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Meet the Woman Quietly Executing Vince's Chic Comeback

After 10 years at Club Monaco, Caroline Belhumeur moved to Los Angeles to work her magic on Vince. Is it working?
Caroline Belhumeur. Photo: Kealan Shilling

Caroline Belhumeur. Photo: Kealan Shilling

In early 2017, Vince was in the unpleasant position of announcing to its stakeholders (and, as a public company, the world) that it had 'substantial doubt" about its ability to stay in business. At the end of fiscal 2016, it reported $50 million in debt, tanking sales and a net loss of $162.7 million. Ultimately, the brand was still able to secure enough funding to stick around, and two years later, things are beginning to look up.

But first: How did Vince get there?

Like many contemporary brands that thrived pre-Instagram, Vince relied heavily on its wholesale business to drive sales and struggled as department-store foot traffic declined, forcing deep discounts, and as competitors with stronger points of view, Instagram followings and direct-to-consumer businesses began to pop up.

The brand also lacked a cohesive point of view; it saw a revolving door of creative and business leadership leading up to that "substantial doubt" announcement: Its founders Rea Laccone and Christopher LaPolice left in 2013, shortly before the company's successful IPO. As that success faded, they were replaced in succession by Doo-Ri Chung, Natalie Ratabesi and Karin Gregersen; then, Laccone and LaPolice were rehired as consultants to execute a "reset" of the struggling brand, leaving again after two years.

A little before they left the second time, in 2016, Tomoko Ogura left Barneys to join Vince as brand director; she left this past June according to LinkedIn. Back in May of 2017, Vince hired Caroline Belhumeur as SVP, creative director, following her 10-year stint at Club Monaco while the mall brand underwent its own turnaround. Later that year, Vince also brought on Patrik Ervell, who shuttered his downtown-cool namesake brand to head up men's design.

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Vince Fall 2019. Photo: Courtesy of Vince

Vince Fall 2019. Photo: Courtesy of Vince

Two years later, both Belhumeur and Ervell have not only stuck around, but they've also relocated from New York to Los Angeles, which is apparently where Vince has always been headquartered. (Who knew?) It feels significant, like this could be the team — and the turnaround — that sticks.

Belhumeur, an England-born Kingston University graduate who cut her teeth at Calvin Klein, chic-ified Club Monaco while also helping to revamp its stores, adding cool third-party brands, collaborations and even a café at its Fifth Avenue location in New York. There was a period around 2015, after Belhumeur was promoted to creative director, during which women in coastal cities seemed to be having a sudden collective realization: "Wait, Club Monaco is chic now?" Those same women might experience a similar sensation upon walking into a Vince store today. As someone who didn't come across a Vince label outside of the occasional jaunt to Saks Off Fifth, I was pleasantly surprised to find dozens of items I wanted on a recent visit to the brand's new store in Palisades Village, a new property by the owners of The Grove. There were chic silk slip dresses and midi skirts in dreamy colors, cashmere sweaters with the perfect oversized cuts, languid trousers with Issey Miyake-esque pleats, plenty of the toe-emphasizing sandals all the cool girls wear these days and a solid collection of minimalist swimwear. It was all arranged in a clean, brightly lit space that felt like a fancy, modern Los Angeles house. 

A fancy, modern Los Angeles house is where I first encountered Belhumeur, who is sort of like a contemporary Pheobe Philo. It was the final night of a three-day "brand summit" the brand organized to immerse editors in the new Vince, which is all about getting back to its L.A. "roots." It culminated in Belhumeur inviting us into her home, a prototypical Hollywood hills oasis with a sprawling pool, countless terraces and stunning views of the city, decorated in the understated Californian style that now populates the brand's inspo-heavy Instagram account. In living here, she's embodying the new Vince aesthetic instead of dictating it from 3,000 miles away.

"I was hesitant about it because my whole life was New York and I didn't really know much about L.A.," she says about making the decision to relocate. "I think I was so interested in the brand and this story that I felt, well of course I have to be here. Also everything is coming from the L.A. studio. So it wasn't really an option as far as I was concerned."

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The "story" she's referencing is the brand's L.A. heritage, which no one was really talking about before she came around. Today, the brand is making an effort to tell that story (hence the "brand summit") and position itself as an L.A. brand. Belhumeur immediately knew that this could be a way to reignite consumers' interest in Vince.

Vince Fall 2019. Photo: Courtesy of Vince

Vince Fall 2019. Photo: Courtesy of Vince

"How do you make people understand what you're trying to say and make it more engaging, not just another clothing brand? You have to be able to have some kind of vision of the storytelling, the uniqueness of the brand," she explains. "I looked at Vince and I was like, well, it's created in L.A. It's a luxurious California brand. And when I looked at the other contemporary brands in our landscape, nobody else had that story to tell. They were very urban-centric, very New York-centric. But the roots of this brand being in California actually really kind of reflect the way of dressing and the way the clothes looked. It was a natural fit, but it wasn't really being talked about."

In its heyday, Vince was really just clothes — well-made wardrobe staples and stuff you could wear to work and feel put together in. Today, that's not enough for a brand to stand out. Belhumeur has carefully shifted and elevated the aesthetic, but without alienating customers who are just looking for classic basics. "It's minimal and luxurious, has cashmere and silks and leathers, but other brands that have those components in them are sort of a little bit more ramped up," she says. "They're not quite so quiet as Vince." In an era of Instagram brands and rapid trend turnover, Belhumeur thinks quiet can be a good thing. "To me, it stands out in its quietness," she says. "You can rely on it, but then also there's an element of surprise. When I came to Vince, I felt that there was a place where we could have a little bit more fun with some fashion pieces that are right for the brand. It's not just fashion for the sake of it." She describes the overall image as a "coastal lifestyle" that's "globally aspirational."

"Like if I was living in England still I'd be like, 'Yes. The idea of this brand in California, how lovely is that?'" she says. "And then in terms of creating visuals for it, all you need is some beautiful sunlight and some shadows."

The campaigns are now shot locally and the brand makes a point to cast real L.A.-based creatives in lieu of models. Its Instagram account has evolved, as well, from cold product shots to lifestyle images and inspiring interiors — clearly an interest of Belhumeur's. Next up is revamping the stores to embody the new brand image (Palisades Village, being new, is already there), as well as opening a few new ones. "We want it to feel like you're walking into a store in California, but it still feels the same in London or Paris or Japan, you still get that same feeling," she explains. 

Vince Fall 2019. Photo: Courtesy of Vince

Vince Fall 2019. Photo: Courtesy of Vince

The brand has also been experimenting with new retail concepts, hosting crystal readings and yoga at the Palisades store and taking on shorter-term leases to dip its toes into new markets without making a massive financial investment. Meanwhile, it's been strategically pulling out of department stores to focus on its direct business, which grew 6.7% in the most recent quarter. This fall, it will open new locations in New York on Fifth Avenue as well as its first European location in London. In November, Vince also launched its own subscription rental service called Unfold that has already seen strong retention rates, according to CEO Brendan Hoffman.

Asked to look back on the past few years, Belhumeur admits Vince had "lost its way" before she arrived, and feels like she's succeeded in helping steer it back. "Coming in and having a narrative to tell and to get everybody on board with has helped," she says, humbly. "Now everybody kind of knows what the positioning of the brand is and what can they do to enhance that idea. I think that's something that I'm kind of proud of and happy that is happening."

In the first quarter of fiscal 2019, sales were up 1% and are expected to increase in the mid-single digits this year overall. It's not amazing, but any forward momentum is a lot better than where the brand was two years ago. Vince finally has a direction, and it's starting to look like a positive one.

See Vince's Fall 2019 lookbook in the gallery below.

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