I was shopping in New York recently and feeling rather uninspired. I usually have an agenda, a new store or retailer, I am particularly excited about. Most large retailers make their own apparel and accessory products, so the watery soup is often spoiled by too many cooks, adding their managerial spice. It’s increasingly hard to find good retail theater, a strong brand identity and exciting, well-designed product, that hasn’t been tainted by levels of bureaucrats.
I challenged myself to come up with 6 “five-star” retailers that are doing an outstanding job, with a consistent brand experience and compelling fashion in a lackluster field:
Madewell – is the baby sister of J. Crew. I have been a long-time J. Crew proponent, even though the mothership has stumbled lately. Madewell is coming into its own with American casual classics, based around core denim pieces. You know to expect great jeans, chambray shirts, denim jackets, hip tees and knits, funky socks, rustic leather bags and shoes and slightly bohemian jewelry. The colors are simple and lean to the neutral side. The collection is totally wearable and much better-than-average quality for the price, a winning combination. This high-growth chain has little competition in the mall and will now be sold in Nordstrom as well.
Athleta – I was not a fan of fan of Athleta when Gap purchased it in 2008 for a mere $150 million. At the time their “zen-like” yoga prints and mass-market color sense paled against activewear, fashion pioneer Lululemon. Gap was betting on the powerful athleisure trend in apparel and has put their considerable product development muscle and resources behind the chain. They now have over 100 stores and have shed those expected “new-age” prints for a powerful collection of more urbane, sexy, forward clothing. They get that the athletic trend is worn as much out of the gym, as in, with their deep collection of cosmopolitan casual dresses, knit tops, bottoms and huge assortment of mix and match swimwear. I actually bought a $500 leather jacket at this formerly “perky” yoga chain and have never even done a downward dog.
Club Monaco – is a Canadian-based acquisition, part of the Ralph Lauren Corporation. Certainly not a household word, they only have approximately 140 stores worldwide. Club Monaco offers women’s and men’s collections of modern, urbane classics at affordable luxury prices points. Tasteful, upscale and contemporary, they are especially strong in knit tops, dresses, jackets, skirts and accessories for work and play. The quality of design and materials, far exceeds the price points to make Club Monaco a fairly hidden gem.
Michael Kors – Wandering through Macy’s first floor flagship the other day, I was blown away by the crowd of at least 40 people in the Michael Kors shop. The Coach concession across the hall had 2 visitors. it wasn’t a special event, it was business as usual for this hot-shot, brand-of-the-moment.
Michael Kors is a text-book example of consistent branding. The uber-glam handbags, watches, shoes and “bit of an after note”, clothing are precisely on the same urbane plane. Their stores, website, marketing collateral and product are as in sync as an Argentine tango. Chock it up as a real designer with one eye for everything. Even if you are getting tired of his ubiquitous bags, this brand is fashion branding royalty.
Zara – is fast-fashion at it’s finest. Owned by Spanish parent Inditex, in my book it blows away competitors H&M and Forever 21. They consistently put out easy-to-shop collections of fashion forward apparel and accessories, that defy their puny price points. Taken out of context the styling and quality could be mistaken for some of the best. There is no doubt what to expect at Zara, the best fashion trends in real-time, at really low prices. Zara brand profile as fashion leader, is crystal clear.
Lou & Grey – is a new free-standing store concept brand from parent Ann, Inc. It was born from the success of loungy apparel in their Loft chain. When I stumbled upon the Natick, Ma concept store, I was pleasantly surprised by the small sophisticated, upscale environment and compelling collection of lifestyle casual apparel and earthy accessories. This is the best thing Ann Inc. has done in a while. It is easier to do something new than reinvent history. Ann Taylor and Loft have become sterilized versions of their glory days with poor quality, dull offerings and banal stores. Currently only 7 stores, Lou & Grey is one to watch.