Few individuals – or entities – reach the age of 70 without hitting a few bumps in the road, and Talbots is no exception.
Executives at the privately held Hingham-based women’s apparel company are comfortable laughing at some of the questionable decisions of the past -- such as in the early 2000s when the business that some fashion aficionados consider a little matronly tried to rebrand itself for a younger generation.
“This is a store known for its classic women’s wear, and suddenly it was busting out trying to be Jones New York,” said Jill Smith, a law librarian in her 40s who says her mother shops at Talbots more than she does these days. “It was like L.L. Bean trying to be hip. And they weren’t getting it right.”
Deborah Cavanagh, senior vice president of marketing at Talbots, concedes the company’s “brand journey and business journey ... have had peaks and valleys. We tried to skew younger to fill a business space centered on the 25-40 demographic and become more forward in fashion.
“It confused and alienated some loyalists who thought they knew what to expect from us,” she said. “But fortunately, they didn’t give up on us.”
Today, Talbots has a strong sense of identity – and a firm foothold in the world of New England retail, with about 500 associates at its Hingham corporate headquarters and currently 534 stores across 45 states and in four Canadian provinces, as well as sales through online and catalog channels.
The retail chain began in 1947 as a singular storefront in Hingham, founded by Rudolf and Nancy Talbot, who saw the post-war potential of promoting shopping as a suburban interest rather than strictly a city pursuit.
A year after opening the store, the couple launched its direct mail business by sending 3,000 fliers to women whose names it obtained from a New Yorker subscription list. Acquired about 25 years later by General Mills, Talbots became a public company in 1993 and is now owned by Sycamore Partners, a private equity firm.
Among its intended demographic, Talbots has many followers -- but some detractors, too.
“I used to be a very loyal Talbots customer,” said Catherine Gunn of Gloucester, a 50-year-old employed in high-tech sales. “And it was mostly because they had such fabulous return policies. ... For years you could bring anything back with original receipt and get a refund.”
Talbots lost Gunn when she tried to return at outlet item at a retail store more than 30 days after she bought it, not knowing the return policy had changed.
Indeed, some Talbots customers refer to their brand loyalty as a phase in their life. But others stay steady -- sometimes for generations.
And unlike those for whom Talbots is associated with middle age, Jennifer Balmadier, who grew up in the Boston suburbs and is now a professional shopping consultant in Paris, reminisces fondly about Talbots as the company that taught her, as a young professional, how to dress for work.
“Once I graduated college and got my first real job, I knew that was where I wanted to shop for work clothes,” Balmadier said. “To me, Talbots exemplified my corporate look: classy, refined, tasteful, and professional. I heard through the office grapevine that I had been voted best dressed, so I guess I was doing something right.”
Living now in what is arguably the fashion capital of the world and having to project an image of Parisian sophistication to her out-of-town clients, Balmadier doesn’t shop much at Talbots anymore, but she still defends its merits.
“I know for many people Talbots has a bit of an old lady image, but when I used to shop there they were doing a great job providing quality clothes for classy yuppies,” she said.
Good fit and high quality might be what shoppers specifically identify as Talbots’s advantages, but Cavanagh says there’s more to it than that – dating back to the store’s founding. Talbots’s emphasis on what its brand ambassadors call modern classic style “was really about embracing a more suburban approach to lifestyle and reinvigorating fashion outside of the city,” she said.
In both the brick-and-mortar stores and the online and catalog shopping channels, customers benefit from an emphasis on providing a range of size concepts that are styled to flatter many different body types. That focus has made 23-year-old Megan Clark of Acton a third-generation Talbots shopper, following in the footsteps of both her mother and her grandmother. For a recent gig as a tour guide at the historical Fairbanks House in Dedham, she needed to look both conservative and elegant.
“A lot of stuff at Talbots isn’t totally my style, but they have really high-quality staples,” said Clark. “I go there for dress pants or a nice blouse. And everything fits.”
For Clark’s mother, Alice, that’s a bit of an I-told-you-so.
“Megan was resistant to start shopping there,” Alice Clark recalled. “But I said to her, Honey, the clothes will fit you.”
Alice, 52, and her own mother both shop at Talbots. “Sometimes we’ll show up at an event in the same blouse,” Alice said.
Other millennials are passing through Talbots’s iconic red doors as well.
Emily Dearborn, 25, of Boxborough, said she started shopping there in high school because she needed to dress like a young executive for her speech and debate competitions.
“Pencil skirts, suit pants -- not something a teen would normally have in her wardrobe,” she said. Eight years later, she still returns to Talbots if she has a job interview and, in her words, “I have to look nice and grown up.”
An unsolicited celebrity plug or two can help a retailer garner fashion-conscious shoppers, too, and Talbots has benefited recently from confirmed sightings -- and snapshots -- of Taylor Swift, Reese Witherspoon, Jessica Alba, Katie Couric, and Michelle Obama outfitted in its apparel.
Talbots is among a number of companies becoming increasingly aware of its relationship to its community and the greater good -- what is now referred to in business circles as corporate social responsibility. Two years ago, the company established an annual campaign to benefit the nonprofit charity “Dress for Success,” through which customers are invited to bring in their gently used apparel and receive a discount on new purchases in exchange. Some make a monetary donation at the same time. The first year the campaign raised $500,000; the second year Talbots partnered with “O, The Oprah Magazine” and doubled that figure.
Cavanagh says 17,000 underserved women have benefited from the donation of 4,500 boxes of clothing collected in Talbots stores.
Because it’s a privately held company, Talbots executives don’t share sales figures, but Cavanagh says the firm’s numbers are “very encouraging.
“Not only are our loyal customers coming back and spending more than last year, but we’re attracting new customers to the brand. In a retail environment where people are very careful about the way they spend and what they spend on, Talbots has incredible momentum,” she said.
But there is one number that Talbots executives are entirely comfortable sharing.
“We’ve dressed Michelle Obama 27 times,” Cavanagh said. “But who’s counting?”
Nancy Shohet West can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.