NEW YORK, United States — With no prior experience in the fashion industry and no design training, Stacey Bendet has built her contemporary-priced brand Alice + Olivia into what she described as a “pretty much a $200 million business" in just over a decade, referring to current annual sales. Now, the brand is entering a new stage of international growth, planning to open 15 stores a year with a range of international partners, including China’s ImagineX Group, Look of Japan and Al Ostoura and Chalhoub Group in the Middle East.
“I started building flash websites for a lot of people in fashion when I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, which was around 2001. I was this crazy girl on rollerblades, with my laptop, going from meeting to meeting,” recalled Bendet. “Then this guy called Elliott Levine, who had a company that was doing all these start-up clothing brands, hired me. He was never there, so I was just sitting there, bored every day, and went to one of their patternmakers and said: ‘I really want to learn how to make my own pants. Can you help me?’”
Bendet turned out a pair of black slim-fitting pants and “as soon as I wore the trousers I got stopped in the streets, at parties, everywhere! That’s when I thought, ‘I could really make these.’”
Bendet entered into a partnership with Rebecca Matchett, a college classmate who took responsibility for the operations of what would soon become a nascent label named after both of their mothers: Alice and Olivia. “My first fabric buyer was actually my sister’s best friend from high school, in between college and med school. We’ve grown a little bit since then,” said Bendet, laughing.
Ironically, given that she is married to the son of longtime Disney chief executive Michael Eisner, Bendet, dressed in a fitted black dress matched with dramatic, punk-inflected black eye makeup, resembles a modern-day Disney heroine: plucky, independent and brimming with resolve. Suitably enough, her entry into the fashion industry also had more than a modicum of the fairytale about it.
“At the same time, a friend of mine was throwing parties at The Russian Tea Room [in New York] and he said, ‘Hey, will you put on a show with all those pants?’ ‘Well, I only make pants,’ I replied, to which he responded, ‘Yeah but you’ll figure something out.’” The budding designer enlisted the florist for whom she was designing a website to create bouquets capable of covering the models’ modesty and gamely went ahead with a runway show featuring only pants.
As it happened, Andrew Rosen — third generation garmento, CEO of Theory and investor in several emerging American labels, including Proenza Schouler and Rag & Bone — was in the audience. “He came up to me afterwards and said ‘This is really cool, no one’s doing anything like this, call me tomorrow and let’s meet. Someone from Barneys also came to the show and they called me the next day to place an order.”
“I called Andrew and he said, ‘You can’t just take an order. You need to make pants that fit; if you don’t, you’ll never have a business.’ So I said ‘Okay, how do I make pants that fit? He said, ‘Come to my office and let me show you.’ From that day on, he always mentored me.”
In 2003, Rosen and Bendet bought out Rebecca Matchett (Bendet’s original partner) and entered into business together, each investing $50,000. To this day, Alice + Olivia has no other investors.
The fledgling line quickly found traction in the New York, attracting some of the city’s most influential stockists, including Barneys New York and Bergdorf Goodman, both of which drive notoriously hard bargains with emerging designers. Although Bendet freely admits that Rosen played a critical role in navigating the initial negotiations with retailers, the experience put the budding entrepreneur’s resolve to the test.
“I had Andrew to help and I would call him and say, ‘They mentioned 30 terms, what is that?! Then Barneys said ‘We only want you to sell with us; we won’t carry you if you’re sold anywhere else.’ So they dropped us. But I always say, you can reflect but you can’t regret. While I think Barneys is amazing store, I also have a $200 million business.”
Far from being a difficult supplier, out of touch with the reality of the sales floor, Bendet’s lack of aesthetic ego has enabled her to iterate and evolve Alice + Olivia in response to the commercial needs of her stockists. “I don’t think you can build a business of the size we have with Neiman Marcus or Saks Fifth Avenue without them being your partner, and [Alice + Olivia president] Deanna and Andrew taught me that. If they come to me and say Neiman wants this or Saks wants this, even if I don’t want to do it, I listen to it and say, ‘Ok, let me get to a place where I am giving them what they need, because they give us what we need and you need a relationship like that. You can’t just throw clothing in a store and expect it to sell, you need partners.”
Bendet approached her line product by product. “The first few years were really about me going to design school. I had a graphic background and I was designing a lot of the actual fabrics, but I needed to learn about everything else. I would add one thing to the line each season or each year. It started as pants and then I started doing little cashmere sweaters, skirts, dresses, that’s when we really started to explode.”
In 2005, Rosen suggested that, alongside the Alice + Olivia mainline, Bendet design a workwear line. The resulting ‘Career’ collection joined a knitwear line dubbed ‘Air,’ both of which are available year round. Over the years, the brand, which Bendet describes as a “a very feminine brand, a girl’s girl brand,” has expanded into gowns, shoes, handbags, hosiery and accessories and may, one day, move into cosmetics and homewares.
But growing Alice + Olivia has not been without challenges for its co-founder. “Learning to build the team around me took some time. Design, marketing, events — all of that came really easily to me, my brain just understands it, but managing people day to day, while I am trying to create: harder. I always look at designers and I see that you need this foundation that is really strong, really organised and really powerful in terms of development and production. If you don’t have that foundation, if you don’t have that structure, if you don’t have that ability to produce, then you can’t create the way you want to,” said Bendet.
She has also learnt to more proactively plan for the future. “There were definitely periods where Andrew looked at us and said, ‘Hey, you are a $100 million business and your team is working like it’s a $50 million business. Don’t hire like a $50 million company, hire people that are going to help you be where you want to be in three years, so who are the people we need to be a $250 million company?’ So now, instead of acting in the moment we try and act with foresight.”
Having driven growth almost exclusively through product category expansion and adding wholesale channels, the beginning of this decade saw Alice + Olivia enter direct-to-consumer retail with a store in Southampton on New York’s Long Island.
“It wasn’t financially important at the beginning, but it became important because we learnt so much about what the customer needed. When we established our international partnerships that changed, we have partners for China, Middle East, Japan and our plan right now is to open 15 stores a year.” To date, Alice and Olivia have opened 26 standalone stores — 11 in 2014 alone. By the end of 2018, the brand aims to have a total of 75 stores, 50 international and 25 in the US.
Reflecting back on her trajectory, Bendet said: “I think that if you let your feathers get ruffled, you are constantly going to get your feathers ruffled. I am not saying that there are not days where I am not like, ‘Oh my god this is intense.’ It is a little bit crazy at times, but all of those times I kind of hear Andrew saying, ‘Focus on making and producing beautiful clothing… and ship it on time.”