10 Minutes with… Charlotte Russe

Charlotte Russe president and CEO Jenny Ming

Charlotte Russe, President & CEO Jenny Ming discusses the retailer’s edited approach to fast-fashion.

The opportunity was obviously enticing. After all, it was enough to pull Jenny Ming—the Gap veteran who created Old Navy October 2009, taking the specialty years ago—out of retirement and into partnership with Advent International, the global private equity firm who ultimately bought Charlotte Russe. The reportedly $380 million deal went down chain from publicly traded to privately held and tapping Ming as Advent’s operating partner and Charlotte Russe’s president and chief executive. But that’s all background noise to the teenagers who frequent the San Diego-based specialty chain, which currently has 500
stores in 45 states and Puerto Rico. All they’re seeing is a retailer revamping itself with new stores, a sharper point of view and a sleek prototype store in Santa Monica soon to be replicated in Cambridge and Chicago.

Accessories caught up with Jenny Ming to see what’s in store for the 35-year-old retailer, which moved its design and marketing division to San Francisco and is reaching out to college girls and first time job-seekers

Why Charlotte Russe?
I was retired and busy with traveling, non-profit work and consulting in Asia. I met David Mussafer, managing partner of Advent [which also has a stake in athletic retailer Lululemon], and we looked hard for a business opportunity. I love the “fast fashion” arena—Old Navy was novel at that time but now that space is crowded. Charlotte Russe was a pioneer in fast fashion but they’d fallen behind. I saw a lot of potential. By taking the company private, we can move faster. As a public company you have to answer to Wall Street and you’re always managing comps.

What will be your point of differentiation?

Everyone in the fast-fashion arena is going bigger. There are incredible items out there but you have to go through racks and racks to find them. We’re smaller—our Manhattan store is our largest at 10,000 square feet. Our new Santa Monica prototype is 5,400 square feet and most stores are 7,000 square feet. With a tighter space, we offer the fashion short-cut.

Any in-store events?

We had a star-studded benefit/fashion show at the Santa Monica  prototype opening. Dogs wore mini versions of the clothing—all later auctioned on eBay. All proceeds went to Much Love Animal Rescue.

How do you merchandise the store?

We’re trying a hybrid model. We’re set up by trend and then by look, and then accessorize within that so you can really find what you want within a trend you love. We try to have a minimum of three trend setups in each store, so consumers can see the must-have trends of the season. For Fall we have Vintage Treasures, Fleur Fatigue and Sport Couture.

How important are accessories?

Accessories are a disproportionately higher percentage at Charlotte Russe than at our competitors, due to our shoe business. We roll in new accessories every week, which is faster than the apparel. We have a strong jewelry business too. We actually had to create new mannequins to show more accessories—the old ones didn’t have feet or heads!  Footwear is one of our drivers, including boots, incredible high heels and flat, casual shoes. They can go up to $50 but most are around $30. We’re revamping the Manhattan store and adding a shoe shop at the entrance.

Would you ever trade up to real leather?

We’ll never say never. We’ll do suede, but handbags are all PU—the washed ones we have look great. Handbags start at $10 for a cotton tote and run up to $30 for the PU. We also do interesting juxtapositions like a wool with faux fur quilted bag. Teen Vogue named our quilted activewear fabric bag the “affordable It bag” this fall. What else is hot in accessories? We really believe in hosiery and layered pieces—socks, leggings, etc. Color is key. Hats are doing very well ($6.50 to $12.50), while hair accessories are presented like jewelry ($6.50). Belts are trending incredibly well, both wide and skinny. How important is pricing? Multiple pricing is key. We sell necklaces at “2 for $8,” skinny belts “3 for $9.50,” and leggings at “2 for $12.” In jewelry, we’ve gone up to $19.50 for some special pieces, but the multiple pricing is what she’s used to. Sunglasses have been selling at $5.50 to $6.50. We are scaling them up a little bit but they will still remain under $10. We’re layering in higher prices when necessary, but they have to offer value.

What are some hot items or treatments?

Sequins have been incredible, and we’re loving the whole chunky infinity scarf this year. One of the best pieces for fall was the lace, romantic scarf, and I love the whole necklace scarf, featuring chains hanging off the piece.

Does Charlotte Russe develop all its own accessories and apparel?

We never had a design team before, but now we go into the market knowing what we want to fill. If we can design something ourselves, we will, but if we find something better in the market, we’ll buy it.

What about designer collaborations?

We’re launching Eric Daman for Charlotte Russe accessories and dresses this fall. He’s the stylist for “Gossip Girl” and was Charlotte Russe’s creative director. He “gets” our brand.

Who is this ‘Charlotte Russe,’ anyway?

She’s your best fashion friend who has great things and can help you!

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Lauren Parker, Accessories Magazine

Lauren Parker, Editor-in-Chief, Accessories Magazine
As Editor-in-Chief of Accessories Magazine for the past 12 years, Lauren Parker has covered accessories both from a retail business perspective and a fashion point of view. In previous full-time magazine jobs and freelance gigs, she’s written about practically every angle of fashion lifestyle living, including women's fashion accessories, fine jewelry, Caribbean travel, private jets, Hampton’s real estate, the New York art scene, the bridal industry, men’s lifestyle and being a mom. She loves meeting designers and seeing how their latest offerings capture the current zeitgeist and fit into the entire cultural and social picture.