Nine West’s creative director, Fred Allard, sees the ‘new retail economy’ and changing consumer attitudes as a positive—especially for accessories.
Definitely. When I began my first season a little more than three years ago, I found our design team was very happy to approach fashion in a new way. I’ve tried to bring a synergy among accessories business: handbags, sunglasses, shoes, etcetera—one that really shows a continuity of trends and collections that we merchandise together. It’s an approach very much like what’s done in Italian and other European brands, where you create stories and points of view that are carried through in all classifications. Retailers showed interest in this new synergy and it spurred growth. Even our department store partners—where product is dispersed among many floors—liked it, too, because Nine West had a definite identity no matter where it was housed.
Nine West’s marketing has been more global, too, with all the trunk shows and appearences you’ve been doing in Europe.
We’ve been adding more of a personal touch to Nine West—putting a face behind the name. Not that I have the “perfect face,” but consumers these days are looking to identify with brands or retailers. It makes a difference to be in touch with them. The same with the press. Last fall I did a series of trunk show appearances, beginning in New York where we set up a showroom-like setting at the Gramercy Park Hotel. We did the same in Paris, London, Madrid and Athens. Each one had its own personality and flavor. We plan to keep doing these shows in our key markets and expand them into Asia, with locations like Hong Kong and Seoul, as well as Dubai and Moscow.
Coming off a tough retail year, how would you define the Nine West customer’s mood going forward?
We get some interesting insight from our Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites. Consumers have two faces these days. Women still have a passion for accessories and feminine looks, but she’s looking for styles that suit her for work then translate into dinner later with the boyfriend. While she’s very emotional—still crazy for items of the season and moment—she’s as price sensitive as she is fashion sensitive. We’re also noticing a new level of customer coming aboard—those that use to spend $600 on shoes or $2,000 on the latest “it” bag. Of course there are still women who would slit their veins for the latest, hottest fashion item, but they’re being more selective. I think it’s a natural to pull back and protect yourself when faced with a difficult situation like this economic downturn.
Do you believe this selectiveness is temporary or is this a major shift in consumers’ spending habits?
Let’s face it, there’s much less traffic and fewer shoppers than before. I can’t lie—it’s the same for Nine West as it is for every retailer. I don’t see things going back to how they were two years ago, but we’ve seen these indicators of recovery in our own figures. The consumer is starting to spend again, but remember we have news every day about earthquakes, global warming, war in Afghanistan, terror threats, etcetera. These elements are making her think differently. She’s not investing in things too early. She’s buying closer to her need and I think that’s a good change for the fashion industry.
Buying closer to the season has been a topic on everyone’s minds. How would that benefit the industry?
We all have been working too far in advance. Then in the middle finishing a season, we have the influence of the Paris or Milan runways and you realize, “Oh, I missed that or this.” We all need more time to get the trends correct and at the right timing. Yes, it’s challenging to develop collections to come out more often. Before, the cycle was full of bumps, now things will be smoother. However, the burden falls upon production. We’re going to have to manufacture faster. That falls upon corporate sourcing and it’s going to be challenging.
You mentioned keeping tabs on Nine West social networking sites. What kind of impact do they have on design directions?
I don’t think you can take it literally and let them guide your decisions—nothing to that extent—but you can’t ignore what’s going on. That’s particularly true for Facebook where Nine West has more than 35,000 followers. Marketers tell us that’s astounding.
Both our marketing department and I post regularly on our sites. It’s a way to get a quick poll on something. I’ll put up photos of three shoes, and within minutes you get 400 women posting “yes to A; B is OK; but C is horrible!” I look at it every morning and it’s interesting to see what the reaction is. Someone may post that a color is too light. And you know what? In retrospect, maybe it was indeed too light. I’m not saying that you have to take that lead, but it does indicate how important change is to the consumer. You have to listen, analyze and come away with a solution.
How did the collaboration between Nine West and New Balance come about? Why is this partnership and the product important to the Nine West consumer?
Nine West did sneakers in the past but our consumers would think, “Nine West sneakers?” In their minds, the brand represents a more dressy, sexy, trendy direction. One day we were brainstorming and putting together a wish list. The top brand that appeared on all our lists was New Balance.
From the 1970s to today, New Balance has maintained legitimacy to their brand identity. Right from the start, there was common ground on this partnership. The collaboration wasn’t approached from a financial standpoint, it was designer to designer— the New Balance creative directors Savania Davies-Keiller and Roberto Crivello and myself. Not to mention, there was a common denominator—we both are American brands and it’s a smooth joint effort.
For our first capsule collection, we were able to get into their archives and found a style from Europe which was originally for men. We asked them to take it down to women’s sizes and it was been a great success from the start. It got the attention of major department stores, too. New Balance also liked our marketing concepts including our new animated character, NWBI, our product ambassador. We put a statue of her outside our Fifth Avenue store and someone even asked about buying it!
What have been the bright spots for Nine West?
Our Vintage America collection has done incredibly well despite the fact we introduced it amid a tough economy, but it was the right time and the right price otherwise we wouldn’t have done it. The collection successfully added casual to our business which has always been known for being sexy and fashionable.
What opportunities in accessories do you foresee this year?
Shoes have been doing well, thanks to new silhouettes and the fact consumers see them as necessary—especially when looking for a job. Handbags have been challenging. I see an emerging category of “lady” bags though: moving from soft, bulky silhouettes to soft structures like Birkin looks. We revised our jewelry collection and have met with positive results. We returned to our roots. We had been doing collections mixing pricepoints: an $18 pair of earrings, a great bangle at $250. But the consumers would pick up the bangle and it was tough to justify purchasing it in this economy. We realigned our pricepoints and it’s been successful. Silver tone is doing great, very strong. Our fun zipper collection, both cuff and necklace, performed well. We see great opportunity in jewelry this year.