J.Crew's sales growth may be slowing, but that hasn't stopped Madewell from dreaming bigger things. The casual, denim-focused retailer, a division of the J.Crew Group, has outlined its plans for a major expansion on all fronts: starting this month, it will sell some of its goods through third-party retailers -- specifically, Nordstrom and Net-a-Porter -- and plans to open 15 more standalone stores by the end of the year. The brand will also begin shipping internationally through its e-commerce site.
As early as Feb. 24, over 70 Madewell pieces will go on sale at Nordstrom.com, followed by arrivals in 15 Nordstrom stores on March 6. On Feb. 25, Net-a-Porter will begin selling 50 Madewell products. International shipping will be available on Madewell.com sometime before year's end. The first shipments to both retailers have focused heavily on denim.
"We’re being really careful," said Somsack Sikhounmuong, Madewell's head of design. "We’ve talked about it and thought about it before, and we’ve finally found partners who will help us grow in the right way." The 'we' he refers to undoubtedly includes Madewell founder and CEO of the J. Crew Group, Mickey Drexler. "This, for us, is really a new beginning," said Drexler to WWD. "I wouldn’t call it necessarily a wholesale distribution. I would just call it distribution that makes sense from a customer point of view, from a brand point of view, from a Nordstrom and Net-a-Porter point of view."
This new beginning comes after a period of strong growth. In the last three years, Madewell has opened 54 stores, bringing the current total to 85. Sales were up 32 percent in the first three quarters of 2014 compared to the previous year, in contrast to J.Crew, which saw a 6 percent increase in sales (and a 2 percent decrease in comparable sales) during that same period.
For Sikhounmuong and his team, growing in the right way means not sacrificing the Madewell aesthetic. "We definitely pride ourselves for the in-store experience," he said. "[With Nordstrom] we’ve had proper meetings, we’ve gone through styling to make sure things felt Madewell still. They’ve been more than happy and more than cooperative in making sure our vision was carried through." Sikhounmuong also said that the way Nordstrom presents its Topshop collection positively influenced Madewell's decision to create a similar partnership.
Madewell's arrangement with Net-a-Porter is modeled after the one J.Crew and the site established in 2010. "Net-a-Porter has proven to be an valuable partner to J.Crew, there’s no reason to mess with a formula that works," said Sikhounmuong in a follow-up email.
J.Crew, as any regular shopper knows, is an aggressive discounter -- but Madewell promotions are rarer. When asked if there were concerns about lack of control over discounting at these new retail partners, Sikhounmuong said, "it is the nature of doing that kind of business, wholesaling, so we get it."
As for the company's day to day business, Sikhounmuong insists the new partnerships haven't changed his work. "I think it's an opportunity to meet new customers and service new customers," he says. "Time will tell, maybe in the future there may be projects here and there between the two us, but in terms of in my head, day to day, it hasn’t changed." Madewell fans should be comforted by the designer's focus on consistency and hopefully larger exposure won't necessitate design changes down the road.
"One step at a time," said Sikhounmuong. Well, in this case, more like three steps.
Update: An earlier version of the article stated that Madewell's partnership with Nordstrom and Net-a-Porter marked the first time the brand has been sold by a different retailer. Madewell has been sold through Shopbop since 2009.