Reinventing a traditional brand – Sourcing Journal
There’s a saying about making lemonade when life gives you lemons. This is how you could describe the strategy of the G-III Apparel Group.
The $2.8 billion company, which has more than 30 owned and licensed brands in its portfolio including DKNY, Karl Lagerfeld, Andrew Marc and Cole Haan, found out late last year that it was losing two of its largest licensees : Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein. PVH Corp., which owns these brands, will take over the licenses for the North American wholesale women’s business internally again by the end of 2027. These two brands accounted for 50.7 percent of G-III sales last year.
But Morris Goldfarb, G-III’s longtime chief executive officer, had seen the handwriting on the wall and had already begun to diversify the company’s portfolio and focus its efforts on its own brands, including Vilebrequin, which it acquired in 2012, and Sonia Rykiel who bought it in 2021.
Another beneficiary of this newfound strategy is GH Bass, owned by G-III since 2013. The company dates back to 1876 when George Henry Bass got into the shoe business in Wilton, Maine. He is credited with making plowshoes for farmers, moccasins for lumberjacks, and even golfer Bobby Jones for all of the sport’s major championships. But his most famous creation was the Weejun, a revamped Norwegian peasant shoe and the world’s first penny loafer, which he introduced in 1936.
While the brand’s history remains key to its message, a new day dawns under the guidance of President Chris Paulk, who spent 13 years at Tommy Hilfiger and joined G-III as an advisor in Fall 2020. In September 2021, he was promoted to the newly created position of President of Bass.
“We’re a 150-year-old start-up,” said Paulk. “It was very widespread and we had no control over the business. We are rebuilding a brand that has gone astray.”
The goal, he said, is to “refresh, reassess and reposition.”
Since his appointment, Paulk and the Bass team — which includes Ronald “JR” Hancey Jr., vice president of design — have worked hard to expand product offerings, revamp the logo, complete the closure of its outlet stores, and to focus more on the business direct sales to consumers.
Paulk said the reorganization is still in progress, with key messages being released for the spring and more updates planned for the site. But the team started with the product because “that’s the greatest storyteller.”
While there have been many changes, one constant is the brand’s focus on its flagship product. The Weejun still accounts for around 80 percent of Bass’ total sales, a number not broken down in G-III’s results.
“The Weejun is like water to us,” Paulk said. “It’s absolutely necessary and the gateway to everything else we do.”
He described the Weejun as an actual, hand-sewn, tubular moccasin slip-on. But today it’s more than just the signature leather loafer in black or brown. The shoe is now offered in a rainbow of colors and a range of different materials including suede, flannel and crocodile. There are mule slides, tassel versions, a rubber Easy Weejun and the popular new super cleated model that is now selling as well as the traditional style.
“The Weejuns are the hallmark of the brand, but we gave it a bit of modernity,” Paulk said.
In addition to the Weejuns, the company offers a selection of dress shoes, bucks, boat shoes and Chelsea boots. a high quality outdoor collection called Field Series; waterproof leather shoes and boots and its best value offering, 1876, with welted soles and other high quality knick-knacks available at retail from $295 to $365.
Several capsules have recently been added to the Bass offering, including Modern Ivy, a collection based on the brand’s New England roots that includes footwear – both Weejuns and non-Weejuns – there are styles with Harris Tweed uppers and Houndstooth patterns as well as wool tops and chenille patches inspired by vintage varsity jackets. “We’re not just Weejuns,” Paulk said. “There are so many other ways consumers can enjoy the brand.”
But with all of its products, the goal is the same. “We’ve gone back to intentionally made shoes with the right materials,” he said. The majority of the shoes are made in El Salvador at a tannery the company has used for decades, but it also uses plants in the Dominican Republic and Mexico. Together with the team at the El Salvador factory, Bass developed a soft box leather that is now used to make the shoes more comfortable
These updates—along with higher crafting, shipping, and freight costs—have also resulted in price increases. Most Weejuns now retail for $175, up from $110 three years ago.
But despite the price hike into what Paulk described as “accessible luxury space,” there hasn’t been resistance from consumers, he claimed.
The competition is now seen as Allen Edmonds for men rather than Cole Haan or Clark’s and Kate Spade and other contemporary brands for women. The brand’s sales are almost evenly split between men and women.
Discounts are also discouraged, a departure from the past when shoes were discounted in both the company’s outlet stores and the wholesale accounts that used to make up the lion’s share of the business.
“I come from full-price D-to-C retail,” Paulk said, adding that the goal is to create a connection with the customer that’s based on relationship with brand, not price.
“When you buy the shoe, the relationship begins,” he said. “The Weejun has a life of its own outside of bass. Everyone knows it, but not everyone knows the story.”
The sales strategy was also fundamentally changed. Bass began updating its e-commerce platform last spring. “We consider the site to be our digital flagship store,” said Marlene McDade, senior vice president of global marketing. “That is our top priority.”
The effort will be spearheaded by newly hired Brian Kalma, a Zappos and Gilt veteran who recently joined G-III to oversee all digital efforts for the company. Paulk said he will work with Bass to “create a smoother digital experience for the consumer.”
The e-commerce site is even more important today given Bass’ decision to pull out of retail sales in the US. At one point there were 250 outlet stores nationwide, but these have been slowly closing, with the last units closing in fiscal 2021.
There are three retail stores in Japan – two in Tokyo and one in Osaka – a key market for bass, but these are operated by GMT, its distributor in that country.
The wholesale strategy has also been updated. Although wholesale still accounts for 50 percent of total sales worldwide, the partners have been carefully selected. “We work with the best retailers in the world,” said Paulk. “But we are more selective.”
In the US, distribution has shifted and is now offered by Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s, Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie, Madewell and Extra Butter, while internationally Mr Porter, Selfridges, Harvey Nichols, Rinascente, Matchesfashion, Printemps, Browns, Beams and others are key customers .
“Where we show up wholesale, we want to work with retailers who build the brand with us,” Paulk said.
Although shoes remain the core business, Bass also has an apparel arm called Bass Outdoor. The line, which has a strong focus on outdoor clothing for men, women and children, is manufactured by licensees and launches exclusively at Macy’s in 2020.
“It’s an accessible lifestyle brand with a no-fuss, modern approach,” said McDade. “We built a really nice business there,” Paulk added.
They indicated that more apparel as well as other classifications will appear under the GH Bass name in the future.
“We have a feet-first strategy,” Paulk said, “and we’ll eventually expand into other lifestyle categories, but we’ll take our time.”
To introduce customers to the new bass, the company is also planning an aggressive spring marketing campaign, which will kick off on Monday.
Dubbed “American Escape,” shot in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico by Ryan Plett and styled by Hannah Krall, the campaign features male and female models and is intended to convey the brand’s “colorful and carefree” spirit, McDade said .
Static images and videos are featured on the brand’s website and social media channels. “It’s mostly a digital advertising strategy,” she said, adding that the brand also produces catalogs that have proven popular, a strategy it will use more often in the future.
Paulk summed up Bass’ reinvention as follows: “We want to be good stewards of the brand. There is so much history there and we want to contribute to it for generations to come. We believe the best way to honor our heritage is to focus on the future.”
https://sourcingjournal.com/topics/business-news/g-h-bass-reinvention-heritage-brand-chris-paulk-startup-loafers-g-iii-420160/ Reinventing a traditional brand – Sourcing Journal