When discussing the highest-quality and most-adored women’s fashion brands in Canada, participants would be remiss not to include Judith & Charles among their conversation. Associated with the finest craftsmanship, a superior fit and style of elegant and essential taste, the Montreal-based womenswear brand has been excelling within the retail and fashion industries for more than three decades. By maintaining its commitment to consistently providing solutions to satisfy women’s wardrobe needs, it continues to cultivate a multitude of admirers, bolstering even further the already strong reputation it enjoys among its clients. In celebration of 30 successful years, and as a clever response to impacts that the COVID-19 global pandemic has had on its business, the brand recently made the decision to expand the range of products it offers to include outerwear, highlighted by a collection of 100 percent eco-sustainable coats which will be introduced in September 2021.
Loyal and Inspiring Customers
It’s a move that was a thoughtful one, according to the company’s President, Charles Le Pierrès. And it’s also one that he explains was inspired, at least in part, by the tremendous amount of support that the brand received from its customers shortly after the onset of the pandemic and the resulting store closures.
“It was really quite amazing,” he says. “We received a lot of messages of support from the Judith & Charles community, urging us to focus and to remain strong through these challenges. It helped to remind us just how much our brand means to our customers and emphasized our obligation to them. I immediately increased my efforts, thinking of ways by which we could remain relevant during these very difficult times for the fashion and apparel industries while continuing to grow for the future.”
Adding High-Quality Value
Given that one of the mandates of the brand is to simplify the working woman’s life, facilitating confidence, strength, and comfort through its impressive line of businesswear, the task of remaining relevant during lockdowns and an emptying of urban office buildings seemed at first to be a monumental one. However, in thinking pragmatically about the needs of the brand’s loyal clients, Le Pierrès, who runs the business with his wife Judith, realized that although women may not be visiting their offices anymore or attending business meetings, they still want to get outside, and to look their best when they do. He describes the decision to expand the brand’s offering into outerwear as a bit of a reinvention of the company and an extension of its commitment to its customers.
“Though there have been many implications caused by the pandemic and resulting restrictions on business,” he laments, “For Judith & Charles, one of the more negative effects has been the decline in the need and reasons to wear suits and attire for the office. Because the numbers of people working in downtown cores across the country have been drastically reduced, along with social distancing protocols and the canceling of events and other gatherings, providers, and manufacturers of businesswear have suffered immensely. I knew that we needed to introduce something new to our offering. But the key was to create something that would complement what we already offer to our existing customers, adding value to our assortment, while maintaining the same high quality and style that they’re used to receiving from us. Once I developed the idea to produce a collection of winter coats for the brand, I quickly started to imagine the ways that we could not only grow as a company, but to do better as a company as well.”
Hence, the new 2021 collection of Judith & Charles eco-sustainable winter coats was born. Produced using high-quality biodegradable fabric that’s free of harmful poly-fluorinated chemicals, the impact of the products lifecycle is significantly reduced. And, considering the fact that Judith & Charles specialize in the creation of investment pieces for the working woman’s wardrobe — stylish garments made with preserving quality — the decision to leverage more environmentally sustainable and friendly materials seems to be a perfect fit for the brand and what it represents. In addition, the down fill used in the making of the coats is recycled, reclaimed from used cushions, bedding and other items that cannot be resold. And, all of the packaging and accessories included with each coat is also 100 percent sustainable. It’s a product that Le Pierrès is extremely excited about, and one that he says represents yet another step forward for the brand concerning its commitment to its customers as well as the environment.
“Sustainable practices in fabric and garment manufacturing have been important for quite some time,” he says. “And the importance that companies place on their individual environmental impact continues to increase as we move forward. It’s always been something that we’ve taken very seriously. But it’s an area where we knew that we could make improvements, to do more as a company and a brand in order to reduce our fashion footprint and help create a better tomorrow for everyone to experience.”
Difficult Time for Apparel Retail
The decision to expand the brands offering through the inclusion of outerwear represents a bold statement by Judith & Charles during an extremely difficult time for the retail and fashion industries. According to Statista, the Canadian apparel market experienced a significant decline in retail sales as a result of the pandemic and associated restrictions, with year-over-year sales in Canadian apparel retail decreasing by 52 percent and 86.8 percent in March and April 2020, respectively. Further, marketing intelligence company, Trendex, which specializes in the monitoring of the Canadian apparel sector, has estimated that total retail apparel sales decreased 28 to 32 percent for the whole of 2020, with luxury apparel sales dropping an estimated 16.8 percent, adding that it expected the pandemic to result in 10 to 15 major apparel chains either closing or drastically reducing their retail footprint. Le Pierrès has plans to do neither, and hopes that the company’s pivot will reap dividends, helping it to withstand the impacts of the pandemic and positioning it for further growth.
Despite its innovative thinking, however, Le Pierrès admits that the brand, like most others, has been challenged over the course of the past year, coping with government-imposed restrictions and drastically reduced traffic to stores. Operating ten locations across Canada, he says that there have been some ups and downs during the pandemic. The company has been forced to reduce its number of employees and the hours required by staff to service its stores. It’s also suffered what the company’s President describes as “huge” wholesale cancellations from some of its larger retail partners, putting further strain on its operations and forcing price markdowns in efforts to sell mounting unsold inventories. In addition, its proud tradition of being locally-produced has also come under pressure. As a result of the shuttering of Canadian factories, Judith & Charles have been forced to move some of its production outside of the country. Le Pierrès stresses the importance that the brand has always placed on keeping production local in order to support the Canadian economy, adding that it is doing everything it can to bring full production home as soon as it’s possible to do so.
Focus on the Customer
In light of these challenges, or perhaps in spite of them, Le Pierrès describes the past year as a time that the company has embraced as an opportunity to focus even more on their customers, shifting to meet their continued needs and finding new ways to engage with them. He says that it’s provided a bit of a learning curve, but is one that he believes the company has risen to with success.
“As soon as we had to close our stores during the first lockdown, we realized that we had to find a way to continue communicating with our customers, to keep them engaged with our brand and products,” he says. “We have increased our efforts on social media and with the distribution of our newsletter in order to achieve this. We’ve also introduced a virtual shopping tool and have customer care representatives and store managers available to address any questions or concerns that our customers might have concerning any of our garments. We’ve always enjoyed strong relationships with the Judith & Charles customer. But we’ve used our current situation as an excuse to strengthen those relationships further and to gain an even deeper understanding of their desires and preferences to continue enhancing the service we provide.”
Evolution of the Business
Another way in which the brand responded to store closures and a lack of footfall to its physical locations was through its accelerated omnichannel efforts. In order to meet continued demand for its product, demand reflected in a 45 percent growth of the company’s ecommerce sales, it ramped up its delivery and curbside pickup options. It’s all part of what Le Pierrès describes as a further evolution of the brand and the business, and a willingness of Judith & Charles to not necessarily welcome the challenges of its time, but to face them head on nonetheless.
“The business of retail is unpredictable at the best of times, in particular the business of fashion and apparel retail. It’s always been this way. Obviously, the current climate has posed some extraordinary challenges for Judith & Charles and the rest of the industry to step toward and overcome. But that is what retail is all about – adapting and innovating to continue meeting the needs of the customer in order to grow and succeed. It’s what we have planned for the near-term and beyond, focusing on our product and the extension of our outerwear collection, and constantly raising the bar concerning improvements to our brand and the experience that we provide to our valued customers.”