If colors made noise, the ground level of Belk’s Tyvola Road corporate headquarters would be deafening.
It’s a fabric-filled beehive where teams of apparel and textile designers, graphic artists and branding experts create each of the store’s 22 unique-to-Belk private label brands.
It’s here that brands with names like Saddlebred (preppy menswear), Made Cam Newton (trendy menswear), Crown & Ivy (preppy womenswear) and Red Camel (trendy clothes for girls and juniors) are dreamed up, then brought to life.
For major department store retailers like Belk, private label brands are critical: They fill in market gaps left open by national brands. (Are Southern women craving brightly colored T-shirts with preppy anchor logos at a modest price? Belk will make them, if no one else is.) Retail analysts say companies like Belk keep more of the sales dollars from private label brands because national-brand middlemen are eliminated, and stores can choose how and when to mark down items.
Each brand was conceived with a specific type of shopper in mind – and every month, designers churn out new collections for each of them. The goal: Keep store racks, and the company website, fresh enough to entice shoppers to buy on every trip.
“Our customer has an insatiable appetite for print,” says John Thomas, executive vice president for private brands at Belk. He’s an energetic and towering figure who’s served as a guest judge on the fashion reality series “Project Runway.”
This spring, Belk ushered a new women’s brand to the scene, Kaari Blue.
How does a new brand come to life? Thomas and his staff offered a peek inside the process:
Before a brand is born, Thomas and his team come up with what they call a “white space”: a place they believe is underserved by the market. “The Kaari Blue woman,” says Marilyn Connaughton, vice president of ready-to-wear private brands, is “feminine, flirty and likes to be put together. She’s between 30 and 50 years old. She’s fresh and confident, and her life is multi-themed. Her style icon is Katie Holmes.”
Prices in the Kaari Blue line range from a $69 sleeveless blouse to $119 for a printed halter jumpsuit.
Fabrics are mainly synthetics like polyester and rayon, which makes them machine washable – another quality the brand’s design team imagines their Kaari Blue customer demands because of her busy lifestyle.
Belk executives including Connaughton and Thomas developed the idea for Kaari Blue 18 months ago, saying the market needed a line that was sophisticated and polished while offering the bright colors so many Southern women want. Designers work more than a year ahead, traveling to Europe and looking at trend forecasts for inspiration, so the team behind Kaari Blue is currently working on pieces for spring 2017.
Cut and color
Designers like Hayes Pettigrew study the vast tomes churned out by trend services like the Doneger Group, and look to runway shows to determine what direction fashion is heading. They subscribe to color services to understand what colors are emerging as popular, then put all the information through their own filters to predict what the Belk customer will want to wear.
Extremely distressed jeans, for example, are a huge trend in fashion now but are seen as too edgy for the Kaari Blue wearer.
But the “cold shoulder” tops and dresses (so named because they have cut-out shoulders) remain a favorite with shoppers, so Belk will keep producing them in seasons to come for lines including Kaari Blue.
“We ask, ‘How will the Kaari Blue customer wear it? How is it going to play in that world?’ ” Pettigrew says.
Textile designers work in concert with clothing designers to come up with prints.
Fred Hoyer, a senior textile designer who came to Belk after working in the Northeast, says he was shocked by the brightness of the colors he was told to use.
Together, he and designer Justine Young create about 175 prints for two Belk brands (Kaari Blue is one of them) every three months; they get another 175 from graphic print studios they use as sources.
What kinds of prints do Southern women love? Ones with borders along the hem or neckline, ones with a mix of patterns, and prints with at least two colors, Belk designer Fred Hoyer says.
Consumers think of fashion as having four seasons, but retailers know they must offer shoppers fresh items every month to keep them coming back. So Belk brands offer new items in new color palettes monthly, keeping in mind that the colors and prints must look good on racks alongside items that were released last month – and those coming next month.
What kinds of prints do Southern women love? Ones with borders along the hem or neckline, ones with a mix of patterns, and prints with at least two colors, Hoyer says.
Bordered fabric “gives an added level of detail and sophistication and value.”
Does working with so much color and print each day fatigue the eyes?
“My home is pretty much all gray,” Young says, laughing.
Will it sell?
Once garments are designed and prototypes made in factories overseas, they’re presented to Belk buyers, who decide whether they think items will sell well and whether they duplicate something already offered by a national retailer.
Designers and buyers work so much in tandem that typically buyers choose almost everything the designers create. But, they say, it’s important for buyers to see actual garments so they can decide if a piece of clothing is too similar to one already in the market or if they don’t think it will sell well to the Belk shopper.
If buyers believe an item will sell well, the production teams put it into production.
Technical designers draw up exact patterns for each approved garment, much the way an architect draws up detailed floor plans for a building.
Overseas manufacturers create “fit samples” and send them to the Belk headquarters. Models put on the clothes in front of Belk’s technical design team, which scrutinizes things like necklines, armholes and hemlines to see what parts of the pattern need to be tweaked.
“Fit models,” as they’re called, are an important part of the process, says technical designer Lauren Famularo: They’re also paid to give feedback about how comfortable or wearable a garment is.
During an April fitting for Kaari Blue’s holiday 2016 line, fit model Erin Morrow (size 8, which is the size of the average Belk shopper) put on a sleeveless, swingy faux-velvet dress with jewel embellishments on a mock turtleneck neckline. She liked the height of the neckline but suggested that the armholes be made smaller to give more coverage under the arm; Famularo and her team agreed.
Any changes that need to be made are noted, in great detail, in the garment’s “tech pack.” That pack goes back to the manufacturer.
Thomas and members of his team are constantly traveling to Asia to meet with manufacturers about quality and production.
Tags and branding
Once garments are in production, package design manager Lisa Edwards creates all the labels and tags that accompany the garment, from the woven labels and care tags that are sewn into clothes to heat-sealed tags pressed into items. Even price tags are her responsibility.
Thomas and his team are constantly analyzing how each brand sells (they’re given daily sales reports for every piece of every brand), and brands that don’t sell well are eventually replaced by new ones. (Belk launches a new brand about every two years, Thomas says.) It’s Edwards’ job to find the right fonts, graphics and tag materials that will work with the theme of the brand.
Why in Charlotte?
As travelers pack for this month’s beach vacations, designers will be working on Kaari Blue pieces they hope will be in shoppers’ summer 2017 suitcases.
And while they’ll pay attention to what they see in runway shows, trend forecasts and international trips, they’ll take plenty of cues from the women they see walking around Charlotte.
Which, Thomas says, is why it makes sense to have his team in Charlotte and not a fashion hotspot like New York.
Because when creative teams work together in a city they’re selling to, he says, they’re best able to visualize their customer – and design directly for her.