NEW YORK, United States — Alice + Olivia is launching a new casual-focused sister brand, its first ever label launch, but don’t mistake it for a diffusion line.
“I don’t want derivative lines, I don’t want things that bastardise what we’ve built,” founder Stacey Bendet tells BoF. “When I was looking at where do we grow, rather than opening a million more stores — we are opening some — but it’s e-commerce and it’s her casual world,” she says.
The new collection, AO.LA, is a '70s-inspired “west coast little sister” to the contemporary brand Bendet launched 15 years ago, known for its feminine and embellished dresses. It will arrive at the brand’s 21 owned stores in the US, 15 international stores, its e-commerce site and exclusively at Neiman Marcus in November.
Each pair of jeans features an embroidered affirmation inside the waistband — for example, “You look good today” — that corresponds to the names of the fits, which include Good, Perfect and Fabulous. (And 10 percent of the net proceeds from the Good jeans will benefit the Good+ Foundation founded by Jessica Seinfeld, of which Bendet is a board member.) The line also includes silk jacquard kimonos, cashmere knits and vintage-style t-shirts.
It’s all part of Bendet’s mission to expand the way she caters to her customers during a challenging time for contemporary brands and their department store partners. “Our stores are up, and our department store business is actually up, so I can’t complain, but I can’t say it’s been without it’s challenges,” says Bendet. Retail sales are up 10 percent, while wholesale domestic sales are up 15 percent. Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus are Alice + Olivia’s biggest partners, and it also sells through a concession model at Bloomingdales, among other smaller accounts. “We are not trying to grow 20, 25 percent every year… I like stable right now," she says. “Growth to me right now is through profit versus sales growth."
Even though AO.LA will likely add a few more stockists after the three-month exclusivity with Neiman Marcus ends, direct-to-consumer sales are the priority for the new collection. It will have its own satellite site on AliceandOlivia.com, where the brand is working to expand its personal shopping services, and host in-store events at the brand boutiques with tattoo artists who will be on hand to customise the jeans. While Bendet’s approach to store openings has become more conservative in recent years, she still wants to expand the network in key locations and is planning addition in Miami, Osaka and Shanghai. “I’d like to have 60 stores, that’s my goal… but it’s really about waiting for the right ones,” she says.
Meanwhile, Bendet is hopeful she might find a new partner to help take her business to the next level of growth. In 2016, she and co-owner Andrew Rosen, founder and chief executive of Theory, sought a minority investor. Bendet wanted a strategic partner that could help the business with digital or international strategy. “I met with 8,000 bankers and nothing really was right,” she says. “Whether it’s an individual or a fund, it’s got to be someone who is really going to be some kind of missing link in our work marriage,” she adds, referring to her partnership with Rosen and Deanna Berkeley, president since 2004. While they have stopped actively looking, “every once in a while, someone comes to Andrew,” says Bendet. “I feel like it’s going to be a little bit more organic if it happens.”
In the meantime, Bendet sees AO.LA as exciting uncharted territory. “Throughout the past 15 years, when people ask, ‘How did you grow your company?’ I sort of grew it out of necessity,” she says. “The one thing that I felt like we never did was outfit her weekend.”