Brand’s High-Touch, High-Tech Service Business Model Attracts Busy, Fashion-Conscious Women
As the apparel sector gravitates toward cheaper products, relentless promotions, and declining service, a very different microtrend is taking hold. Direct-to-consumer luxury apparel company Worth Collection Ltd. is providing hands-on service with a high-tech twist — and no discounting.
When she answered the door at the Worth New York showroom on New York’s West 57th Street, Dana Kendrick took only a few minutes to size me up — literally and figuratively. “You’re a size 2,” she announced, “and you like classic, updated styles and dark or neutral colors.”
The stylist ushered me into a beautifully paneled room lined with racks of clothing samples from which she began to pull a selection of items. Then the questions started. Was I looking primarily for clothes for work or for social events? Have I thought about wearing color around my face? What are my most urgent wardrobe needs?
Welcome to Worth New York, the luxury clothing brand whose products are sold exclusively through its network of professional stylists during one-on-one appointments. Clients are shown a customized and curated version of each season’s collection in an effortless and personalized shopping experience. The result? A high-quality wardrobe tailored to each woman’s unique style, life, body and budget. Worth products are made from the same fabrics and in the same factories as the high-end designers, but carry prices that, though not inexpensive, are considerably lower.
I was willing to give Worth a try. Despite being an apparel industry professional, I had a long-neglected work wardrobe. I admire color on others but never seem to wear the pastels and jewel tones that bring out my fair skin, blue eyes and light brown hair. Because of my work, I spend many hours in stores each week, but rarely buy anything for myself. The brands I once loved have traded down in quality. Big stores are difficult to navigate and have practically no sales help, while specialty stores have too limited a selection. Basically, I want it all: quality fabrics, sophisticated styling and great service, without stratospheric prices. Turns out I am not alone.
The Birth of Worth
When longtime industry executives Jay Rosenberg and Caroline Davis started Worth in 1991, they knew that a growing number of time-starved, fashion-conscious women appreciated and could afford designer-quality clothes. Davis had many years of sales and management experience in the fashion industry. Rosenberg, a textile artist by training, had worked for such legendary firms as Galey & Lord and Loomskill. They convened a group of top talents including Diane Manley, who continues to lead the design team, to create clothing with high intrinsic value that customers would buy in a personalized, in-home setting. Twenty-four years later, an army of 1,000 sales reps (called stylists) scattered around the country sell clothing and accessories to a growing list of active clients. Although the privately held company doesn’t divulge sales figures, it is often mentioned in media reports as having annual sales of $100 million.
A huge part of Worth’s success is that it pays attention to a niche market increasingly neglected by traditional retailers. Said Rosenberg: “There are lots of women out there — in their 40s and older — who have reached a certain level of success in their careers, in their personal lives, and in their financial situation. They appreciate and understand quality.” Worth is part of a small but arguably profitable segment of apparel that includes Doncaster, Carlisle, and menswear brand J. Hilburn. Industry analysts have put the total sales of luxury direct-to-consumer apparel and accessories at around $800 million per year. These firms sell at full retail, but since the stylists, who work on commission as outside contractors, tend to sell out of their homes and cover their own expenses, the company doesn’t have to incur typical retail overhead.
Although the clothing is exceptional, it’s not only about the clothes. “The key to what we do is service,” said Wendy Selig-Prieb, president of new ventures at Worth. Although she now leads the digital, social media and market strategies at the firm, Selig-Prieb started out as a seller, so she is intimately familiar with the human side of the Worth process. “We have always been a relationship-based business at our core. Our stylists have a special bond with their clients. We, too, are that busy mom, wife, daughter, and entrepreneur, so we can relate to and help the client in a way that cannot be easily replicated in other shopping experiences.” Like most of the company’s top management, Selig-Prieb has an impressive resume. A lawyer by training, she was president and CEO of the Milwaukee Brewers (and a Worth customer) from 1998 to 2004. She left the baseball team in 2005 to relocate with her husband and young daughter to Phoenix in search of a more balanced family life. She decided to become a Worth stylist as a way to meet women in her new community while planning her next career move. The rest, as they say, is history. Selig-Prieb became one of the company’s top sellers, and seven years later, was tapped to be president of the brand.
Focus on Quality
Walking through Worth’s Design Studios in New York’s garment district, 20 blocks south of the 57th Street showroom, one gets a keen sense of the company’s devotion to detail and quality. The day I visited, an artist was hand-painting a beautifully detailed multicolored print design for a silk scarf. A sample maker was cutting a gorgeous wool pant fabric. On a display rack, there were several tops in an exquisite rayon jersey.
Each season the company produces 300 major new pieces in three key color stories. Prices for the products range from around $100 for basic tops to $350 for pants to $600 for dresses. Jackets range from $500 for fabric to $1000 for leather and suede.
Early selling to a core group of seasoned reps helps management forecast best-sellers, an indispensable tool in inventory planning. Unlike most designer collections that completely revamp their colors and silhouettes every season, Worth maintains continuity of some styles, colors and fabrics to enable customers to build on what they already own.
The attention to quality extends beyond product to include the sales representatives. The company interviews prospective sellers carefully, even visiting their homes to make sure they are the right fit and temperament for Worth, and that they’re taking on the job for the right reasons, which, for stylist Kendrick, included a love of fashion and entrepreneurship and a passion for helping other women look their best.
“We even interview the husbands and talk a bit to the children,” said Rosenberg, “to make sure everyone is supportive of the idea.”
High-Touch Meets High-Tech
Service doesn’t end when the client leaves the seasonal showing. Technology, which is playing an ever-more important role in the company, helps stylists stay connected to clients. In addition to shopping four times a year at the seasonal trunk show, a customer can also shop on the brand’s e-commerce site or “meet” online with her stylist and, with screen-sharing technology, look at all the clothes as though she were in a showroom.
Said Selig-Prieb: “In today’s hyper-connected world, we are all tied to multiple devices. We want to receive information and shop when, where and how it works best for us. Further, consumers are highly influenced by people in their social media networks and other consumer feedback.”
Although these trends have created challenges for the traditional retailer, Selig-Prieb asserts that the network was always available for Worth customers. Having today’s technology tools has just helped evolve that network from being purely physical to being digital as well, allowing Worth to evolve, as Selig-Prieb put it, “to being a leader in online and off-line social selling.”
As the economic recovery and stock market gains continue, and as traditional luxury retailers increasingly trade down to the off-price space, demand for coordinates collections like Worth’s, which come with built-in personal wardrobe consulting, is almost sure to grow.
My New Wardrobe Shapes Up
Back at the 57th Street showroom, I watched Dana, a former advertising and publishing professional who has been a Worth stylist for 13 years and even written a book about wardrobing, put together several beautiful, flattering outfits for me. All the while, she was delivering “four commandments” for me to dress by: Belting my waistline (because I should show it off); making sure the bottom hem of my jackets and cardigans reaches the top of my thighs (to make me look a little taller); wearing scarves to bring color around my face; and, probably the most surprising but most valuable advice of all, wearing pants and a top of a matching color to create a column on which I can add layers and accessories.
Later that afternoon, my order of three pants ensembles, a skirt, a wrap cardigan, scarves and belts was on its way to my house. I estimated that the total came to 30 percent to 40 percent below what I would have spent at Donna, Ralph, St. John or Akris. I now have the beginning of a fantastic work wardrobe. Best of all? I got it done in a couple of enjoyable, stress-free hours — with a lot of help from my Worth stylist.
A week earlier, I had asked Rosenberg what kept him up at night. Was it the fact that luxury department stores were starting to open more outlets than full-price stores? Was it the relentless 24/7 promotions, making consumers addicted to discounts? Or was it maybe the fact that luxury brands were all launching e-commerce sites, helping them to connect digitally on a personal level with customers?
None of the above. The Worth founder and co-chairman’s biggest problem, he said, is finding enough reps to satisfy growing demand for the brand.