I originally published this post in February of 2012. Yesterday Sycamore Partners agreed to buy Talbot’s in a deal for $369 million, including net debt. This is good news for Talbot’s but the massive work to restore this shipwrecked brand is yet to come.
I had the good fortune of meeting Nancy Talbot, or I should say “Mrs. Talbot” as everyone respectfully addressed her. She was a woman with a point-of-view, opinionated and had a clear vision for the iconic retail brand she had founded. Talbots was synonymous with a monied, New England coastal, lifestyle. Her customers played exclusive sports, golf, sailing, riding and tennis. They volunteered at non-profits. They had the luxury of choosing not to work. If they worked, they were lawyers, investment bankers or women rapidly climbing the corporate ladder. If this wasn’t your real lifestyle, shopping at Talbot’s was entre to the exclusive club.
The stores felt residential. Her brand was defined by a touch of whimsy and happy color. She assorted her stores from hundreds of creative vendors, but it had the consistency of one discriminating eye. She was a visionary brand builder in the league of a Mickey Drexler (J. Crew) or Reed Krakoff (Coach), for her time. There was a definitive social status for shopping at the red-doored, suburban stores.
Can Talbot’s brand ever be restored?
Talbot’s as it stands today is a sailor luffing in a sea of retail sameness. It lost its hard-won personality. If you woke up in a store, there would be no identifying clues to where you were. Long ago, it lost it’s cache of the New England good life. The series of owners and CEOs since Mrs. Talbot, didn’t understand what they were trading away. They didn’t understand how the customer evolved and weren’t protective of the exclusivity, the social aspect of the brand. They now design all of their own products and even with this centralized control, they’ve lost that one-eyed point of view. They played it safe and didn’t take any chances. In a quest for growth and uniformity, they opened hundreds of bland mall-stores. In recent years they stole other retail identities and zig-zagged product. Sales proliferated and it became “common” to shop at Talbot’s. Authenticity can’t be faked.
The Talbot’s customer was also a Coach, Burberry, J. Crew and Ralph Lauren customer. These are some of the hottest apparel and accessory brands in the world today. They stand for something, they take creative risks. The common denominator is each one of these, is it run by a visionary brand builder, not a committee allowed to sterilize risk taking based on historical sales. At these companies, fashion leadership dominates over history, while brand heritage is respected and evolved. Other brands are thriving in the classic fashion arena, Kate Spade, Tory Burch, Milly, Hunter Boots, Sperry, Jack Rogers to name a few. The former Talbot’s customer loves them all.
Talbots is on the block again and will inevitably be picked by another optimistic bidder. They will shutter stores and cut expenses and search for the holy grail of retail CEO’s. We are still grossly overstored and only true leaders will thrive. The results will be the same once again, if they can’t create social status and demand for shopping at this once venerable brand. They have to find leadership that truly understands that fashion is show business and have to restore credibility to the total brand experience.