It's Time to Take Another Look at Club Monaco

The brand has finally found its fashion footing.
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The brand has finally found its fashion footing.
Models hanging out at the drizzly Club Monaco presentation Wednesday. Photo: BFA

Models hanging out at the drizzly Club Monaco presentation Wednesday. Photo: BFA

"You know, the Andy I know is madly in love with Nate, is always five minutes early, and thinks, I don't know, Club Monaco is couture." -- "The Devils Wears Prada," 2006

An admission: Over the past few years I've become a bit of a Club Monaco stan, popping into my local store twice a week or so, often emerging with a piece or two. I frequently get compliments on things I've purchased there, and I usually get the now-predictable incredulous response, "Really? You got that at Club Monaco?" While it's still definitely not couture, one could argue that the brand has finally found its fashion footing.

First, a brief history lesson on the brand is in order. Canadian Joe Mimran, the guy who also founded Joe Fresh, launched Club Monaco in the late '80s and sold it to Polo Ralph Lauren in 1999. (This was mind-blowing to me and I didn't even realize it until I got a credit card statement recently with a Club Monaco purchase billed to Polo.) Polo seems to keep that relationship low-key and lets Club Monaco stand on its own. Two years ago, the brand launched a more-expensive and more fashion-forward Collection line, which has been growing ever since. It has also stepped up its collaborations with other brands, including bags with Jane Mayle and denim with Mother and Citizens of Humanity.  

The big-screen shade thrown at Club Monaco (quoted above) happened several years before current creative director and SVP of Women's Designs Caroline Belhumeur took the helm there. Belhumeur was on hand Wednesday night at a fancy party the brand threw at a private townhouse in Manhattan to show its fall 2015 collection. She says when she arrived at the brand seven years ago she basically threw away the mold, quite literally, and started over. "When I first came to Club Monaco, people in the office weren’t wearing the clothes and that to me was a big moment," she says."I was like, 'OK, how do we build this so that people want to wear the clothing?'"

Creative director Caroline Belhumeur in front of a rack of cashmere. Photo: BFA

Creative director Caroline Belhumeur in front of a rack of cashmere. Photo: BFA

To accomplish this, Belhumeur started experimenting with new fits, new proportions and new fabrics. "As we progressed, we started bringing in more fashion and became a bit more interested in elevating the product, too," she says. While she does watch what designers are presenting on the runway, it's not a huge source of inspiration for her and the design team; she calls the runway somewhat "chaotic." Her team is more "nostalgic" and looks at vintage pieces and old images to cull inspiration. 

One comment that I also hear often is that Club Monaco is "too expensive for what it is." (J. Crew gets this criticism a lot as well.) Dresses run in the mid-$200 range and Collection pieces go much higher than that. For example, I purchased this elongated, trench-like motorcycle jacket and it was a semi-eye watering $1,100; I'm viewing it as an investment piece. Of this bum-covering take on a classic, Belhumeur says, "You’re getting something which is Balenciaga quality and fit but not at that price." Some consumers will surely still argue that it's too expensive for workwear, but I suppose it depends on who's buying it. I find the fit and quality to be really good, and definitely better than somewhere more modestly priced, like Banana Republic. Belhumeur says she and her team go into the store every time there is a merchandise flip and try on every piece in sizes 0-10 on company employees, which is how they've worked to get a sense of why a piece does or doesn't work on actual women who are not fit models. 

Which brings us to the next question: Who IS buying it? Belhumeur says the Club Monaco consumer is aged 20 through 60s, though she says her 14-year-old daughter raids her closet and styles pieces differently. (I've heard this from a beauty brand owner, too, who, after admiring my jacket, said her teenage daughters shop at Club Monaco when they need something they perceive as "grown up.") It skews to the more sophisticated side. Belhumeur says the brand's best sellers every season include cashmere sweaters, trench coats, white shirts, whatever "new proportion" pant is hot, and, not surprisingly to me (see here and here), jumpsuits. So, in other words, the basics. 

Attractive people taking a staircase selfie at the presentation. Photo: BFA

Attractive people taking a staircase selfie at the presentation. Photo: BFA

The fall collection, which is lush and cozy-looking, features lots of leather, cashmere and tweed, and is in line with the current Club Monaco aesthetic. A-line skirts and cropped tweedy pants skew classic, and a Hawaiian print for winter was a nice surprise. Meanwhile, models and fashion-y types -- think Hilary Rhoda and Leandra Medine -- milled around the presentation wearing head-to-toe Club Monaco, and trust me, it looks like real fashion. 

Click through for images of the fall 2015 collection and party: