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Arlene Goldstein is the eyes and ears of Belk.
This story first appeared in the March 18, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
As vice president of trend merchandising and fashion direction, she’s the arbiter of fashion, traveling the world for the latest trends in fashion and pop culture. She can frequently be found trendspotting in London, Paris, Barcelona, Milan or Antwerp, Belgium, visiting trade fairs throughout Europe and the U.S. or traveling among Los Angeles, New York and Dallas for market appointments and fashion shows.
“If you don’t go, you don’t know,” said Goldstein.
The peripatetic executive considers herself a “forecaster,” saying, “You’re a product of everything you see and hear.”
For the past six years, Goldstein has been stationed at Belk. She transferred to the company’s Charlotte, N.C., headquarters after serving as Parisian’s director of special events and fashion director, as well as vice president of trend merchandising for Parisian’s parent at the time, Saks Inc. Belk acquired Parisian along with Saks Inc.’s two other department store nameplates, Proffitt’s and McRae’s, in 2006. Goldstein also provided color and trend direction to the sibling divisions under the Saks Inc. umbrella.
She now works with Belk’s merchandising, private brands and marketing departments to set the tone for each season, bringing a clear and distinct point of view to Belk customers.
One of the biggest changes she’s seen is the way in which the multichannel strategy has become so prominent at Belk. Currently, the Web site, belk.com, is the chain’s top-volume store, followed by the chain’s Raleigh unit.
“One of my goals is to raise the profile of belk.com,” said Goldstein. She added she’s very involved with social media, tweeting frequently @Belk Fashion Buzz about herself, her travels, what she sees in the market and what her job is like. Her breathless tweets take her from Première Vision in Paris to shopping trips in London to market appointments in Manhattan. For example, a recent tweet read, “Here at #vincecamuto looking at fall. More black and white. Do it now!!!” Or, a tweet from London read, “Sweatshirts a part of the mix in most spring collections here in London. Most often given a fem twist!”
She also blogs about her fashion role at Belk for the Huffington Post.
Raising Belk’s fashion profile is an integral part of her job.
Belk will be the first retailer to have a tent at the upcoming Charleston Fashion Week, which runs Tuesday through Saturday. There it will stage a fashion show on Thursday, have guest bloggers and feature accessories designers from its Southern Designer Showcase, a key initiative at Belk to discover and promote new talent from the region. Belk will also have a pop-up shop on Charleston’s main shopping thoroughfare, King Street, throughout the month of March.
While Goldstein is involved with all the categories at Belk, “women’s apparel is the engine that drives the business,” she said. The store aims to keep up with the latest trends but doesn’t necessarily have to be the first to try out a new fashion. “We won’t be the first, but let’s not be the last” is her battle cry.
She said fashion is quite democratic these days, and everyone knows everything. She travels to Europe because the trends become mainstream so much more quickly these days, and while she doesn’t attend the European shows, nor does the store carry high-end designer fashion, she does shop the stores and see what’s happening on the streets. For example, five years ago she spotted four guys having lunch and each of them was wearing a different shade of gray. One was in gray jeans, and one was wearing light gray with dark gray. “It was very compelling, and I could see it was coming,” she said.
Goldstein works with The Doneger Group, which she said provides “great information.” She is just putting spring 2014 in place right now and will present that to the team. Sometimes, she said, a trend will get to H&M before it gets to Bergdorf Goodman. “We’re seeing trends interpreted quicker and staying longer,” she said.
Abbey Doneger, president of The Doneger Group, said Goldstein epitomizes Belk’s tag line, “Modern. Southern. Style.”
“She’s professional and has a great sense of style and class. She interacts well with our team from creative services and our merchants. She’s a very experienced person and so well respected,” said Doneger.
While Belk doesn’t carry high-end designer merchandise, it recently added Diane von Furstenberg and Magaschoni and carries lines such as Tracy Reese, Plenty by Tracy Reese and Trina Turk.
As for big trends, right now, Goldstein said, it’s all about prints.
“We’re seeing elevated print techniques surfacing in innovative ways,” said Goldstein, such as photorealism and digitized prints.
What continues to be an outstanding category for Belk is the dress business, which should come as no surprise considering its Southern location. The retailer touts itself as “The South’s Dress Address” on its Web site.
“It’s such a key element. It’s the most important item in [ready-to-wear]. You throw on a dress and you’re done. It’s more feminine than some other pieces,” said Goldstein.
Belk has also become a destination for great shoes, she added.
Each season, in January and July, Goldstein does a Fashion p.r. tour, where she visits Belk’s five top markets — Charlotte, Raleigh, Birmingham, Nashville and Atlanta. She invites local bloggers, tweeters and fashion editors to attend, and Goldstein discusses Belk’s point of view for the season.
“That’s been amazing, and I’ve been able to build personal relationships with these people,” she said.
During one tour in Birmingham last January, there were two sisters in the audience who blog under the name EleventhGorgeous and whose videos on YouTube have garnered thousands of views. They were invited to be Belk’s special guest bloggers at Charleston Fashion Week and will be dressed in Belk clothing.
Cynthia Rowley, whose exclusive Cynthia Cynthia Rowley line for Belk launches this month, will be a guest judge, along with Goldstein and others, on the emerging-designer fashion panel sponsored by Charleston Fashion Week.
To plan the store’s 125th anniversary, Goldstein met with store president and chief merchandising officer Kathryn Bufano, who suggested a design contest in conjunction with the anniversary. Goldstein spearheaded the Southern Designer Showcase, in which the winning designers would become vendors at Belk. Each contestant had to have some connection with the Belk footprint. Perhaps a designer got his first Boy Scout uniform at Belk, or her prom dress. One seamstress said Belk was the only place she could buy fabrics growing up, and that inspired her to become a designer.
“Belk was such an important part of watershed events in people’s lives,” said Goldstein.
Some 200 applications were culled to 35 by a panel of judges, and the winning 15 vendors are being carried in select stores this spring and on belk.com. In addition, the winning collections will be featured in Belk’s 125th anniversary celebration ad campaign and showcased on Belk’s Facebook page.
Two years ago, Belk instituted its rebranding initiative, “Modern. Southern. Style,” designed to tout its more fashion-forward side.
“Women in the South like things a little more feminine, and they love color. We’re in a print cycle right now, and black and white is really important,” she said, adding that the theme will continue to be important moving into fall.
While the store doesn’t carry bridal gowns, the bridal category is important to the store and reports to Goldstein. This includes the bridal registry. She said she’s found that if a bride receives a KitchenAid mixer from Belk as a gift, for example, she’ll never forget that and will become a loyal customer.
The teen business is a bit trickier. That customer tends to shop more at specialty stores. “Traditionally the junior customer is not a department store customer, and there is a white space for us,” said Goldstein.
Asked what the biggest growth area for Belk is, Goldstein didn’t hesitate: “We’re seeing a great deal of growth for shoes.”
Whenever they renovate a shoe department, there’s instant payback, she said. Among the better-performing footwear vendors are Sam Edelman, Frye, Yellow Box and Dolce Vita.
Top sportswear lines include Vince Camuto, Michael Michael Kors, Lauren Ralph Lauren, Free People, Eileen Fisher, Lilly Pulitzer, Theory and Karen Kane. In fact, Belk invited Kane to a fund-raising event March 10 sponsored by the Junior League in Raleigh and Belk. The second annual Fashion Forward, a benefit celebrating the season’s must-have trends, featured a runway fashion show, with a guest appearance by Kane.
Belk frequently partners and hosts fashion events with nonprofit groups, including the American Heart Association in Birmingham; American Cancer Society in Atlanta; Siskin Children’s Institute in Chattanooga, Tenn.; Pink Ribbons in Atlanta; the Monroe Carrell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt in Nashville and the Junior League in several cities. “We’ll do seven to eight big events with the nonprofits,” she said. The retailer also hosts a Girls’ Night Out twice a year.
Goldstein believes Southern style has become a lot more modern. Over the past seven years, the company identified opportunity in the modern zone and went after it. It began offering elevated product throughout the store in such areas as accessories, intimate apparel and footwear.
Each season, Goldstein composes the “Most Wanted” list featuring the top 10 must-have items. The list is posted online and available in the stores, and a brochure is also sent to store associates. The same list with pictures of more elevated product is featured in the Look Book, Belk’s seasonal regular-priced fashion catalog. For spring the Most Wanted list consists of a bold print dress, a silk top, fancy pants, a spring jacket, a fashion wedge, a statement necklace, a sassy skirt, a novelty knit, something lacy and a new tote.
For the Southern gentleman, the list comprises colored bottoms, prepster ties, a spring sport coat, slim fit jeans, novelty shorts, “tees, tees, tees,” bold stripes, preppy shoes, prominent patterns and dress shirts in soft colors.
A former schoolteacher, Goldstein said she got her start in the fashion business when a friend of hers who owned a modeling agency asked for her help in creating a course, similar to a lesson plan, in showing women how to pull their wardrobes together. “I developed and taught a course [for the public] on building a core wardrobe and adding fashion to it. The reception was amazing,” she said. Afterward, she wanted to go into retail and approached Parisian and said, “I think I can bring working women back into the store,” and she was hired as special-events coordinator.
Fast-forward to today and Goldstein said the fashion office has become increasingly more important to Belk. “Kathy [Bufano] puts great value on it,” she said, adding that the fashion team is “small but mighty.”
But no matter how far she travels, Goldstein never loses sight of the bottom line: “A fashion director who doesn’t know how to make money is out of a job.”