J. Crew and Talbots: Can Michelle Obama Save Fashion Retail?

J. Crew and Talbots: Can Michelle Obama Save Fashion Retail?

How much has Michelle Obama shaken up the fashion world? Well, name one
other woman whose dress receives a birthday tribute. In January, the clothing
retailer White House Black Market set up a swag suite at the Sundance Film
Festival. The company dressed a mannequin with a black-and-white leaf print
dress like the one Obama once wore on The View. Mo’Nique, the comedian and actress,
recognized the outfit. And since it happened to be the First Lady’s birthday, of course it was Mo’Nique’s duty to belt out “Happy Birthday,”
to a mannequin, in a crowded room.

“Whenever we can honor her, we have to,” says Mo’Nique, describing the
scene. “So in spirit, I must sing my song.” After seeing that White House
Black Market dress on The View, did she rush out to buy it “You know what” says Mo’Nique. “I’m not sure if they made that
dress in my size at the time. But I’m size 14 now, honey, so I might go
ahead and get that dress.”

Mo’Nique better motor to the store. In spite of the recession, Michelle
Obama’s outfits are flying off the racks. That $148 dress is still a hot seller at
White House Black Market, almost 11 months after Obama wore it on The
View. The dress sold out at the 327-store chain within 48 hours of her
appearance; later, shoppers were willing to endure a 2½-month waiting list for it.

In fact, the First Lady has been a one-woman stimulus package for the
suffering fashion retail industry. Designers, store buyers, shoppers and
stock investors are all watching her every move. And she has been in the White House barely 100 days. “She’s the first thing my clients want to talk
about,” says Jennifer Black, president of Jennifer Black & Associates, a
retail equity research firm. “She’s a huge deal. And I don’t think this is a
short-term thing. Sometimes you get a flash in the pan, but that’s not going
to be the case with Michelle Obama.”

No retailer owes more to the First Lady than J. Crew. In October, amid the
Sarah Palin $150,000 wardrobe scandal, Obama wore a $340 J. Crew set on the
Tonight Show. “Ladies, we know J. Crew,” she said to the studio audience. J.
Crew’s Web traffic shot up 64% the next day, and the yellow blouse,
cardigan and skirt she wore on the show sold out immediately. Later she wore a J.
Crew camisole, cardigan and pencil skirt in the March 2009 issue of Vogue. A
hefty wait-list immediately started for all three fall items.

Then, in early April, she wore a $298 J. Crew cream hand-beaded
cardigan, with a $158 “dazzling dots” pencil skirt, on a visit to a London cancer
center with Sarah Brown, wife of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. The
photos shot around the globe. The cardigan sold out on J. Crew’s website
by 10 a.m. E.T. the same day. Two days later, it was selling for $600 on eBay. The wait-list for the cardigan at J. Crew exceeds 200. “I feel like I’m getting a present every day,”
says Jenna Lyons, creative director for J. Crew. The company’s stock is up
40% this year.

The First Lady might save another retailer, Talbots, from extinction.
The company lost $128.4 million, excluding special charges, in the three
months ending Jan. 31, compared with a $7.1 million loss the previous year.
Same-store sales fell 14.2% for the year, and an incredible 24.6% in the
fourth quarter. Over
the past year, the company has desperately tried to reposition itself from a
frumpy brand for the over-50 set to a stylish look for the new sophisticated
40-something. In early April, the May issue of Essence hit
newsstands, with Obama wearing a $169 Talbots silk dress on the cover. It was a marketing godsend.

“We’ll now be able to change people’s perceptions of Talbots more quickly
than we otherwise would have,” says a hopeful Lori Wagner, chief marketing
officer for Talbots. The company just needs the First Lady to keep wearing
its clothes. “If Michelle Obama consistently shows up in Talbots dresses, it
can definitely be a game changer,” says Black, who adds that the Essence cover has already driven more traffic to Talbots stores.

Macy’s fashion director Nicole Fischelis says that bright-colored cardigans,
sleeveless sheath dresses — you might have heard that the First Lady likes to
show off her arms — and the pencil skirts Obama favors are among the best-selling items in the store. If you could choose any woman in the world to
wear Macy’s dresses for a week, would it be the First Lady “Without a
question,” Fischelis responds. Bloomingdale’s is highlighting sleeveless
sheath dresses in its catalog and stores. “She influences the decisions of
every single buyer that goes into a showroom,” says Stephanie Solomon,
fashion director at Bloomingdale’s.

Although the First Lady has sparked retail sales for her chosen brands, it’s too early to anoint her a
savior. “Michelle Obama hasn’t done enough to significantly change the
financial performance of J. Crew and Talbots,” says Betty Chen, retail
analyst at Wedbush Morgan Securities. J. Crew’s same-store sales fell 13% in
the fourth quarter of 2008. The company lost $13.5 million, compared with a $25
million profit in the fourth quarter of 2007. Talbots has updated its
merchandise to fit its repositioning as a younger company. According to
Chen, however, the company is too indebted to revamp its musty
stores, a big hindrance to its turnaround plans. In an April research
report, Brian Tunick, retail analyst at JPMorgan Securities, listed his
top 10 myths that “along with the Easter Bunny, we’re not sure we believe
in either.” No. 4: The Michelle Obama Bounce. See pictures of the fashion of Michelle Obama.