place of incubation for new categories or reissuing or reconsidering existing categories.”
Some of Johnson’s new categories are swimwear, eyewear and handbags, that have launched either for pre-spring or spring/summer. Swimwear, for example, was introduced at wholesale in December and rolls out fully in March. It includes two pieces (sold as separates) and one-pieces, as well as some cover-ups.
Overall, spring bookings are up 14 percent versus a year ago, she said. “I won’t say we’ve been recession-proof, but the demand of the product is still very strong,” she said. The company’s strategy has always been to limit the number of wholesalers it sells to keep up the demand. Increases came from the U.S. majors and business in Europe, specifically Scandinavia.
Currently, 80 percent of the line is sold to stores virtually and 20 percent in-person. “We make it a very safe environment and there’s not more than one store in at a time,” she said. “What’s been really interesting is the volume of asset creation we’ve taken on since June to make these virtual markets happen. Every sku that we produce is photographed on a model, and every style has a video,” she said. They produce it all themselves and work with Joor. Johnson sends swatch books to about 50 percent of their account base.
“Ulla has been really steadfast with continuing to offer beauty and optimism. We’ve always had an incredible price/value, the clothing is still effortless. Even if it’s printed or ruffled, it’s still an easy-to-wear product. We really saw during lockdown that cozy was not a big part of our subject line. There are parts of our business like fleece that continue to perform. Our business has transitioned in the last few years to not be just about that beautiful dress, which is very identifiable to Ulla. In the past few years, we’ve grown knitwear, we’ve grown fleece, we’ve grown denim. There’s been a lifestyle component.”
Johnson re-platformed its web site last year. A year ago its international direct-to-consumer e-commerce was less than 1 percent, and now it’s more than 10 percent. Overall, the company’s direct-to-consumer business is 40 percent.
As far as inventories, they work closely with their factories, and have mostly gone to an on-order production placement and they treat additional sales as a chase business. “We really monitor very closely selling within the first two to three weeks, and then we’ll chase opportunities. The last thing that we wanted was to have excess inventory,” she said. Among Ulla Johnson’s top accounts are Net-a-porter, Nordstrom and Shopbop. Ulla Johnson has a cosmetics collaboration scheduled for fourth quarter.
“I do think first quarter is going to be conservative. With the vaccine spreading and getting past the winter, we’re so optimistic about Q2 and the balance of the year. I think people will be ready to going back to celebrations and gatherings and just be reunited with people they love,” said Yirmiyahu.
CINQ À SEPT
Jane Siskin, ceo and founder of Cinq à Sept, said, “Digital selling is working out really well. We took learnings from our first virtual market to ramp up the next and will continue to adapt to the needs of our buyers to make each season a success. That said, I miss seeing our partners in person, giving them a hug, talking over drinks. All of those personal moments that cannot translate virtually.”
She said her retail accounts are planning their businesses flat or down compared to 2019. “We are expecting to do better than that since Cinq à Sept is still growing and performing well, just not as we had projected pre-COVID-19.” She’s planning for an uptick for Q3 and Q4. “There seems to be pent-up demand for clothes other than sweatpants,” said Siskin.
She is planning conservatively and keeping her inventory under control. Cinq à Sept has increased its digital marketing spend by as much as 75 percent depending on the time frame but on average over 40 percent to support its web site and overall brand awareness. The company is allocating energy and additional resources to its direct-to-consumer business, which doubled in 2020.
Asked whether she’s made any changes in the collection to accommodate women’s more casual and stay-at-home lifestyles, Siskin said, “Absolutely. We are constantly talking about how and why women wear our clothing. It is important that we dress her for every moment of her life and now that likely means working from home and date nights in. It is essential that we provide less restrictive silhouettes and comfortable fabrics. Versatility is also key so that items bought now can still be dressed up and feel appropriate for future IRL moments.”
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