Stylebook Snapshot: Passion for fashion drove Juicy Couture duo
May 24, 2014 8:49 PM
Founders of Juicy Couture Pamela Skaist-Levy and Gela Nash-Taylor.
By Sara Bauknecht / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In 1988, a job at Diane Merrick boutique in Los Angeles brought Pamela Skaist-Levy and Gela Nash-Taylor together. A love of fashion made them friends.
Their backgrounds varied: Ms. Skaist-Levy had studied fashion, created costumes for movies and designed her own line of hats. Ms. Nash-Taylor graduated from Carnegie Mellon University to pursue an acting career. But they shared a craving to create casual clothes with a high-end fit and feel, a void in fashion at the time.
With no formal business education and a couple of hundred dollars, they turned a line of colorful, buttery soft, fitted T-shirts for women into a global empire of rainbow tube socks, graphic tees, accessories, fragrances and terry cloth tracksuits they called Juicy Couture. In 2003, the pair sold the not-yet10-year-old company for $56 million to Liz Claiborne (now Kate Spade & Co.), plus an eventual $200 million earnout.
"There isn't a day that goes by where somebody doesn't ask us, 'How did you guys do it?' " Ms. Skaist-Levy said. They document their journey in "The Glitter Plan" ($27; Gotham Books), written with Los Angeles Times fashion critic Booth Moore. The book goes on sale Thursday and can be pre-ordered at www.amazon.com.
It's part memoir mixed with fashion industry insights and advice for entrepreneurs.
"We have so many stories and anecdotes, life experiences that we would love to pass on," Ms. Skaist-Levy said. "We learn so much from our mistakes and our achievements."
By the start of the new millennium, the brand had built a fan base that reached from middle America moms to celebrities such as Halle Berry, Cameron Diaz and Madonna (who sported a Juicy Couture tracksuit with her nickname "Madge" on it). In 2004, the indelible tracksuit was inducted into the permanent fashion collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London to commemorate Juicy Couture's role in defining the luxe casual category of clothing -- now a staple of many designer collections and the predecessor of activewear lifestyle lines like lululemon. Before Juicy, most sweatpants and T-shirts had baggier fits and were reserved for the gym.
They describe their experience as a fairy tale, but it wasn't an overnight success. Their first fashion foray was Travis Jeans for the Baby in You, a line of modern-minded maternity denim named after Ms. Nash-Taylor's son. They got their California-based start-up recognition by cold-calling stores and spontaneously showing up at boutiques with their designs. They packed orders themselves (and included hand-written thank-you notes) and would rent a van to deliver them.
"Don't wait for big bucks to come along. Have a DIY punk-rock mentality," is one of the lessons they offer in the book, along with: Follow your passion and produce a product that's authentic. Each chapter ends with a list of business-building tips.
"Hopefully, it will inspire some kids and women who want to start something on their own," Ms. Nash-Taylor said.
Juicy had a similar start and grew organically with a $75,000 revolving line of credit they asked their parents to co-sign for. A private lender called a factor also loaned the team money based on the value of store orders. Juicy was conceived during a recession, so affordable quality apparel was the goal in the early years.
They described themselves as "totally fearless" in those days. The discipline and endurance it took to excel in the rigorous acting program at Carnegie Mellon prepared Ms. Nash-Taylor for the intensity of starting a business, she said. She also admired the work of the school's costume design department.
"It was incredible being in the acting program," she said. "It was definitely hard-core, but it was a fantastic environment to learn to understand the thrill of competition."
As the economy improved, consumers grew hungry for more aspirational styles. To meet the demand, the Juicys -- as they were dubbed in the media -- upped the prices and rolled out more merchandise. When growing pains set in, Juicy Couture sought a buyer to help it expand its global presence, including opening its own retail stores on such prestigious streets as Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Working within the Liz Claiborne corporate world was an adjustment for the entrepreneurial, fun-loving "California girls," they said. The corporation's desire to feed the bottom line and add more brand extensions pushed Juicy Couture off course, and sales dropped. When Ms. Skaist-Levy and Ms. Nash-Taylor's contracts were up, they wanted out.
"It's hard to watch Juicy lose its way, but you can't look back," Ms. Skaist-Levy said.
Authentic Brands Group bought the brand in October for $196 million and plans to take it mainstream with a deal with Kohl's department stores.
When their non-compete clause lifted in the summer of 2011, Ms. Skaist-Levy and Ms. Nash-Taylor got to work on new collections. Their latest is Pam & Gela, a line of fit-and-fabric-focused casual wear for women that debuted this spring in more than 100 retailers including Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom and Bloomingdale's. Jersey knee-length skirts, high-low-hem sweatshirts and fitted tees with sayings such as "I'm not sorry" (a reference to their Juicy days) typically range from $115 to $995 for a leather jacket. Like with Juicy Couture, color is an essential component to the collection, although they've toned down their use of it in these new designs.
The response has been strong, they said.
"You have to really have a passion," Ms. Nash-Taylor said. "You have to stick to that."
For more from PG style editor Sara Bauknecht, check out the PG's Stylebook blog at www.post-gazette.com/stylebook. Follow her on Twitter @SaraB_PG or email email@example.com.
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