Alexandra Waldman speaks eloquently and bluntly about the fashion industry—a combination that’s hard to find, and that’s catapulting her clothing business, Universal Standard, into the mainstream. As the world’s first truly size-inclusive brand, fitting women from 00-40, it’s partnered with Adidas, Rodarte, J.Crew and even our cover star’s brand, Goop.
Waldman and I spoke on a panel together about the future of fashion at Adweek’s CMO Moves summit in New York last month, and in the days leading up to the event, she said something to me that I haven’t been able to shake: “Heritage is an albatross around the necks of brands. There needs to be a changing of the mind and of the guard.”
You’ve suspected it, haven’t you? That the longer the life of a brand, the harder for it to adjust to the massive social, political, technological and generational shifts taking place. Already this year, we’ve seen Barneys bid adieu with a bargain-basement sale that felt like a Fifth Avenue funeral, and Gap part with its CEO and CMO in what seems like an endless quest for a turnaround. And that’s on the heels of 9,300 retail stores closing in 2019, according to a Business Insider analysis, mostly established chains like Destination Maternity, Dressbarn, Kmart, Payless and Sears. (Candidly, I’ve snagged amazing deals in 2020 simply because I keep finding myself in the middle of a liquidation sale. If you see me in an Italian amaranthine blazer at our Challenger Brands summit this week, know that Barneys nearly paid me to take it off the rack.)
But wait—the news isn’t rosy for so-called challenger brands, either. When we published our issue devoted to challengers a year ago, the mattress brand Casper was on our cover and everywhere you turned, an e-commerce startup was achieving unicorn status. Now Casper and dozens more DTC darlings are going through humbling corrections, be they financial or organizational (often both).
We’re seeing just how hard it is for young entrepreneurs to scale, much less exit, a business while keeping customers, employees, investors and regulators happy. If heritage is an albatross, inexperience is a blindfold.
So everyone is struggling through the retail apocalypse. And that’s the good news. No one has it completely figured out, and there’s room for a winning formula or 10 to break through. On the other side, stronger companies, happier customers and more fulfilled employees await. In the fire, retailers are refining the customer experience and becoming better global citizens. Because they have to.
I can’t wait for you to mine this issue. In our cover story, Diana Pearl examines how Goop broke away from competitors and found success despite dogged detractors. You’ll hear from content chief Elise Loehnen and Gwyneth Paltrow herself about how they’re staying ahead.
Meanwhile, for a look at what the DTC 3.0 era holds, Ann-Marie Alcántara began her reporting with a simple question: Is DTC experiencing a bubble? Industry insiders responded with a clear-eyed consensus. While Alcántara looks forward, the duo who coined the term “challenger brands” 21 years ago looks back at some hallmarks of successful challengers.
With the help of an illustrator, Richard Collings shows us how retailers are responding to the pressure to be more sustainable (less wasteful).
And finally, I recruited Waldman—who I mentioned at the top of this letter—and Gap’s former CMO Alegra O’Hare to interview each other about the good and bad of guiding challengers versus heritage brands. I hope you find their words as illuminating as I did.
Hearing from smart brand builders makes me optimistic about the future of retail, and having these conversations in print, on stage and in person is vital. My hope is you’ll read or hear something this week that sticks with you and helps you solve a challenge you’re working through. Here at the start of a decade, we’re all learning.