What's in Madewell's secret sauce?

April 03, 2015

At Madewell’s Fall 2015 presentation this past Tuesday, the phrase “Switch the context; change the story,” was scribbled in neon lights. The handwriting belonged to the brand’s creative director of nearly two years, Somsack Sikhounmuong. “We don’t want to revolutionize things, we want to evolve them,” he said as editors began to shuffle in.

Scan next season’s collection and you can see what he means. At a time when faster, cheaper, trendier — and with more stretch! — rules, Madewell is all about subtle tweaks. A shearling-lined bomber is slightly elongated to minimize bulk, while marled knit jogging pants are upgraded from loungewear to weekend-wear when paired with lace-up oxfords. Those perfect-fitting vintage denim jeans you’ve scoured the earth for but can’t seem to find? Madewell’s stonewashed style will satisfy the need. A culmination of tomboyish, Francoise Hardy-feeling closet staples, Madewell is the rare brand with which women want to identify. Even if you are not that girl, you’d like to be her.

J.Crew CEO Mickey Drexler certainly was onto something in 2004 when he acquired the trademark to Madewell, a New England-based apparel manufacturer that had a following among workwear obsessives. Established in 1937, nothing had been produced under the Madewell label for 17 years when Drexler scooped it up. This was just as heritage brands began emerging as fashion brands, and he took full advantage of the “1937” after Madewell’s name. Writer Dan Nosowitz, whose family started Madewell, wrote an interesting piece for Buzzfeed about the “faux-thenticity” around the re-established label. But from an outsider’s view, Drexler milked it just enough, capitalizing on the fact that most of the heritage brands on the market were mostly made and cut for men.

At Madewell, which opened its first shop in 2006, there were flannels and sturdy jeans and Barbour jackets — all designed specifically for women. “It’s the go-to brand for plaid shirts and love-worn denim, and a firm favorite with our customers,” said Ben Matthews, buying manager at Net-a-Porter, which began selling Madewell this year. Nordstrom, too, has become a wholesaler of Madewell. “We’ve been admirers of Mickey and his team. Working with them has been a great experience,” said Pete Nordstrom, president of merchandising for Nordstrom, Inc. “Anything we can learn from working with Madewell will be valuable. Our customers love [the brand].”

Madewell’s first creative director, Kin Ying Lee, built the brand up in a way that complemented J.Crew’s men’s offerings. The J.Crew women’s and Madewell styles weren’t so far apart that they wouldn’t attract the same customer, but where J.Crew was black or white, Madewell was grey. (There’s a sharpness to J.Crew, and a roughness to Madewell.) Lee left the company in February 2013 after eight years. (She joined Lucky Brand Jeans as its chief creative officer in July 2013.) Drexler installed Sikhounmuong, a J.Crew vet, in time to oversee the spring 2014 collection. The tweaks to the designs were subtle, save for the revamped denim program that launched in June 2013. To be sure, Madewell in 2015 is the same brand as Madewell in 2006. Sikhounmuong’s greatest accomplishment since his arrival has been taking the momentum it already possessed and propelling it. From the aspirational Instagram account to the nice but cool models gracing its e-commerce site and catalog, the brand has a certain something that makes it irresistible to many. 

It's no surprise, then, that Madewell is a major area of growth for J.Crew. In 2014, the brand’s sales increased by 35 percent to $245.3 million, with sales up 14 percent in stores open for at least one year. (The latter figure, in retail speak, is called "comparable store sales.") To put it in perspective, J.Crew’s 2014 comparable store sales were down 2 percent in 2014, Gap’s were down 5 percent and Abercrombie’s were down 8 percent. Madewell is a new and growing brand, yes, but the stores that have been around for a while are still doing impressively well. “I would like Madewell jeans to be the Levi’s of its generation,” Drexler told the New York Times in February of this year. He added on a March earnings call: “We have persevered and invested in the business and it’s now paying us dividends.”

There seem to be two things Madewell is doing better than others. For one, it offers specificity. Every shopper thinks she’s special, and Madewell confirms that. “Even though it’s a mass brand, the pieces feel unique,” said Jodi Sweetbaum, president and managing director of the agency Lloyd & Co., whose clients include Gucci, Oscar de la Renta and Bottega Veneta. “While less polished and finished [than J.Crew], it’s more personal. And in a time when off-duty [style] is a bit more universal than it’s ever been, this works well.”

The other key? Consistency without banality. “It’s really important for us — not only with the product, but the way our stores look, the way our Instagram looks — just to keep a common thread of this lifestyle image that I have in my head, and that I think is in our team’s head,” Sikhounmuong said. “The pieces themselves are not overly designed. It’s about finding that little bit of fashion so that it doesn’t run too basic.”

Like any company, there are challenges in Madewell's future. For the past decade, all things "artisanal," "curated" and "local" — adjectives that dovetail nicely with its "effortless" aesthetic — have ruled. Lucky for the brand, these are movements more than trends, which means they have staying power. But consumer attitudes towards these ideas are evolving, and the label will have to be smart about staying attune to those changes. For now, though, in an era when the burn rate for fashion brands feels faster than ever, theirs seems like a smart strategy.