It's always a sad day when one of your favorite stores closes — from dELiA*s disappearing from every known shopping center in the country and the ubiquitous food court must-have Sbarro filing a Chapter 11, it seems like the staples of our youth are fading away. So when the plus size clothing brand Ashley Stewart announced in 2014 that it was filing for bankruptcy for the second time in slightly over three years, many disappointed customers were up in arms. As stores closed left and right and investors turned down the opportunity to save the company, it seemed as if the iconic brand, which had been in business since 1991, was doomed to fold completely. But, as you're aware, this story has a happy ending, since Ashley Stewart is not only still standing, but doing better than ever before — all thanks to its new Executive Chairman/CEO, James Rhee.
Rhee, a Harvard graduate and founder and president of FirePine Group, believed so strongly in Ashley Stewart's potential that he resigned from his position on the board to become leader of the company, securing financial backing from Clearlake Capital to help breathe new life into the struggling brand. Focusing on a philosophy based in technology, algorithms, lean processes, and a strong leaning towards personal customer interaction, Rhee has altered the company from inside out, and with profits hitting record levels, it appears everything he's doing is not in vain.
With tactics like in-stores events (like the national #LoveYourCurvesTour), model searches, strong social media presence, and multiple philanthropic efforts — like funding two scholarships with the United Negro College Fund — it appears that Rhee knows that the best way to profitability is through customer engagement outside of just a purchasing level. Rhee explained to WWD:
"We have rewritten the business model and operations from scratch. We have taken no shortcuts. We are making long-term investments in the most important assets — our people, our customer, and our brand. We fought tooth and nail for the survival of a brand that empowered a core customer base deserving of a voice. What we achieved was perhaps one-in-a-million, and it was all driven by a mission to finally give due to Ashley Stewart and every woman she has touched since 1991. Whatever the future holds, I know that we have a team and philosophy that is finally worthy of serving the brand and our customer.”
Clearly Rhee is feeling confident in this fashion-focused Lazarus, as Ashley Stewart just launched its new lingerie line, #DaretoBare, and its own YouTube TV channel, Ashley TV™, for starters. We can only hope that the third time's the charm for the plus brand, and that the bankruptcy rumors never return.
Images: Courtesy Ashley Stewart