Fashion Group International Addresses Madison Avenue Retail (Remotely)

F. Scott Fitzgerald once remarked that “the very rich are different than you and me,” to which Ernest Hemingway reportedly retorted, “Yes, they have more money.” I tuned into FGI’s latest virtual panel discussion entitled “Retail Concierge: How Madison Avenue is Navigating a New Retail Experience,” to discover if the financially unchallenged are still spreading their wealth around in support of their favorite luxury fashion purveyors during these “unprecedented” times.

Constance White, writer & host of panel
All photos Laurel Marcus

Even more importantly, how are our friends on Mad Avenue managing the new retail reality? On the panel hosted by the editor, content creator, and author of “How to Slay” Constance White, were Matthew Bauer, president of Madison Avenue Business Improvement District, Gina Stendardo, store director of Max Mara; and Jordie Samerson, general manager of the Lanvin store.

Matthew Bauer, President of Madison Avenue BID

First up, White asked the panelists how the pandemic has changed their brand message. Bauer spoke of the many Zoom meetings with avenue retailers in which they’d all come together with a common theme. The stores agreed not to make it “feel too commercial during these difficult times,” eschewing the “come out and shop our sales” pitch.

He spoke of the balancing act needed to maintain the stores and the jobs versus the hard times that everyone is going through. “We invited them to virtually (or online) experience our stores. People have difficult times, and we want our long term clients to see that we care– because we do.”

Jordie Samerson, General Manager of Lanvin

Samerson spoke of Lanvin’s mascot Babar the Elephant – their store windows display Summer 2020 Stay at Home-themed scarf featuring Babar doing yoga (ok, I need one of those)! Also paramount — the importance of staying connected to the client on a personal level. “Sometimes it’s not about the product but about coming in to say “hi” rather than to shop,” she said. Bauer agrees that constant outreach to connect with clients is vital – in the best cases, there’s a reciprocal relationship between store staff and clients. (And I thought I was the only one who’s best friends work in my favorite retail establishments)!

“Max Mara caters to women going to work, but they’re not going to work now. “We’re not putting clients in buckets (by what they spend or how often they shop). We’re doing outreach by speaking individually to people,” – Gina Stendardo

Now that stores are open (some with slightly shortened hours to allow private clients to book appointments and for ease of sales staff commuting), cleanliness and hygiene are probably above godliness. Bauer rattled off their compliance with New York State’s safety-related issues, including wearing the masks, gloves, social distancing, cleaning the store, and wellness checks on employees.

Stores clean all hard surfaces and precious jewelry with alcohol while clothing is quarantined for 72 hours after being tried on per CDC regulations. “If you walked into any Madison Avenue store before this, you wouldn’t see Clorox wipes out — they’d be hidden in the back — but now they’re in the front of the store.”

“We’ve had everything from people who don’t want to wear a mask to those who don’t want to touch anything, and everything in between,” said Stendardo. “It’s been a learning experience on how to communicate.” Samerson agrees that they want their clients to feel comfortable knowing that they are following the guidelines.

What is the new retail experience looking like? “There’s a lot of pre-work before an appointment occurs either virtual or in-store,” Stendardo added. “We focus on what the client is looking for.” With little-to-no events to shop for, she strives to lessen the trying on of items, resulting in their being quarantined — if not totally necessary.

Samerson mentioned Lanvin’s new lookbook of photos they have recently released to clients. “Most of our clients are not in the city. They’re in the Hamptons or Florida, or somewhere else in the U.S. They’re looking for casual wear for hosting in their home. We send things on consignment to a client to try on.” Lanvin also sends gifts (such as masks) to clients, “which they love.”

Gina Stendardo Store Director of Max Mara

Since many clients can’t come into the physical stores, the sales associates are digitally bringing the store to them. Bauer mentioned that Apple gave two presentations to employees on how to take better pictures with a phone. Stendardo said they have tripods set up, and for the first time, Max Mara supplied sales staff with an iPad and iPhone to use towards this end.

So, what are people buying? How deep are the sales? When 30% of discounts weren’t doing it, the stores quickly moved to 40% and then 50%. Samerson says that clients at Lanvin are looking for “Buy Now Wear Now” for at home and generally going a bit more casual. Those that perhaps have small local weddings coming up may be shopping for evening, but it’s more likely to be along with the jerseys than beadwork.

One small silver lining is that many clients are usually in Europe now where they would be shopping. Since they are still in the states, they will shop remotely from the Madison Avenue store. Stendardo’s clients are attorneys and doctors who tend to be “around a bit more.” She agrees that the “wear now factor” is even more important. Max Mara is, of course, famous for their teddy bear coats, which are offered at 40% — “something we don’t normally do.”

Going forward for fall, she said that they have slightly scaled back in certain categories with less suiting, or maybe items are shown as separates rather than as a suit. She admits that they are also selling new items out of the stockroom — “people are tired of seeing what’s been on the floor since March.” At Lanvin, Fall (Samerson claims the items are “so beautiful due to their new creative director”– Bruno Sialelli) launches at the end of the second week in August. “People have asked to be notified when Fall comes in, which is great,” said Samerson adding that some clients put down deposits for Fall pieces (before the pandemic), and they still want them.

What of luxury now? It is when outstanding quality, timeless design, and sustainability enter the equation, particularly with a heritage brand that you may want to pass down to a daughter or granddaughter.

“Do you need a $7,000 leather cape right now? No, but the pandemic will go away. You may want a $1,000 pajama pant for hosting. People still want the luxury feel and product,” said Samerson. Stendardo spoke of Max Mara’s “strong brand heritage and profound roots in the art world” which they use to approach clients who initially came in after lockdown saying, “this is the first place I’ve been.” Speaking of the art world – check out their t-shirts featuring photographer William Wegman’s Weimaraners sporting Max Mara’s iconic camel Madame coats.

And what of that “retail concierge” concept? Bauer wants each store on Madison Avenue not only to provide personalized core experiences, but he also encourages sales staff to refer clients to the store next door if they think there’s something the client would want. “Making partnerships makes for a true concierge experience necessary for luxury shopping. When you open up a door on Madison Avenue, these are the people that you’re meeting and learning from.”

Of course, he is hoping that fall provides more visitors to our city. Although hotels such as The Mark have opened up, they are missing that all-important international tourism so crucial to the avenue’s retail success. September events are scheduled, such as “Welcome Back Saturdays” (on two separate dates for the two different ends of Madison Avenue). “They’ll still be low key, but designer appearances are being planned in individual stores.”

While all the panelists agreed that without a crystal ball, we don’t know what the future holds, They are each committed to staying positive and riding out the storm as best as possible. Why did nobody mention the elephant in the room – and I don’t mean Babar? How was there zero discussion of the recent riots, vandalism, and looting of numerous luxury stores on Madison, nor any talk of how crime-infested NYC, previously known as the “safest big city,” has become?

Laurel Marcus

OG journo major who thought Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" was a fashion guide. Desktop comedienne -- the world of fashion gives me no shortage of material.

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