Can These Styles Save Talbots?

By Janelle Nanos | Boston Magazine |

One of her first moves was to bring in Michael Smaldone, who came from creative roles at Banana Republic and Ann Taylor. Smaldone was hired as chief creative officer, and says he was flabbergasted when he began to examine the job ahead of him. “It was astonishing to me that a brand could get to be that size and lose its relevancy that much,” he says. “It felt like it was so out of touch with what the modern woman’s lifestyle was like.”

Sullivan and Smaldone got to work creating a war room filled with classic pieces, old catalogs, and inspirational photos. They developed their brand book — words and mantras to begin redefining the company: “Classic not conservative. Charming not darling.” The team also came up with a new motto for Talbots — “Tradition Transformed” — and a series of catch phrases to describe the company’s “40ish” consumer. (During interviews, in fact, Sullivan and Smaldone each describe “40ish” as “not an age, but a stage” with a regularity that seems at times to be a kind of tick.)

The new leadership duo also fired the entire creative department in New York, and began overhauling the product line. Smaldone identified the classic Talbots pieces — ballet flats, twinsets, crisp white shirts — and updated them for a contemporary woman.

They also got aggressive. After years of Talbots nursing cocktails on the sideline, they reintroduced the brand as a consummate hostess. They launched focus groups, began offering in-store parties for their best customers, opened a string of “upscale outlets,” and unveiled a new denim line. Immediately after the presidential inauguration, they began courting Michelle Obama’s former stylist, Ikram Goldman. The first lady wound up wearing a blue and green floral shift from Talbots’s spring 2009 collection on the cover of Essence. “I was crying when I found out,” says company publicist Meredith Paley. The dress sold out in stores; a woman in Dallas who dislocated her shoulder while trying it on handed a clerk her credit card as she was carried out on a stretcher. She refused to take it off. “Michelle’s at the epicenter of our brand,” Sullivan says.

The company also began flirting with the fashion press, offering previews of their upcoming lines and taking out ads in magazines for the first time in a decade. They hired the gorgeous, and more important, ageless Linda Evangelista and Julianne Moore as spokesmodels. And they opened a sleek new concept store this fall in Paramus, New Jersey, that’s designed to be a woman’s “dream closet.”

But the process of transforming tradition has not been without problems. A decision to sell rabbit-fur collars last fall led to protests from the Humane Society, and the clothing was pulled from stores. And the Facebook page often erupts at the wizards over certain styling choices, like the new line of pumps that were dubbed hooker heels: “These look like something a streetwalker would wear,” one woman wrote. “What happened to classic and traditional?”

Other customers say they feel abandoned by the new product line, which can often hew closer to seasonal trends than timelessness: “Where are all of your classic looks for the over-50 crowd?” asked one woman. “Have been a faithful shopper for the last 20 years but am quickly moving away from the store as I am not trying to look like I’m 30-something.”

  • M. L.

    It is very sad to see my favorite brand crumble. My daughter is graduating college this spring, and she has been offered numerous jobs with the top accounting firms. When I suggested Talbots as a place for career clothes — she laughed and said, “oh mom, that’s for old ladies…”. But when I asked her if she would like some suits from Ann Taylor, she jumped at my offer. Brand image is everything. Personally, I have worn Talbots clothes for 30 years and had been very happy up until the last 5 years. What happened? Talbots must differentiate between my daughter’s fashion and mine. No 50 year old women dresses like her daughter, not even the Kardashians…The best examples of product differentiation would be Ann Taylor and the Loft; Chicos and White House Black Market. Talbots just cannot keep running the brand into the ground and making all of us miserable. Talbots is trying to be the retailer to all women of all ages and all sizes. I don’t want to shop at Lane Bryant. I am a Talbots size 2 or 4. This broad of a market approach will never ever work. Further, republican women don’t really want to…

  • D.M.

    I am in my mid-forties and my mother has always loved Talbots but I always thought of them as “old lady” clothes. A couple of years ago I was struggling to find some dress pants that fit well and my mother suggested Talbots. I was very pleasantly surprised, and I have been a loyal Talbots shopper ever since. I really appreciate the personalized attentive service, although I don’t always receive it, depending who is working in my local store. Maybe Talbots needs to remember why women have shopped there. I LIKE that the clothes are not super trendy or funky (which is why I shop less often at Lane Bryant than I used to) but I do bypass a few of the styles in Talbots because they can be a bit frumpy.
    I was a little puzzled by the previous commenter’s remark about not wanting to shop at Lane Bryant? I am a plus size, and good quality clothes are VERY hard to come by – I hope she wasn’t suggesting that Talbots shouldn’t be selling plus? I am lucky enough to live near a store that has a plus store, and hope it stays. (and it’s completely…