Levi Strauss may have invented jeans, but it never saw yoga pants coming. Inside the effort to win back the hearts, and butts, of shoppers ... At the foot of Telegraph Hill in San Francisco, in a renovated grain mill with soaring ceilings and wooden beams, Bart Sights is refining his recipes for denim. In his hands, stained dark blue from day after day of plunging fabric into buckets of indigo dye, he holds a list of steps for creating a particularly vexing style: women’s skinny jeans. Most such jeans contain so much synthetic fiber they appear slick, cheap, and unlike real denim. Sights has been searching for a way to give the fabric just the right amount of stretch, in just the right places—enough to flatter the figure, but not so much that they stop looking like jeans. ... The company, founded in 1853, has survived the Civil War, the Great Depression, and other epochal threats, but in the last two years it’s been tormented by an enemy none of its executives saw coming: yoga pants.
The thing people always talk about first, when they are talking about Net-a-Porter, is the packaging. For a company known for being on the leading edge of online fashion, it is surprisingly anachronistic: The black, beribboned bags that arrive, brimming with tissue paper and the promise of a life-changing ensemble, could just as easily have been delivered by uniformed footman to Eloise’s Plaza as summoned via the internet into the one inhabited by Russian oligarchs. “It’s like getting a present,” the company’s president, Natalie Massenet, likes to say, which sounds whimsical but isn’t. Elaborate packaging is integral to the Net-a-Porter brand. It was central to Massenet’s vision when she started the company in her apartment in 1999, on the premise that good old-fashioned luxury and the utilitarian promise of the internet need not be mutually exclusive, and has remained so even as the company has expanded to become one of the leading players of global e-commerce. ... Back in March, after its parent company, the Swiss luxury retailer Richemont, announced it had struck a deal to merge the site with its rival at a $1.5 billion valuation and in exchange for half of the combined company, Net-a-Porter did its best to make it seem like cause for celebration. ... The Champagne was still fizzing from the last dot-com boom when Massenet launched Net-a-Porter. ... At the time, luxury brands had little interest in selling their wares online. The prevailing sentiment was that designer clothes did not belong in a marketplace known for trafficking primarily in electronics and p~rn. ... It’s a world not unlike a high-end hotel chain, which is the point: “I wanted to make sure that the whole company was unified, like you were opening one door from one office space and then entering another one,” ... The company bends over backward to service Them, providing same-day delivery in Hong Kong, New York, and London, and seasonally in the Hamptons. There are special sales for EIPs (Extremely Important People). Occasional collections are tailored to their needs ... As the CEO of one company who sells merchandise on the site put it to me: “Everyone loves Net-a-Porter. They are great at everything. Except making money.”
Known for their calm temperaments and soft fleece, alpacas looked like the next hot thing to backyard farmers. The market was frenetic, with some top of the line animals selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars. ... But the bubble burst, leaving thousands of alpaca breeders with near-worthless herds. Today, craigslist posts across the country advertise “herd liquidations” and going out of business deals on alpacas, some selling for as low as a dollar. ... They bought in at the height of the bubble, when it was commonplace for alpacas to sell for several thousand dollars. The couple started breeding and selling the offspring. ... Back in the 1980s you’d really only find them in zoos. Now there’s close to 150,000 in the U.S. ... Even late night TV commercials, sandwiched between infomercials, touted the animals’ ability to pad a retiree’s income. ... “The fundamental fact is that in this country, an alpaca, as an asset, an income-producing asset, is worthless. It has no value at all,” Sexton says. “The product it produces, 6 to 8 pounds of alpaca fiber a year, is worth less than what it costs to feed, medicate, and house the animal.”
Since taking over in 2006 from the outsider Knight first recruited for the job, Parker has overseen a more than doubling of Nike’s sales. To outward appearances, Knight and Parker are a study in contrasts. Knight is an MBA and still an irascible presence around Nike’s Beaverton, Ore., corporate campus. Parker is a soft-spoken shoe designer, known for a thoughtful if demanding management style. ... Parker was one of Nike’s earliest recruits—he joined a design outpost in New Hampshire in 1979—and has succeeded at every task assigned to him since. ... Parker’s meticulous approach to product development, known as “design thinking,” is all the rage, thanks to the acclaim of Apple’s products under its famed designer Jony Ive. Parker remains committed to his original craft: He still noodles on two limited-run sneaker lines with famed Nike designer Tinker Hatfield, one of them with Nike spokes-icon Michael Jordan and the other with Japanese stylemaker Hiroshi Fujiwara. ... Parker equates his managerial style with being an editor, with his process focused on helping subordinates hone their ideas. He even edits himself.
Price tags are a consideration of titanic importance. They’re more important even than the ideal number of window displays (five, with two for women’s wear and one each for men, kids, and home), or whether jeans should be hanging or folded (hanging for more fashion-forward styles so you can see the detailing, folded for basics). ... Price is by far the biggest reason Primark is the undisputed victor in Britain’s cheap-fashion war. Secondary are its up-to-the-minute designs, jazzy stores, and tireless promotion on social media. Primark doesn’t sell online and barely advertises. Instead, customers advertise it for free, posting thousands of selfies with their latest outfits, using the #Primania hashtag to be rated and critiqued. The best images get cycled onto giant in-store LED screens to spur impulse buying. ... It’s a relentless curator and promoter of clothes so ridiculously cheap that buying them on a whim because you like someone’s outfit on Instagram is an entirely reasonable idea. ... The idea is to offer prices Americans are used to seeing on less-than-hip clothes from Kohl’s or Walmart on trendy pieces that change from day to day. ... If Primark has a father, it’s a man named Arthur Ryan, but he’s not easy to get to know. Having hardly ever given an interview or a speech, he’s the Keyser Söze of retail. ... Weston is emphatic that Primark’s prices don’t come from cutting corners on labor. “We buy clothes from the same factories that everyone else buys from,” he says. “Everyone.” Instead, he says, undercutting competitors is basically a matter of volume—selling low-margin items many, many more times. ... In an industry where retailers cancel orders that are already on freighters and force suppliers to take financial hits when product doesn’t sell, that edge gives suppliers the confidence to cut better deals for Primark
In 1976, the best surfers in the world began seeking Quiksilver because they were the best. The combination of Velcro, snaps and a high waistband made them grip hips and stay on, even in the largest waves. Before long, Hawaii-based Americans such as Hakman sported them. Soon, the surf mags were running photo after photo of pros gliding down famous waves such as Banzai Pipeline and Sunset Beach while wearing them—the best advertising imaginable. ... From its garage-like space, Quiksilver swelled. Within 10 years, it became the first publicly listed surfwear company; soon after, it opened boutiques in New York, Paris, London and Dubai. And by 2004, it announced annual earnings that exceeded $1 billion. ... the brand has crashed mightily ever since, leading up to this past Sept. 9, when Quiksilver sought relief in a Delaware bankruptcy court from $826 million in debt ... "Rossignol, I think, was the thing that killed Quiksilver in itself," Pezman says. "When you try to be all to everyone, you lose the support system. When you de-specialize, you lose your attraction to the specialized markets you had."
That now-infamous overhaul, under then-CEO and former Apple retail guru Ron Johnson, sought to reposition Penney as a flashier retailer with fancier merchandise. But it backfired: Customers fled, sales tumbled by almost a third, and Penney was crippled financially. Three years ago the board brought back Mike Ullman, the CEO it had unceremoniously chased out in favor of Johnson, to stop the U.S.S. Penney from sinking. And last summer he handed the reins to Ellison—an executive the opposite of flashy. ... It’s fitting that Ellison, a lifelong musician, plays electric bass, an instrument that rarely gets a flashy solo but without which no band can click. He made his reputation in retail at Home Depot, helping engineer that chain’s turnaround by focusing on unsexy but primordial things like the supply chain and the integration of stores and e-commerce. He’s a data devotee who grounds every decision in information—including that seemingly intuitive shoe move. ... The trees look nice, but the forest is daunting. Penney’s sales, an estimated $12.6 billion for the just-completed year, are still down 37% from their 2006 peak. Its nascent recovery, part of its fourth turnaround effort since 2000, hasn’t swayed Wall Street—its stock trades close to a 35-year low. In the long term, the problem isn’t just that Penney has been dysfunctional; it’s also that Penney is a department store, a practitioner of a business model under siege.
American Apparel launched in 1988 as a T-shirt business that founder and former CEO Dov Charney ran out of his dorm room at Tufts University. After Charney opened his first retail store, on Los Angeles’s Sunset Boulevard in 2003, the brand quickly became a phenomenon, famous for its local, sweatshop-free manufacturing and notorious for its sexually charged advertising. ... As it became a public company in 2007 (through a reverse merger), American Apparel had 143 stores in 11 countries and was valued at nearly a billion dollars. ... It wasn’t just the merchandise that set the company apart. From the beginning, American Apparel eschewed fast fashion (the practice of copying new runway trends immediately and cheaply) in favor of generating its own iconoclastic staples. Instead of outsourcing manufacturing to low-wage overseas workers, it produced almost everything it sold for wholesale and retail in its own factory in Los Angeles ... Production and design now follow a strict calendar, set by Schneider. "You have to have your raw materials where they’re supposed to be, your bundling down, your product cut up and ready to sew—there are a thousand steps that go into making this run smoothly," Schneider says. "And it’s more complicated [at American Apparel] because you’re knitting your own yarn, you’re dyeing your own fabric, and you’re manufacturing everything here and shipping everything yourself." In part, as a result, niche items that fall outside of American Apparel’s knit-production expertise—sweaters, denim—are now being outsourced to other factories around Los Angeles.