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Fashion Forward

Jill Granoff loves building brands at Liz Claiborne Inc.

Jill Granoff is one of those rare women who, really, has it all: a high-powered, high-profile career; a solid marriage to her childhood sweetheart, architect Rich Granoff; a stunning home in midcountry Greenwich (which, of course, Rich designed); and two terrific sons, Jake, thirteen, and Noah, ten.

“I married my best friend,” she says, “which is a large part of my success, and I didn’t do it alone. Plus I find that in my personal life as well as my professional life, you have to surround yourself with the best people.”

If this native New Yorker — born in Queens and raised on Long Island — has a personal motto, it might very well be: up for a challenge. “I love to build,” she says enthusiastically. “Like my husband. We design it and then we build it. Visionaries and architects, laying out a vision for the future and then planning how to make it all happen. That is so exciting.” After seven years at Victoria’s Secret, where she took the beauty division to a billion-dollar business with the top-selling fragrance in the country, in June 2006 Jill joined Liz Claiborne Inc., the fashion giant founded by a working woman for working women. After serving for a year as president of the Direct-to-Consumer division, in charge of retail and outlet stores, she was promoted to executive vice president of the new Direct Brands division, on which the company’s future may quite literally depend.

Last April came the news that the company’s plan to develop a new line for JCPenney had so angered Macy’s Inc.’s chief executive that he had, in the corporate version of taking an errant child to the woodshed, slashed their fall orders to the bone. Liz Claiborne’s first-quarter earnings plummeted 65 percent, and the stock fell from $45 to $37 a share. This was a ten on Seventh Avenue’s Richter scale and was followed by news that CEO William McComb was restructuring the company into two divisions: Direct Brands for fast-growing labels marketed primarily through company-owned stores and Partnered Brands for more seasoned labels sold through department stores. An announced 800 layoffs included an entire tier of senior management. Sixteen of Liz Claiborne–owned labels — including Partnered Brands staples Ellen Tracy, Dana Buchman and Sigrid Olsen — would be sold, closed or licensed. Focus and resources would swing to the four most profitable Direct Brands labels: Mexx (based in Amsterdam and sold abroad), Juicy Couture, Lucky Brand Jeans and Kate Spade. It is a radical departure from traditional retailing, which, if it works, will free the company from dependence on behemoths like Macy’s Inc. and reinvent both its philosophy and its future.

“He is really emphasizing creativity and design and products that will move our brands forward,” Jill says of McComb’s strategy. “One of his first moves was to bring Tim Gunn in from Parsons as chief creative officer.” (Tim Gunn is also the linchpin of the reality show Project Runway, and his famous dictum, “Make it work, people!” now takes on a whole new imperative.)

“The company needed to become more retail driven, and that’s one of the reasons that I was brought on board,” Jill says. “And now I’m looking to build my team because I have always attributed my success to really trying to identify, recruit and retain, and develop, the best and the brightest people. You can’t do it alone — you have to have a great team.”

“With her broad range of experience from Victoria’s Secret, Estée Lauder and as a consultant, Jill has a critical role to play in the growth of the Direct Brands segment and our organization as a whole,” says William McComb. “She proved her mettle this past year as group president of Direct-to-Consumer when she had some really tough decisions to make, which involved closing stores and whole concepts. Throughout it all, Jill kept her team motivated and focused, consistently exceeding expectations on both a business front and as a leader. I am thrilled to have such a talented executive as part of my team.”

While heading the “winners” division may mean she is sitting in the catbird seat — unnamed designers have grumbled to the press about the company being split into “winners” and “losers” — it also means the pressure is on. To Jill, however, this is one more challenge to be met with drive and creativity. She starts with the age-old question: What do women want? “We work with market research firms, and we talk to women across America in different age ranges and income brackets,” she says. “We ask their opinions, their awareness of brands — not just ours but others. The consumers are actually letting us know what the potential is. Kate Spade, for example, has a very good awareness level, but is there an extension capability into apparel for a line that’s traditionally been in accessories? So we can ask customers, is Kate Spade apparel something you would buy?

The information we get definitely helps drive some of the decisions.”

Although on the surface it appears that Liz Claiborne has become youth driven, Jill is quick to point out that it’s simply not true. “Some of the veteran lines are sold through department stores, which, obviously, are consolidating,” she says. (When Federated Department Stores acquired the May Company in 2005, chains like Marshall Field’s and Filene’s were absorbed and dozens of stores closed nationwide.) In addition, she looks at actual performance numbers. “In the case of Elizabeth [the plus-size label which has already been sold], we were not driving the levels of profitability that we need to deliver to our shareholders. It can be black and white, in a way.

“It also has to do with scope and scale,” she continues. “Where do we think we have the greatest opportunity for return on the monies that we spend? Take C&C California. It’s a contemporary line, a young line, it’s LA-based … but it’s very small. So the amount of money that would be required to build the awareness and to build the line is significant. Laundry by Design is also a young and contemporary line, as are several brands that have been put under strategic review.”

Jill will tell you that both she and her husband were “very directed” at a young age. “Ever since I’ve known him he’s wanted to be an architect, since he was thirteen and reading Popular Mechanics,” she says. “Originally, I thought I was going to become a psychologist, working with people to help solve problems, but then I decided that I would instead work with businesses. It’s still problem solving.”

Jill went to Duke University and majored in psychology, then to Columbia University for business school and remembers writing on her application that her goal was to become a management consultant. “Business is all about people,” she states, “and having those two skills — understanding what motivates people and also how to deliver results — is a perfect combination.”

“From day one I have been impressed with Jill as both a business executive and as a person,” William McComb comments. “She is one of the most results-oriented leaders I have ever worked with. She is decisive, tough-minded and imaginative, yet at the same time good-natured and a  pleasure to be around.”

Jill’s first job was as a management consultant with the prestigious A.T. Kearney firm, where she worked on strategic planning and mergers and acquisitions, analyzing the marketplace and the competition to help companies plot growth strategies. “I did that for a number of different companies — all Fortune 500 companies,” she says proudly. But this was the 1980s, and the glass ceiling was firmly in place. “In some cases it was hard because I was a young woman, and they thought I was there to deliver coffee,” she says wryly. “I realized I had to get away from the old-boy network.”

When a senior partner at A.T. Kearney asked Jill to join a company he was starting in Greenwich, she and Rich moved out from the city, and he opened his architecture firm here. One of Jill’s clients was Estée Lauder, the prestigious cosmetic and fragrance company. “When we first had the opportunity to work with them, they asked, ‘Do you have any women that could work on this job?’ ” She laughs and exclaims, “Finally! Once I found a company that I loved — and an industry that I loved, where I thought I could have an impact — I approached them and said, ‘Who’s going to implement all these recommendations? You should hire me.’ And they did, and that was the start of my career in beauty. I was in that for seventeen years, so Liz Claiborne is really my first foray into fashion.”

After ten years at Estée Lauder, Jill went to Victoria’s Secret Beauty, eventually becoming president and chief operating officer of the division. “While the department stores were saying, Oh my God, the fragrance business is in decline, we were in this great store environment so we could control every facet of the selling experience,” she says. “If we launched a fragrance, we could keep it up in the window for two months; in department stores you get a week if you’re lucky, and then you move on. And we used the catalog to build awareness and do scent-strip sampling, so that today Dream Angels Heavenly is, I believe, still the No. 1 fragrance in America, which most people would not know.”

But the thrill is in climbing to the top of the mountain, not admiring the view once you’re there. “We’d doubled it, we had the distribution, we had all these awards — could I really get jazzed about launching another fragrance?” Jill says of her decision to leave. “I want to continue to learn and grow and develop. So I thought, how do I take my retail skills and then apply them to another industry?

“Victoria’s Secret was fabulous: it’s where I learned to become a retailer, studying under Les Wexner, a retail genius who built a $10 billion company,” she says. “And while I loved Estée Lauder, it is very much concentrated in the department store channel, and I think as retail has evolved, there’s been tremendous growth in the specialty store sector. It’s key to have great, irresistible products and compelling marketing, but at the end of the day, we believe it’s about the shopping experience.”

By 2010 Liz Claiborne plans to open 300 stores for the four top Direct Brands labels. “Look at Greenwich Avenue,” she says, where both Lucky Brand Jeans and Kate Spade have stores. “I think it’s a more intimate environment than going to a mall. You can build relationships with local shopkeepers; you can present a selection of products in one location.

If you went to a department store and wanted to buy a Juicy handbag, you’d have to go to the handbag department, and Juicy shoes are in the shoe department, and Juicy clothing is in the clothing department. We can create this lifestyle where it’s all in one.”

Kate and Juicy and Lucky stores all follow a master plan — the Kate Spade store in Hong Kong is basically indistinguishable from the Kate Spade store in Greenwich — and the branding now extends to outlet stores. “Woodbury Commons is a perfect example,” says Jill. “Our Juicy store there looks like our Juicy stores anywhere. The only difference is the price and that you might not get the complete assortment in every color and size. This is all on you,” she reflects, “but you also control your own destiny.

You control the interaction with the consumer, and we think that’s what leads to success.”

The shift in the retail world is twofold: back to the nineteenth century and the predepartment-store era of small shops, and forward to the twentieth-century concept of e-commerce, where the Internet serves a dual purpose. “It makes shopping available 24/7 so people can shop where they want to shop, when they want to shop,” says Jill. “The store is closed and you want to buy that great pair of jeans? You know your size, you know your fit, you can go online. There’s also the marketing component and the fact that now all websites can function as communities where people can interact. In addition, we can let people know we have new products by sending e-mail blasts — again, to build awareness.”

Someday in the not-so-distant future, customers may be able to buy online and pick up those nifty jeans in the store or shop in a virtual dressing room. “I’ve seen totally cool technology coming out of Asia where you can go online, pick outfits and see how they look on different body types,” says Jill. “We don’t have this yet, but we’ve seen it. We’re at the beginning of the beginning.”

In the end, after you’ve created the environment and done the marketing, whether or not you succeed may rest with something called aspirational branding, which Jill deconstructs as the Gotta Have It factor.

“Women want to look and feel their best,” she says, “whether it’s through the fragrance they apply, the lipstick they wear or the clothing they put on. When you pull that lipstick out of your purse or when you carry your bag, it not only makes you feel good but says something about who you are as a person and your own individual style. We had that at Estée Lauder, and it’s similar with fashion. Why are people attracted to some brands? Kate Spade is about elegance and chic but also whimsy. For Lucky Brand Jeans, it’s about cool and hip and rock ’n’ roll.

“I’m a rock and roller at heart,” she adds. “Most people see me as this serious professional businesswoman, but I still go to rock concerts. I love the Police and the Grateful Dead and U2.”

Despite her intense schedule, Jill finds time for Cosmetic Executive Women, a nationwide organization of 4,000 professional women dedicated to developing future leaders in the beauty industry. Its activities are threefold: professional development, recognition and philanthropy, which includes Cancer in Careers, an organization that enables women with cancer to deal with the experience while continuing to work. She sits on the advisory board of the Fashion Institute of Technology, where she recently helped redefine the curriculum for its master’s program, adding an emphasis on leadership and negotiating skills. (She admits that she can get a lot done because she doesn’t need a lot of sleep: “Five or six hours would be a lot.”)

“You develop your team and you delegate,” says Jill Granoff. “And it’s always about making choices. I used to be a perfectionist … okay, I’m still a perfectionist, but I came to the realization that you can’t do everything. One day you wake up and think, you know what? I’m not going to be in the office until eleven o’clock at night anymore. And my support system at work and my support system at home and my fabulous husband make all the difference. Ingrid, our nanny, has been with us for nine years, and she’s part of the family.

What more important person is there in your life than the person who’s watching the kids when you’re not there? That makes all the difference in the world. I do not think twice when I’m at work, and that has enabled me to do what I do. Another thing, I have a fabulous assistant in the office, Elysa, who’s been with me for eight years, and she helps me stay on my toes.” She pauses, then smiles.