In 2021, sticking to what’s been done before is a non-option. When it comes to brands in the apparel space, what’s both old and new has to be new. And for established businesses, that means walking the line between catering to longstanding customers and evolving in the name of survival.
Going into 2020, many brands with several years under their belt had the benefits of financial stability and strong product associations, sans marketing. However, many also had longstanding systems in place that were fixed to a fault, when nimbleness was a virtue.
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As such, getting through the last 18 months is, in itself, something to celebrate. So it makes sense that brands amid milestone years are being louder and prouder about their legacies.
There’s also the factor that today’s conscious consumer values brands with history. In pointing to their past, brands are sweetening the pot, so to speak, to differentiate and clinch the sale at a time when every dollar counts.
All of the founders I spoke to for this story owed their brands’ longevity, in part, to maintaining or refining their focus over time, based on what they do best. That’s opposed to, say, going all-in on sweatpants in 2020. Johnnie Boden, founder and CEO of British DTC fashion brand Boden, has been at it for 30 years, as has Michael Silver, founder and CEO of Winnipeg-based Silver Jeans Co. Pajama brand Eberjey, founded by Ali Mejia and Mariela Rovito, will hit the 25-year mark this month, while Todd Snyder, the menswear brand founded by its namesake designer, is feting 10 years in business.
In terms of product, Boden said his brand has refocused on its signature dresses and resort wear after introducing loungewear mid-pandemic, the sales of which are now fizzling. In step, he’s orchestrating a shift away from products driven by data, in an aim to both stay true to the brand and introduce more innovation.
“Previously, [our] merchandisers would create a shopping list for the designers, saying, ‘In this category, we need to have 10 dresses with short sleeves,’ [for example],” he said. “It constrained creativity. Now, we’re less driven by the math.” The shifts have been driven by new hires since October, including chief product officer Liz Binder, formerly of Burberry and J.Crew, and executive chair Glen Senk, who spent 18 years at URBN.
Meanwhile, Eberjey’s founders have decided to let their top-selling, oft-replicated Gisele pajamas play the lead in their brand’s next chapter. The product, which looks like a classic menswear set but features a soft modal fabric, launched 15 years ago and “revolutionized the business,” said Mejia. It’s now available in 10 silhouettes and a range of core and seasonal colors. “It took us this long to learn that we need to focus,” she said.
Likewise, Silver stressed the importance of avoiding distractions, pointing to Birkenstock as one of his inspirations for his brand’s strict denim focus. Rather than evolve to a lifestyle brand, it still only makes jeans and a few complementing tops and jackets.
“Birkenstock is the greatest shining example of fashion success,” he said. “They’ve done some fancier stuff, they’ve done different fabrications, but really, Birkenstocks are Birkenstocks … They’ve had [high and low] times, but they’ve stuck to what they do.”
Fashion is cyclical, he noted, and if you can “ride the wave,” the trends will come around again. Silver’s jeans evolve — to be more comfortable, for example. But, it’s continued to prioritize quality craftsmanship and sustainability, Silver said. In his eyes, the industry’s current environmental focus calls to mind the Woodstock era, and, he said, Silver’s best-selling styles are 30-year-old silhouettes. That the brand is family-owned, with no pressure from shareholders, has allowed it to stay its course.
Meanwhile, Snyder has kept his brand’s focus on classic styles with a twist, supplemented by constant product collaborations; sales of collabs account for 20-25% of the business. The lack of competitors doing quality apparel at the same price point has signaled he should stay put.
As with product, the founders said they’re conscious of remaining consistent in their values. For Boden, that includes building a brand around “good people,” he said. And Silver has continued to champion eco-friendly production.
However, evolution is imperative for survival in fashion.
“It’s a scary business; you can’t be complacent,” said Boden. “And businesses are flowers — either you grow, or you die.” As he sees it, there are two ways for a brand to grow: to expand to more products or to find new customers. Boden is currently targeting the U.S. market, where there’s 10% brand awareness among its target demographic (women around age 35), versus 60% in the U.K. To better serve U.S. customers, it’s considering investing in a second warehouse, on the West Coast. It currently ships from Pennsylvania.
Mejia said she and Rovito, who’ve self-funded Eberjey, built it “really slowly and on [their] own terms.” And Snyder used the word “thoughtful” when describing his brand’s strategy for opening physical retail. It’s set to open 10 stores nationwide in 2022. It currently has three, in NYC and the Hamptons. Reaching new audiences by rolling out owned-stores is a strategy that CEO and creative director Jane Siskin also plans to tackle for her contemporary brand Cinq à Sept. The company is celebrating its fifth birthday this year and plans to open its own doors within the next five years.
Despite streamlining their product focus, these founders have greatly evolved their marketing strategies over time. Boden is currently moving from a focus on sending current customers print catalogs to targeting new shoppers by way of a data-driven, digital focus. The brand is also moving from running four seasonal campaigns to updating its homepage every month with 4-5 new ideas. “Our customer is on the site every week,” he said.
Silver said managing and expanding the brand’s digital footprint via marketing and influencers is of top importance; it’s upping its investment in the space, including making new dedicated hires. Along with Snyder’s collaborations and stores, his marketing mix includes print catalogs and digital ads. He said the evolution of the brand’s e-commerce site, which accounts for 90% of its sales, is ongoing, and a new chat functionality is among August site launches. “We try to replicate what it’s like to be in the store as much as possible,” he said.
All of the founders have experience selling through wholesale — of course, e-commerce was in a nascent stage when some of them took off. Silver Jeans Co.’s sales are currently split 50-50, between DTC and wholesale — Silver called it an omnichannel strategy. Like Silver, both Todd Snyder and Eberjey started as 100% wholesale brands, but have since moved on: Todd Snyder is now fully DTC, while Eberjey is “omnichannel,” said Rovito.
“[Last year] we had to have a lot of internal conversations about whether we should go back to distributing wholesale and committing to that calendar,” said Rovito. The company decided to continue with their partners, largely due to the marketing they provide. But in two weeks, it’s launching a rebrand and site refresh.
“You can’t be stuck in what worked even last year,” said Mejia. “We’re evolving the brand based on how we show up digitally. Eberjey’s new logo stands out and has more personality, she said. Plus the new site sheds more light on the brand’s backstory and values, including transparency and diversity “in looks and bodies,” to reflect its customer.
With every change, striking the right balance between honoring their past and evolving for the new world has been top of mind.
Considering the world’s tumultuous past 18 months, the founders were keener this year to celebrate their anniversary than in milestone years past. Boden had never spotlighted its history, but this year, it’s doing so with a campaign featuring buzzy fashion model Jean Campbell, who modeled for the company as a child. To commemorate his company’s 10 years, Snyder released a capsule collection of greatest-hit styles, including collaborations, that the brand has sold over the years.
All founders alluded to, or straight-out said, that fashion is not for the faint of heart. Passion-driven grit has been needed to get them to this point. “I used to have to do so many side hustles to keep the lights on,” Snyder said, pointing to projects like curating localized product assortments for Target and doing consulting work for Champion Europe. And out of the gate, he felt uneasy signing a two-year lease on a 500-square-foot office. It wasn’t until American Eagle bought the company in 2015 that his “stress went down a lot.” But, his childhood idol was Ralph Lauren, and he repeated different iterations of, “I love fashion,” and “I love collaborations,” throughout our 30-minute discussion.
Silver also stressed his passion for the industry, including his devotion to keeping traditional denim craftsmanship alive. “We have our boots on the ground in our factories, from Vietnam to India, teaching everybody how we want the product to be,” he said. “We go nuts about every stitch on every jean.”
But Eberjey’s Rovito said she likely would have opted out, had she known how challenging running an apparel brand would be. She and Mejia did not go to business or design school, and are instead learning everything as they go. Big obstacles they faced pre-pandemic included seeing their factory that made 95% of its styles shut down.
“This is the school of hard knocks here,” laughed Mejia. “There were no shortcuts. But we’re so passionate about the brand — and in our next 25 years, we hope to help other women to also feel empowered.”
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