I’ll say it: Fashion is boring. That’s not my opinion but it’s clear that consumers think so. Sure, there are great looks, great fits and products that are priced right but you almost never hear consumers get excited about fashion products and trends the way that you heard ten years ago or earlier. It’s almost paradoxical because improvements in communication and travel have made more and better product available to more people at better values than ever before. And yes, there are segments like athleisure that are still interesting and growing, but now they’re the exception and not the rule. So what is fashion doing wrong? Or, to turn that question around, what could fashion do better?
To figure that out, I went to the part of the market that was always the most boring: Plus-size fashion. Despite being the largest segment of women (75% of American women are size 14 or higher), it’s a segment that was never interesting even when fashion was exciting for almost everyone else. The clothes themselves were mostly cheap imitations of more stylish clothes and manufacturers took the approach of, “they’ll wear what we sell them because they have no better choices.” For a long time, that worked. Plus-size women took what they could get and bought garments that “will make you look thinner.” Plus size clothes were always designed to make the wearer fade into the background and you can’t get more boring than that.
It doesn’t have to be this way. I recently visited with two fascinating companies. By rights, they should be the most uninteresting companies because almost all they sell is plus sizes. But the way they do it is different than what has come before and that makes them instructional for the rest of the fashion world.
In 2014, Ashley Stewart, a retailer of plus-size women’s clothing rooted in the African-American community, was such a hopeless case it was about to be liquidated. Shortly before that was to happen, an investor named James Rhee of FirePine Group, LLC came along and looked at the business differently. Rhee went into the stores and spoke with customers and sales associates and found a culture of mutual respect, community and self-esteem that he thought was worth saving. As Rhee tells it, he’d had numerous jobs that had given him skills to look at businesses like Ashley Stewart. But his most relevant experience for looking at Ashley Stewart was having been a high school teacher and sports coach in a boarding school for teens struggling to reach their potential. He learned then that, “you can’t manage people by command and control. You manage them each differently and you hear how they need to be heard.” Rhee head many stories about Ashley Stewart customers, including how they are “bringing back hangers to the store so the company wouldn’t go out of business.” When Rhee heard the sales associates and customers interact, he knew this was a culture that deserved to be saved and could be made to work financially. He stepped in as CEO when the company was months away from a Chapter 7 liquidation.
What Rhee understood was that Ashley Stewart wasn’t about fashion or clothes. It was about culture and content. When he took over, he doubled down on that culture, making kindness rather than profits their most important corporate value, believing that profit would follow if the culture remained positive, kind and empowering. He treated Ashley Stewart as a venture-style startup, developing online content and building a media-driven business with creative, relevant events, enabling customers to be evangelists for the brand. Rhee created what he calls “an alternative universe,” to develop customer and employee satisfaction. Profits inevitably followed. You can watch the employees of the company tell it their way in the brief video below.