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Talbots Holiday 2009:
Reinventing the Quintessential Hostess

tartan plaid tafetta button front dressIt’s difficult to recall an era where more companies were undergoing corporate makeovers than the one we are currently living — Patrick Robinson at The Gap, Mickey Drexler at J. Crew, Isaac Mizrahi at Liz Claiborne, to name but a few.  Add to that list Talbots, the venerable “old” house that first began in 1947 as the merchandising concept that had at its central muse, the quintessential hostess, Nancy Talbot. 

Nancy Talbot & her husband Rudolf built “The Talbots” from a single store they received as an inheritance to a national chain that included separate divisions for men’s, children’s & catalog under the Talbots moniker & a purchased division J. Jill, which designed & distributed a women’s contemporary collection at a popular price point.  The brand was feeling a bit shopworn by the late 1990’s & became almost synonymous with the blue haired set who prized their yearly purchase of their Christmas sweater & high rise trouser.   Facing declining sales & a shrinking customer base, the company made the bold move of restructuring & shuttered its men’s & children’s divisions, sold off the J. Jill division, & appointed Michael Smaldone (formerly of Anne Klein, Ann Taylor & Elie Tahari) as Creative Director.

Smaldone went to work in late 2007 & effectively showed his first collection that was entirely conceived under his direction for Spring/Summer 2009.  The Holiday 2009 collection shown in the company’s Manhattan showroom with sweeping breathtaking views of mid-town made the case loud & clear that Talbot’s was not choosing the typical slippery slope of reduced prices (aka reduced quality) that so many companies mistakenly follow when times get tough, but rather looking at their existing customer (50+ year olds), identifying their needs & embarking on a mission to attract the generation before these ladies (the 35 to 50 set) & creating offerings that would give them a reason to walk through the company’s trademark red door & walk out happily with a plaid shopping bag.

To do this, Smaldone & his team created textural knits in cashmere & cashmere blends & combined them with rich tweeds in complementary shades of gray, light blue & a shade of celadon so pale it resembles a cream more than a green.  A new addition for the opening of Holiday was a slouchy collection of buttery soft cashmere loungewear offered in zip-front cardigan tunics, drawstring knit pj pants & oversized capelike sweaters — very directional & excellent gift items.  As the collection moved more towards Holiday proper, the palette went stronger & darker, combining black in every silhouette with rich crimson reds in oversized tartans (the best of these being the plaid taffeta flared skirt button front dress & the bias cut tartan hunting plaid “hostess” skirt) & bold florals the lookbook calls “watermark floral”.  This floral, referencing many of the moods shown on the runways of New York in the past few seasons, looked particularly right in a charcoal gray based wool jersey draped neck detail dress shown layered under a must have black satin trench coat.  As Holiday passes, talbots holiday 2009 black satin trenchResort 2010 emerges as a tribute to the trench coat.  Colors in this range are navy & wedgewood blue, stone & a deeper celadon green.  The directional piece of this range is the navy Trench Dress that at first glance looks like you’re wearing a trench coat, but a closer look reveals the fabric to be a lightweight poplin shirting.

Talbots has a long way to go before the American 30 something customer perceives the store to be a place she can shop & not feel old, but with offerings like those shown for Holiday/Resort ‘09/’10, the company is well on its way to succeeding.  When asked if it’s working at the store level, VP of PR Meredith Paley stated that “there are some customers who are questioning the changes, but far more who love them." Meredith continued, "When it comes to customers, we know we are always going to win some & lose some.”  Every bold stroke has its consequences, but this is just par for the course.  Bold strokes are the foundations on which progress is built.

-Scott French


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