CEO James Rhee reversed a 22-year benefit loss for the plus-sized chain by making afri American women feel seen and heard. That blueprint is now helping it navigate the pandemic.

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‘A gigantic metaphor’

When Rhee took end Ashley Stewart in 2013, the inherited a business that struggled come raise capital and had been marginalized from the bigger retail world, what he witnessed as a “gigantic metaphor” for just how black women room invisible and also “undervalued” in the customer economy, the said.

“I got involved less together a capitalist and much more as a former law human who believed I to be going to be a public defender — I believed it was unjust,” stated Rhee, who has a J.D. Indigenous Harvard legislation School. “I use organization to shot to result change.”

His an easy plan: construct a company that areas the black color woman at the facility of the narrative.

It can be claimed that Rhee’s in the heritage of unorthodox servant leaders, calling come mind Jim Sinegal, the previous CEO the Costco, that is well-known for paying store employees salaries 40% higher than competitors.

For Rhee, a common kinship with the Ashley Stewart woman forged organically, in part, since when that looks in ~ them, he sees his mom. “Like my mother, the Ashley Stewart customer is a woman who leads through example, cherishes she family and also friends, and also puts anyone else very first — and yet hardly ever gets or asks because that credit,” the said.

“From work one, ns have concentrated on continuing to be true to the 22 years of trust that our customers and also employees had actually with one one more before the scene,” Rhee said.

To turn approximately the brand, which was in Chapter 11 bankruptcy for the 2nd time once Rhee took the helm, he collection out to develop an ecosystem for Ashley Stewart’s core, fiercely faithful shopper.

Rhee used his investment savvy come a retail model, producing a “mathematically sound set of supply/demand equations,” he said. In useful terms, that enabled the retailer come invest in much more fashion than basics — think fewer black tees and an ext off-the-shoulder glam top — “yielding as lot gross margin dollar as feasible and as regularly as possible.”

That perform optimization push supported a marketing strategy that leveraged the “highly engaged relationships our customers have with Ashley Stewart,” Rhee said.

The renewal plan also brought celebrities through “‘Capital I’ influence” right into its fashion mix, and also by extension, that is community, which benefits both parties, that said. These encompass Love, whose garments line hit the chain’s stores last fall. Other recent launches incorporate the an initial inclusivity-sized arsenal from jenner sisters Kendall+Kylie.

“When we partner with La La Anthony and Loni Love and Whoopi Goldberg, yeah, we’re offering their product, however increasingly those happening is … they recognize we have eyeballs and it’s great for them.”

 women taking selfie at ashley stewart in-store event The brand's detect Ashley Stewart tour celebrates that is mission to further women's empowerment, inclusivity and also body positivity. — Ashley Stewart

‘A 3rd place’ that boldly fetes full-figured women

Like Starbucks, which famously positioned that is coffee bars together consumers’ “third place” after your homes and workplace, and Apple’s “store the the community,” “what’s so an effective about the Ashley Stewart story is the community of ladies that link at this stores and can be themselves,” stated Marie Driscoll, controlling director that luxury and also fashion at Coresight Research, a an international research and also advisory firm specializing in retail and technology. “Rhee look at the value of their connectedness and also community and also their ability at peer-to-peer selling, together they’re proponents for the brand, and can be supporters for other brands , and also that becomes the strength of this community — they can entice their friends come Ashley Stewart’s fashion,” she said.

And by forgoing the dowdy, utilitarian looks that have actually long been identified with plus-sized apparel, Ashley Stewart is in sync with the human body positivity movement that celebrate full-figured women, who stay underserved by marketers, Driscoll said.

Indeed, Ashley Stewart’s customer mirrors a double underserved market: afri American, full-figured women.

The plus-size women’s apparel industry in the U.S. Is an approximated $30.7 billion company serving about 31 million women, according to Coresight Research.

Although brands from American Eagle to Dolce & Gabbana space catering an ext to the plus-size market, just as direct-to-consumer players favor Adore Me lingerie and also Eloquii court the business, “it stays underserved,” Driscoll said.

That’s a let go opportunity, she said, note a “psychological perspective change” among full-figured consumer in recent years, through which leggings and also oversized sweatshirts simply won’t do. The plus-sized woman is currently saying, “I want to have actually all the fashion that comes in dimension 2, 4, 6 and 8,” indigenous sexy costume to prints, ruffles and florals — looks the embody self-expression, Driscoll said.

While fashion is a riskier inventory investment for a retailer than straightforward apparel as fashion goes in and out of style, “The Ashley Stewart consumer cares an ext about fashion than the mean consumer. Rhee to know his consumer,” and balances supply and also demand accordingly, she said.

 within ashley stewart save location In the wake of COVID-19, Ashley Stewart is reopening with an appointment-only model, enabling three client in the keep per hour because that a tailored—and safe—shopping experience. — Ashley Stewart

The strategy has paid off. Pre-pandemic, Ashley Stewart was set to book north that $150 million in sales this year and notch yet an additional year of profitability, Rhee said. The e-commerce organization is now nearly 50% of total sales, contributing margins phibìc of 20%, he said.

That’s precious noting, together the plus-size retail market has been one embattled room of late, with big players favor the way liquidating the stores critical year as Lane Bryant’s problem deepen amid the pandemic.

Ashley Stewart’s extremely penetrated and rewarding online business — a loved one anomaly amongst legacy retail chains, Rhee said, has also helped gird the brand during the current situation as shop went dark.

Rhee doesn’t think of Ashley Stewart together a retailer, yet rather a “movement” that celebrates afri American women. The movement’s shining moment is the finding Ashley Stewart Tour, a celebration event of that is mission to more women"s empowerment, inclusivity and also body positivity.

The nationwide contest, which produced over one million votes in 2019, searches because that the retailer’s 2020 ambassador, an everyday woman who embodies the brand’s essence. The winner receives a $10,000 cash prize, one Ashley Stewart wardrobe and more, if a college student is forgive the $5,000 Ashley Stewart leadership Scholarship. The Sept. 12 finale was set to relocate to grander digs this year at NJPAC, through Loni Love hosting. But the pandemic nixed those plans, and the challenge has been relocated online.

 james rhee headshot James Rhee, CEO the Ashley Stewart. — Ashley Stewart

A mindful reopening strategy the starts v appointment-only stores

Rhee states his background together a distressed investor has come in handy throughout the crisis: Ashley Stewart has ample cash reserves as he’s regulated the service conservatively. “We’ve stashed a the majority of cash under the mattress,” the said.

The retailer is letting neighborhood executive orders, security metrics and also employee input guide its save reopening plan. The was store associates who came up with the appointment-only design of the 6 Ashley Stewart locations that reopened this month in Texas, Mississippi and also South Carolina. Three women every hour shop the keep “for a really tailored to buy experience,” Rhee said. “The store managers co-authored these protocols and also we’re act it at a speed we feeling comfortable.”

Rhee reminds employee that earlier in 2013 as soon as Ashley Stewart was bankrupt — “when there was no cash and no e-commerce service to speak of” — customers brought ago clothes hangers come the store because they knew the agency was in trouble. It was a potent sign of their brand commitment then, one that’s only blossomed in current years amid its revival.

This time around, he tells them, “now we know each other, and now we understand what we’re fighting for.”

CO— intends to carry you impetus from top respected experts. However, prior to making any kind of business decision, you should consult a skilled who have the right to advise you based upon your separation, personal, instance situation.

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