Are Influencer Brands the Key to Bringing Millennials to Department Stores?

Nordstrom and Barneys are finding success in the burgeoning world of influencer brands for whom promotion and feedback are built-in.
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Photo: @somethingnavy/Instagram

Photo: @somethingnavy/Instagram

A question that I, and probably a lot of people working in fashion, get asked a lot is some version of: "How long is this whole influencer thing going to last?" or, "Are these people still going to be posting selfies when they're 45?" "What happens when Instagram goes away or changes its algorithm?" 

Many influencers who are smart, established and positioned in the right way (and, most likely, have a strong management team behind them), are preparing for this unknown future by building their own brands in the hopes that they'll outlive those #spon bikini pics their boyfriends took on their #spon vacations. And retailers, who also find themselves in a volatile situation these days, are starting to think beyond influencer marketing by collaborating with these entrepreneurs on exclusive products and/or stocking their brands — and the money is pretty much just rolling in.

Nordstrom, which I think is fair to call a preeminent example of how a legacy department store can innovate without alienating its customers or compromising its legacy, has been a pioneer in this new wave of influencer brands. It all began with collaborations with street style stars Caroline Issa and Olivia Palermo in 2015 and 2016, respectively. Influencer-retailer collabs were pretty popular around that time — Lauren Conrad for Kohl's, Alexa Chung x Madewell, Kate Moss x Topshop and Gabi Gregg x Swimsuits for All come to mind — but Nordstrom took what it learned from those collabs to develop even more meaningful partnerships with influencers and their products, and it's undoubtedly been one of the things that has helped the retailer maintain relevance while its competitors struggle for it.

"We recognized the positive response from customers [to these collaborations] and were deliberate in seeking out similar collaborations with influencers our customers know and love," says Tricia Smith, Nordstrom's EVP and GMM for Women's Apparel, who brought up the Kate Moss/Topshop collaboration (Nordstrom has carried Topshop in its stores and online since 2012) and Beyoncé's Ivy Park line as other early successful examples of selling influencer- and celebrity-driven product. 

In December of 2016, Nordstrom also became the official launch partner for Khloe Kardashian and Emma Grede's denim line Good American, which was an instant success, and as of recently, it also carries Kristen Cavallari's brand Uncommon James, the new Gal Meets Glam collection, as well as a controversial jewelry capsule by WeWoreWhat and Lulu DK. Nordstrom also makes a lot of money off of influencer referrals: WWD found last fall that the vast majority of Nordstrom.com's mobile referral traffic came via an influencer.

But the launch that has arguably been Nordstrom's most exciting, headline-making and the most indicative of where this space is headed, was the Something Navy x Treasure & Bond collaboration. "Superinfluencer" Arielle Charnas's line reportedly brought in $1 million in sales in less than 24 hours when it debuted last September. Nordstrom doesn't comment on such specific financials, but it was clear that much of the line sold out very quickly thanks in no small part to Charnas's million-plus Instagram following. Piggybacking off of that collaboration's success, this fall, Nordstrom will exclusively launch the standalone Something Navy brand. Nordstrom is following this same protocol with Chriselle Lim — launching the Chriselle Lim x J.O.A. collaboration in March, with plans to launch a full-fledged Chriselle Lim line in September.

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Nordstrom execs brought up the success of these influencer brands during its annual Investor Day last week, which suggests they are not an insignificant part of its business, and we later caught up with Smith over email to learn more about why they work so well for the retailer. "We strive to inspire and engage our customers and are focused on partnering with influencers we know they love," she says. "It's exclusive partnerships like these that allow us to continually bring newness to our customers and give them a sense of discovery." 

Exclusivity is a big part of Nordstrom's product strategy overall, as it allows the retailer to stand apart from its competitors, and Smith says the influencer brand partnerships work best when Nordstrom is the exclusive seller. As for whether Nordstrom pursues these partnerships or the brands pursue it, it varies. "If we're looking to develop product for our own brand offerings, we pursue influencers who we feel align with our brand, so we do typically initiate partnerships specifically related to product development collaborations," Smith says. Often times, it's an influencer the retailer has already worked with on the marketing side, which makes the relationship more organic. "If the influencer has an existing partnership with a brand outside of our private label offering, then the brand typically pursues us," she adds.

Jordyn Woods at The Drop LA at Barneys. Photo: Barneys

Jordyn Woods at The Drop LA at Barneys. Photo: Barneys

Nordstrom isn't the only legacy retailer that has stocked influencer brands of late. Barneys, which also hopped on the influencer collaboration train pretty early with the likes of Yasmin Sewell and Russell Westbrook, made influencer-designed products an integral part of the lineup at its experiential The Drop event last month in Los Angeles. They included Emrata x Spinelli Kilcollin, WeWoreWhat x Onia, and shoes designed in collaboration with Jordyn Woods and Justine Skye which were developed and owned by Barneys. Barneys also helped to facilitate a collaboration between Ambush and Lil Miquela — yep, even CGI influencers are developing products these days. 

"Partnering with the right celebrity or influencer gives us exposure to new audiences, a different type of engagement, and added reach," explains Marissa Rosenblum, Vice President of Content at Barneys. "These were successful partnerships for thedropLA as we were looking to reach a younger female audience who might be new to Barneys or familiar with Barneys, but haven't been in the store or shopped Barneys.com yet."

For Barneys, in addition to bringing in new shoppers, it's also a way to do something more meaningful than just a paid Instagram post. "When working with Jordyn Woods and Justine Skye on developing product, and in the past with influencers such as Yasmin Sewell and Jennifer Meyer for Barneys New York, we get to work with these stylish, standout personalities from the origin to the end product," says Rosenblum. "Not only do both brands have an organic investment from a passion and artistic design phase, there's also a natural desire to promote and share a product that you have created."

Obviously, an influencer's personal social media engagement is a huge part of what makes these brands successful and attractive to retailers like Nordstrom, and not only because it's an easy platform on which to promote the line. "Through social sharing and polls on influencers' platforms, we've been able to receive real-time feedback on the design process, inviting them to be a part of the fashion journey in a way that has never been done before," says Smith. "For example, Arielle Charnas of Something Navy has been sharing fabric swatches and design elements from her upcoming brand launch with her audience over the past few months. We have been able to consider customers' feedback and edit accordingly."

So far, influencer brands remain a pretty small portion of these retailers' overall offerings, but both Smith and Rosenblum say that, based on the clear success of the products they've sold so far, they plan to continue pursuing similar deals. At the same time, we're going to see a lot more influencers developing products. Digital Brand Products, the licensing arm of influencer management agency Digital Brand Architects, is behind a lot of them, including Gal Meets Glam and Something Navy, with many more in the pipeline.

"The philosophy [of Digital Brand Products] is that brands of the future are really a combination of these new tenants that customers really engage with," says CEO Daniel Landver. "Digitally-native brands are about content and storytelling." Influencers have those tenants built-in, as well as an understanding of what their followers like. Nordstrom, he says, is an well-aligned partner because of its customer-first perspective. In general, Landver feels that influencer brands are a reflection how the retail landscape, and the way in which consumers absorb media and engage with brands, are changing. 

"I don't think we're going to call them influencer brands in the future — it's just going to be brands," he says. "The way brands are growing, all brands have a huge social element whether it's Glossier or Kylie Cosmetics."

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