Draper James goes all in on 500-store Kohl’s partnership

Draper James, the womenswear brand founded by Reese Witherspoon, has taken a slow but steady approach to retail development in the first nine years of its life. It’s focused mainly on DTC sales, opening only four of its own stores. But under CEO Erin Moennich, who joined the brand in 2020, the brand is making a gigantic leap in its retail investment.

Beginning on Monday, the brand is selling a collection of over 100 pieces designed with and exclusively sold at Kohl’s. The collection is nearly as large as Draper James’ entire main product catalog and will be sold in over 500 Kohl’s stores, as well as online at kohls.com.

It’s a big investment of production that Moennich said the brand did not take lightly. 

“The only comparable partnership we’ve done was one with Land’s End [in September of 2021], but that was online-only,” Moennich said. The brand’s first foray into wholesale was in 2017, at Nordstrom.  “This is 500 stores, so it’s huge for us. DTC is still an important part of our business, but diversification through partnerships like this presents a big opportunity for growth.”

The line, which is about 30% less expensive than Draper James’ main line, beginning at $44, includes several categories that the brand doesn’t typically sell, like denim. Dresses, the top-selling category for Draper James, are a core part of the Kohl’s collection, Moennich said. Though it’s less expensive, the collection uses the same materials, relying on scale to offset costs. Moennich said the idea was to have the Kohl’s collection not feel like a diffusion line, but something comparable to what you’d get shopping directly from Draper James.

Making enough clothes to fill 500 stores is a tall order, especially for a brand used to supplying only four. Moennich said Kohl’s lent Draper James people and resources to every step of creating the line, including design team members. It also co-manufactured around half the line, including categories where the brand had little experience, like denim. 

Moennich said the main appeal of such an extensive partnership was audience acquisition. She expects to see a flood of new customers to the Draper James brand due to the partnership. Draper James’ physical presence is mostly in the southern United States, with stores in Nashville, Tennessee and Houston, Texas. But the Kohl’s partnership will give it exposure to customers in the Northeast and Midwest, and on the West Coast. 

Within Kohl’s stores, Draper James will have its own section right next to Sephora shop-in-shops, which will be decorated with Draper James colors, logos and signature striped branding.  That part of the store is prime real estate to draw in new customers, Moennich said. More than 400 new Sephora shop-in-shops will be added to Kohl’s stores this year.

The partnership with Draper James is consistent with Kohl’s recent strategy of forging partnerships with upscale designers and retailers that go beyond a simple wholesale relationship. Kohl’s recent earnings suggest the company has money to burn, with its revenue growing more than 30% in 2021. Its Lauren Conrad partnership, in particular, has been a big draw for the company, according to Morning Brew.

“Draper James’ success will ultimately come down to being prepared to connect meaningfully with all the new customers Kohl’s will provide,” said Kristin Dorsey, vp of marketing at customer experience company Linc. “If a smaller brand can provide a great customer experience to a much broader new customer base, it can retain the customers they’ll be working so hard to acquire.”

While it’s hard to get a read on physical retail’s prospects right now, the unpredictable nature of new Covid-19 variants means the public’s tolerance for shopping in-person could fluctuate widely throughout the year, Moennich said she’s confident that brick-and-mortar investment is the right move for the brand, and she expects more people to shop in person as winter thaws. Draper James opened two new stores in November, and the Kohl’s partnership signals that the brand’s confidence in retail hasn’t waned.

“Everything we do is accretive,” she said. “Partnering with Kohl’s will boost the brand, but DTC and online sales will still be a big part of our growth. Some people pulled back from shopping in person around the holidays, because of the spike, but people want to be out in the spring. They’re tired of being at home all the time.”

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