Talbots’ Trudy Sullivan personifies Executive Presence

Rebranding implies excitement. With Supermodel Linda Evangelista as the new face of retailer Talbots, excitement is an understatement. I say this because, to paraphrase garment industry jargon, Talbots delivers the goods. Behind every signature red door, there’s a savvy mix of merchandise. It’s this extraordinary range of clothing that reinforces the new image. Linda may “bring ’em in the door,” but only the right clothes will produce sales.

When CEO Trudy Sullivan arrived at Talbots, from her previous position at casual apparel giant Liz Claiborne, she was startled by the absence of in-house design and product development departments. Ms Sullivan quickly addressed this through new hires to build a design team. An obvious place to start, right? But what set Ms Sullivan’s direction apart was her approach. She resisted the urge to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Instead of a total overhaul and an immediate call to arms to create new products, she organized a systematic review of best, and worst, sellers from the past sixty years! This re-examination of the foundations — the pearls, twin-sets, flats, trench coats — was not an exercise in finding old favourites to re-issue but to understand the core of Talbots’ business and the cachet of true American style.

Surely there can be no more enduring examples of American style than Katherine Hepburn, Jacqueline Onassis and Princess Grace of Monaco. Cleverly, Talbots has created three separate fits for jackets, each named after one of these iconic women. In total, there are 23 styles available on-line, each grouped according to fit, and with an accompanying video called — Meet the Ladies:

Kate: Sexy, hourglass, fitted-at-the waist jackets for dressing up or down.
Jackie: Cool, sophisticated and playful jackets. Great with jeans and skirts.
Grace: Classic, slightly fitted jackets — feminine and ladylike.

Jackets are a big-ticket item, rarely an impulse purchase. This technique of “romancing the merchandise” Talbot's Gracecarries with it the promise of boosted sales. Who could resist exploring these enticingly different looks? I don’t want to second-guess Ms Sullivan or the design group but the implications for this brand within a brand are intriguing and filled with possibility.

Equally as audacious was Ms Sullivan’s willingness to take on denim. From its modest, missy-fitting past, Talbots has emerged as a leader in the denim category. Again, there’s the new signature emphasis on multiple fits, plus, an assortment of silhouettes and finishes or “washes” to ensure every woman finds her dream jean.

It’s clear to me that Talbots is a work in progress. The holiday collection proposes “re-imagined offerings” and from what I’ve seen so far, only the edgiest vintage details will be reinvented or the source of inspiration. Simple, traditional pearl necklaces have evolved into dramatic, glamorous multi-strand showpieces. It wouldn’t surprise me if Michelle Obama shows up for a Christmas party in one of these beauties.

But the real measure of Ms Sullivan’s Executive Presence is surely her grace under fire. The rebranding took place during extraordinarily challenging financial pressure: plummeting stock prices, selling off the men’s and kid’s divisions; criticism for overpaying for recently purchased casual retailer J. Jill. Throughout all this public scrutiny, Ms Sullivan and her team rolled out the rebranding and never lost their poise or their vision. What a coup! Félicitations for creating the cachet that is Talbots today.

Executive Presence is, indeed, complex. Do you have executive presence? What about your team? Download your Executive Presence Scorecard

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