Early last year, a member of Sarena Campbell's fashion team at Sears Canada spotted a multicoloured brocade jacket on the runway of hot design house Balenciaga. Team members also noticed that yellow was showing up throughout the fashion world.
By late November, Sears had its own version of the jacket: yellow, cropped, with a big collar and buttons. Priced at $79.99, compared with about $1,300 for the designer original, the jacket sold out in weeks. Production was stepped up with new variations, - short sleeves, belted - and once again, the Jessica brand had another bestseller.
It's a familiar story for those on the inside of the most popular label in women's fashion in Canada. Sharp eyes, and a tight production cycle from design to shop floor, have paid off for years. But Jessica is still the label that few women will admit they wear. Ms. Campbell is determined to change that.
"I never really talk to anybody about the brand," says Misheal Hosein, a 41-year-old business analyst from Brampton, Ont. "It's just, 'I got it at Sears and I got it on sale.'"
"I would be embarrassed to say I buy it because it's considered to be old ladyish," says Melanie Gauthier, 37, a mother of three from Sudbury who has a good number of Jessica items in her closet. "But the styles are getting younger," she adds. "Some of the styles are quite cute."
And that is, as they say, all by design.
With the recession crimping consumer spending, and fierce competition in the fashion world, Sears Canada Inc. is giving the Jessica line more support. While the retailer is known more for its Kenmore and Craftsman hard goods, apparel remains a key part of its strategy. The reason? Profit margins on clothing can be 10 to 20 per cent higher than those on hard goods.
Private clothing labels tend to perform even better, with gross margins 15 to 25 per cent heftier than those of well-known brands like Liz Claiborne or Jones New York. Private labels also do well when times are tough, because they can be priced substantially lower - as much as 40 per cent less in Jessica's case - than name brands.
"It's something we need to give a little bit of a boost to," says Ms. Campbell, a veteran fashion merchandiser who was recruited to Sears in October as vice-president of apparel and accessories. She has a clear mandate to reverse their sliding sales.
But fast-changing fashions bring risk, as Sears well knows. Its apparel sales fell 6.2 per cent in 2008 and 4.5 per cent in 2007. Part of the challenge is that, unlike Liz Claiborne or Jones New York, Jessica has never had a buzz.
Launched in 1985 as a lingerie line, Jessica rapidly expanded into casual and career wear, dressing a generation of baby boomers who were coming out of university and landing their first jobs. These women had money and time to shop, and department stores were a clothing destination. Jessica branched out into every segment of female fashion, from footwear to handbags and even garments for girls. By 2001, it was worth $200-million and today is estimated at twice that amount.
Now Ms. Campbell thinks she can raise Jessica's profile, and give the line a sharper identity for her target customer. She's tweaking the fit, but the styling won't change much, she says. The core customer is getting older and finds that Jessica clothing is often too tight, her research shows.
So starting this fall, Ms. Campbell is letting out Jessica's seams. The brand will focus on the 40-plus woman. The cut of the clothes will be more generous, including "tummy control" panels in pants to help the older woman look more svelte.
"We made a conscious decision to make sure we don't lose that customer," Ms. Campbell says. "You build a clientele and you evolve with the clientele."
Seven Sears staffers are devoted solely to developing Jessica designs. The Jessica team keeps a close eye on designers' runways, and are particularly watchful of Balenciaga, Ms. Campbell says. The Jessica team doesn't actually get invited to big runway shows but members view them almost immediately on the Internet.
To drum up ideas, team members scour fashion and celebrity magazines; they visit Paris and London twice a year, as well as New York and Los Angeles, snapping photos in cafés and clubs. The team meets once a month, reviewing hundreds of photos before deciding which to pursue.
Industry observers say it's essential for Sears to hang on to the 40-plus customer because she's more loyal than her younger sisters, she has more disposable income and she has a hard time finding clothes that fit and still make her look young and stylish.
"There's a big opportunity here," says Dalan Bronson, a principal at retail consultancy J.C. Williams Group and a former executive at rival Hudson's Bay Co. The timing for Jessica's revamp is also urgent because the Bay, owned by HBC, is starting to get some buzz after naming global fashion star Bonnie Brooks as CEO, Mr. Bronson says.
So the Jessica line is going to get more marketing support. Starting this fall, Sears will run separate magazine ads for the brand and is considering bringing back the tagline "The softer side of Sears." The retailer will tout a separate, new line under its Attitude private label, to court the thirtysomething woman.
"Sears always focused on Kenmore and Craftsman," Ms. Campbell says. "It was less of the soft side of Sears. That's why it's all the more remarkable - those who came to buy their refrigerators and TVs stopped at the women's wear department and looked at Jessica and kept on coming back."