Libby Wa­dle on Denim, Prod­uct Dis­cov­ery and Com­mu­nity Build­ing

Madewell launched into men’s wear with denim but that’s just the be­gin­ning.

WWD Digital Daily - - News - BY DAVID MOIN

“When we start plan­ning a col­lec­tion, we start with cus­tomer feed­back. We be­lieve that’s the most or­ganic way to grow.”

Libby Wa­dle, Madewell

"It can be easy to fo­cus on how much has changed. It's also su­per im­por­tant to keep in mind how much has stayed the same."

That was Madewell pres­i­dent Libby Wa­dle, ru­mi­nat­ing on fash­ion re­tail­ing and re­call­ing the past and how it in­forms the present, speak­ing at the WWD

Ap­parel and Re­tail CEO Sum­mit.

"Fash­ion and shop­ping have al­ways ig­nited some­thing pretty ex­cit­ing in me," Wa­dle said. "I love think­ing about my ear­li­est re­tail ex­cur­sion, shop­ping at the mall with my friends at the Esprit depart­ment at Bloom­ing­dale's, or spend­ing $50 for my first pair of de­signer jeans, or be­ing in­spired by movies like 'The Break­fast Club' or 'St. Elmo's Fire,' for fash­ion ideas and in­spi­ra­tion. I did pur­chase a pearl neck­lace and tulle skirt like Demi Moore wore in that movie. I was def­i­nitely in­spired by movies of that time. It's no sur­prise that as soon as I was old enough to work, it was in a store," in Columbia, Md.

"I love the en­ergy of work­ing with the cus­tomers. I loved keep­ing a client list. I loved un­pack­ing the boxes, to see what was com­ing in next. I still re­mem­ber that best­selling rugby shirt with rub­ber but­tons.

"Tech­nol­ogy has dras­ti­cally changed how we mer­chan­dise our stores, but what re­mains unaf­fected is the im­por­tance of cre­at­ing that same feel­ing of ex­cite­ment and dis­cov­ery that I had when I was a teenager at the mall. A Molly Ring­wald movie may be re­placed by the lat­est in­flu­encer. But shop­pers will al­ways want to feel like they are in­spired and part of some­thing big­ger than them­selves."

The Madewell ex­cite­ment comes from "cre­at­ing a sense of com­mu­nity in ev­ery­thing that we do, from prod­uct that is in­clu­sive to a store ex­pe­ri­ence," Wa­dle said. "So if you are a cus­tomer, you feel you have a friend wait­ing for you out­side of the fit­ting room."

She said the core of Madewell is denim and that the re­tailer is "a place for dis­cov­ery for our cus­tomers. They come to us not only for great prod­uct but for art­ful styling and mean­ing­ful com­mu­nity ini­tia­tives. These are the things that we stand for. In ev­ery as­pect of the busi­ness, we chal­lenge our­selves to re­ally move to­ward that goal. We stay fo­cused on the big pic­ture while never los­ing sight of the lit­tle de­tails and con­nec­tions."

Wa­dle out­lined mile­stones in Madewell's rel­a­tively short his­tory, in­clud­ing launch­ing its first store in 2006 in Texas; re­launch­ing the denim col­lec­tion in 2013 with new fits and fab­rics; later ex­pand­ing into whole­sale through a part­ner­ship with Nord­strom; ship­ping in­ter­na­tion­ally; broad­en­ing the range of sizes; launch­ing a loy­alty pro­gram, Madewell In­sider, and, most re­cently, in­tro­duc­ing Madewell men's denim.

"We have big as­pi­ra­tions to reach more cus­tomers and ex­pand into new ar­eas of busi­ness, but we re­main fo­cused on small de­tails and con­sider ev­ery sin­gle con­nec­tion with our cus­tomer as an op­por­tu­nity to foster re­la­tion­ships, com­mu­ni­cate our brand per­son­al­ity and re­ally make them feel like they are part of our com­mu­nity," she said.

"When we start plan­ning a col­lec­tion, we start with cus­tomer feed­back," ex­plained Wa­dle. "We be­lieve that's the most or­ganic way to grow, whether it's through re­views on the site, com­ments on so­cial me­dia or in-per­son con­ver­sa­tions in the stores with as­so­ci­ates. We eval­u­ate ev­ery sin­gle piece of feed­back that we re­ceive, and the men's launch in par­tic­u­lar had a lot to do with feed­back."

For Madewell Men's, it took the team two years to de­velop the first col­lec­tion. "The an­chor was a 21-piece denim cap­sule fea­tur­ing three fits. We went through countless fit­tings and wear tests, and re­ally put our men in the of­fice to work. We had to nail it right out of the gate. As you know, men are harder to win over but when you do, they are loyal. So guys, this is just the be­gin­ning. Ex­pect much more from Madewell Men's in the fu­ture."

Wa­dle also high­lighted Madewell's ef­forts to in­tro­duce new mak­ers and brands. "We de­vel­oped a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing a place where our cus­tomers can dis­cover new brands, and a cu­rated as­sort­ment so they will come back again and again."

Some­times, Madewell doesn't have to go far to find some­thing of a third-party na­ture that's spe­cial. "We of­ten look to peo­ple in our of­fice to find brands they are lov­ing and wear­ing," Wa­dle said.

One time, Madewell's head of brand cre­ative was vis­it­ing fam­ily in Paris, where she bought a sweat­shirt from a French brand that her sis­ter in­tro­duced her to.

She wore it to the of­fice back in New

York. "It caught our team's eye. That was the spark that ig­nited our col­lab­o­ra­tion with the then di­rect-to-con­sumer brand Sezane. We worked with Sezane on four very suc­cess­ful col­lec­tions with a spe­cialedi­tion sweat­shirt that they made for Madewell. It was a best­seller. We were the first to bring them to the States. Now they have their very first flag­ship in New York.

"Whether it's through the prod­ucts you carry or the cus­tomer ex­pe­ri­ence you de­liver, to me it comes down to this — build­ing a strong com­mu­nity is key to es­tab­lish­ing a brand iden­tity that can re­ally weather the changes to the re­tail land­scape. The com­mu­nity build is not only made up of cus­tomers. I be­lieve a strong com­mu­nity has to start with your team, no mat­ter what area of the busi­ness they touch. You need peo­ple who have a deep un­der­stand­ing and com­mit­ment to your brand ethos and a pas­sion for bring­ing it to life.

"We work to cre­ate a com­mu­nity ex­pe­ri­ence at ev­ery touch point, whether in store, dig­i­tally, or on a new so­cial plat­form," Wa­dle said. "Ev­ery in­ter­ac­tion is an op­por­tu­nity to in­vite them into our com­mu­nity and foster a re­ally long-last­ing re­la­tion­ship. We know that nearly twothirds of global con­sumers con­sider brand trust to be of great im­por­tance. If you au­then­ti­cally build that trust, cus­tomers come back."

Con­sid­er­ing that Madewell, a di­vi­sion of the J. Crew Group, has its great­est op­por­tu­nity to in­ter­act with cus­tomers in its stores, the com­pany cre­ates pro­grams and spa­ces with in­di­vid­ual com­mu­ni­ties in mind, Wa­dle said. She cited the 2011 launch of Madewell's "home­town he­roes" pro­gram ded­i­cated to cham­pi­oning up-and- com­ing cre­atives. "We are sell­ing their prod­ucts and fea­tur­ing their sto­ries on our site," Wa­dle said. "This pro­gram has been in­te­gral to how we have cre­ated com­mu­ni­ties lo­cally."

Wa­dle also cited Madewell's in­tro­duc­tion this past year of its first "ex­pe­ri­en­tial" store called Madewell Com­mons, which is sit­u­ated in Austin, Tex. It fea­tures a flex­i­ble in­te­rior de­sign to re­con­fig­ure space de­pend­ing on what kind of event or pro­gram is be­ing staged, whether that's a per­for­mance, a bas­ketweav­ing class, a work­shop or some other ac­tiv­ity. Re­gard­ing the out­look for Madewell Com­mons, "Ex­pect more in fu­ture and [ dif­fer­ent] it­er­a­tions to come," Wa­dle said. "What­ever makes sense for that com­mu­nity, it will not al­ways be the same."

Fur­ther­ing the com­mu­nity spirit, Wa­dle said one of the brand's big­gest ini­tia­tives go­ing for­ward is sus­tain­abil­ity, to be­come a more re­spon­si­ble com­pany, give back to com­mu­ni­ties and have a "pro­found ef­fect on the busi­ness as the next gen­er­a­tion of shop­pers ma­ture.…We have only just be­gun our ef­forts but al­ready we know that our cus­tomers want to get in­volved.

"Our big­gest in­di­ca­tor that cus­tomers want to en­gage with the brand, other than shop­ping, is our denim re­cy­cling pro­gram," Wa­dle said. "Since 2014, we have been col­lect­ing used denim from our cus­tomers and re­cy­cling it into hous­ing in­su­la­tion do­nated to or­ga­ni­za­tions like Habi­tat for Hu­man­ity." Since the pro­gram started, Madewell has col­lected more than 500,000 jeans.

"Clearly, our cus­tomers are open to dif­fer­ent ways of en­gag­ing with the brand. And we have an au­di­ence that is pas­sion­ate about sus­tain­abil­ity and in or­der to build a long-last­ing re­la­tion­ship with the cus­tomer, you need to give them a com­mu­nity to be a part of and a last­ing emo­tional con­nec­tion.

"I don't wear my pearl neck­lace and tulle skirt combo much any­more, but I will never for­get the feel­ing that I had when I wore it years ago," she said.

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