How Do Big Fashion Brands Get Big with Laura Helms and Express’ Jim Hilt

21 June, 2018

Fashion & culture historian Laura McLaws Helms and Express’ Chief Customer Experience Officer Jim Hilt came to our penthouse to survey the groundbreaking successes and tumultuous ups-and-downs of iconic retail brands, including, of course, Express.

Laura: To get to mass fashion, we had to have the technology to produce mass garments. Before the Industrial Revolution, before sewing machines were invented, there was no way to do that. Everything was made in the home, or sent out to a dressmaker, and hand-sewn. But gradually over the last half of the 19th century, it became industrialized.

In the 1950s there was an economic boom. Time Magazine called it the “luckiest generation,” which were the teenagers coming of age in the 1950s. Their parents were making more money, there were more jobs, so if they wanted a weekend or nighttime job, they could have it. They could save that money for themselves rather than putting it towards their family, so they were spending it on clothes and cars and whatever they wanted.

The smart retailers started realizing that there was a whole new market. A really smart retail entrepreneur, Leslie Wexner, borrowed money from his aunt in 1963 to set up his own store, The Limited, in Columbus, Ohio. It was called The Limited because they had a limited range of merchandise that they were gonna sell inexpensively, and turn over quickly, for young women, and it was immediately a smash.

The “luckiest generation”: teenagers coming of age in the 1950s enjoying the economic boom.
Leslie Wexner borrowed money from his aunt in 1963 to set up his own store, The Limited, in Columbus, Ohio.

Laura: At Express do you talk about the starting point?

Jim: Oh, for sure. I mean if you think about Les Wexner, he's not only an iconic retailer, he's an iconic business leader. He fully understood immediately that consumers, particularly at the time you're talking about, were creating what we now call segments. All of the things that now are very natural for us to talk about, were so new and so innovative and he understood it really quickly. If you think about your American iconic brands, Abercrombie & Fitch came out of it, what is now New York & Company used to be Lerner, and that was owned by it. Lane Bryant came out of it. And Justice came out of that, which is actually the biggest kind of kid's brand, kind of for pre-teen girls-

Laura: And that was The Limited Too.

Jim: Right, it was Limited Too, and then they spun it out. So one of the things that he understood very early is that the shopping mall was the vehicle to create many different kinds of companies. He's known to have said at one point, if he had invented McDonald's, he also would have invented Burger King.

Laura: As you brought up, Les Wexner realized there were sectors of the market that were missing. The Limited was great, it was doing fantastically well, around 1980. It was the world's leading fashion retailer of women's clothing. But there were certain segments of the market that it wasn't getting because it was The Limited. So he opened the first Limited Express in Chicago, attached to The Limited.

Jim: What The Limited was, was just kind of what I would call basics, a wide range of basics, for a younger consumer. But what it wasn't doing was taking fashion that was coming out of Calvin Klein, and Halston, and all those iconic '70s brands, at the expensive fashion consumer level. It wasn't translating that down into the market. That was what Express really intended to do.

“If you pay attention to what Karlie's doing, she fundamentally believes that the whole cycle has to change. And that's what we've been doing.”

Jim Hilt

Laura: All of the newspaper articles I found from when it launched were talking about how it was known for being “trendy” and “far out.” It was so new, especially for the mall, that it looked like nothing else.

Jim: And it was like nothing else. So when we spend a lot of time thinking about how to reinvent the brand, modernize the brand, and be relevant and all of these things, when I sit with customers and consumers and people or whatnot and they start talking to me about Zara, or H&M, in my brain I get a little defensive. I'm like: but we were first. I can't take credit for it, but the brand was there before anyone else saying the consumer wants a more fashionable product that's pushing the edge, and they delivered it, for a really long time. We can have conversations about whether we deliver it today, but in the end when people talk about these amazing fast-fashion brands, I'm literally like, in 1981, we were fast fashion.

Laura: You guys were the forerunners of fast fashion, but how has the growth of brands like Zara and H&M impacted the way that you do business?

Jim: Zara created a completely different supply chain in the manufacturing process. It was all originally vertically integrated, completely in Spain, so everything they did could really go end-to-end quickly. And if you think about in the '80s or '90s communicating with people in China, in India, today it's super easy, but that became a huge advantage for Zara. It really forced all of us to reevaluate our speed to market, and how we think about it. What's interesting though is they turned it into a marketing conversation, because the consumer today says, "Oh my gosh, Zara has product that shows up literally like three weeks after it shows up on the runway.”

They've really created an advantage relative to how they project that idea and as a consumer that's super valuable. If you're into fashion, you want to know that you're getting the fashion that is of the moment, so you believe it. And I think it's forced American retailers to rethink not only how they do business, but also how they communicate what they deliver.

Jim and Laura that evening

Laura: I wanted to talk about celebrities and collaborations. The design collaboration that we think about really started in 2002 with Isaac Mizrahi being brought in by Target. It launched the idea of a designer coming in and working with a mass market brand. In 2004, Karl Lagerfeld did it with H&M, and it sold out within seconds. Everyone who'd ever wanted to buy something from Chanel suddenly could. As far as I can tell Express has done very limited collaborations. Why do you think that so many fashion retailers have done these collaborations and really pushed them, whereas Express hasn't?

Jim: It's actually a really interesting conversation because if you actually put us in the landscape of American retailers, so take out H&M and Zara which are substantial, there’s about a 3.5-billion dollar cap on what any individual specialty apparel brand seems to be able to deliver. So American Eagle, and Gap as an individual brand, they all kind of land in this 3-billion dollar range. We've been 2.3 billion dollars for like 10 years. And so as a company, we looked at brand collaborations, and when you actually look at the volume that brand collaborations sell, they do such a small amount. It's a really important marketing vehicle, but it's not a really important economic vehicle.

One of the things that's true of all Limited-oriented companies, Victoria's Secret, Abercrombie & Fitch, none of us have gone there. So by Les' model, he'd say it's a useless marketing investment. Whether it is or not is a different question. Which is part of what we're going through. What does a modern fashion brand need to do? We did the collection with Karlie Kloss last year and it was super successful, but not because of the product volume. Because to move our company from 2.3 billion to 3, you're talking millions and millions and millions of units. So when Jonathan Anderson does a cute little thing with so and so, and Victoria Beckham does a little thing with Reebok, it’s cool and everyone loves it, but it doesn't actually translate into value.

But it creates interest, it creates connectivity. We did the Karlie collection because we repositioned the brand. Along with Karlie, we launched it with 12 women who were super-diverse in body shape and culturally, which the brand has not historically been known for. It started this year's long journey to change our projection relative to body positivity, body shape, body size, and how we do it today.

Jim and Laura chatting with our guests after their conversation

Laura: Well, you know Les bought Lane Bryant to have that side of the market, over there.

Jim: To basically say it's over here, and that isn’t, well one, it's not the modern world we live in. Two, it isn't what we as a brand, and more importantly as a company, believe in. We fundamentally believe that everybody deserves great fashion at a high-quality price. And it's why we now, not that I'm putting a marketing spin on this, but 100% of our assortment will be delivered in these sizes in all of our stores over the next 12 months. There is no other non-plus size brand doing what we do.

And that is what Karlie Kloss kicked off with us. She sat down and we talked about her collection, and she said “I want every woman in America to be able to wear this.” And you're like you're 6’2”, you're a supermodel. But if you pay attention to what Karlie's doing, she fundamentally believes that the whole cycle has to change. And that's what we've been doing.

Laura: And how's the response been?

Jim: Amazing. And again not because I want to sit here and tell you how amazing it is. But it literally was. Last March when we did it, we were the first brand that had a woman in a job on the runway actually in our product. That was amazing to me. We had a campaign with real people in August last year. We embraced women of different sizes, and again I'm going to go back to it being about our size and scale. There are lots of brands who have been there before we have been. But when you're the 6th largest specialty-apparel brand in the market, when we do something before anybody else, that's a big deal. And it also sends a lot of really important messages to young women and young men about what they should be proud of. And I'm super excited about it. Clearly. I'm really proud of it.

Words by The Editors, Laura McLaws Helms, and Jim Hilt. Photo: Christos Katsiouni.

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