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Being B

Bernardo Fashions Founder and President, Stuart Pollack, and Director of Sales, Childrenswear, Michael Hollander, give us the scoop on contemporary juniors’ and kids’ brand Collection …

Bernardo Fashions Founder and President, Stuart Pollack, and Director of Sales, Childrenswear, Michael Hollander, give us the scoop on contemporary juniors’ and kids’ brand Collection B, and what it’s like to be an outerwear tween sensation fresh on the scene.

By Jennifer Cattaui

It was a Monday and their Facebook “likes” were going through the roof, jackets were selling out, the phone was ringing off the hook and their Google Analytics chart spiked. The folks at Collection B, a hip and contemporary division of Bernardo Fashions, had no idea what was going on, until a blogger they were friendly with contacted them. It seemed that Sookie Stackhouse (actress Anna Paquin), from the HBO series True Blood, had donned a Collection B leather jacket on the popular show for what they say was a millisecond. “I couldn’t believe they identified the jacket so quickly as one of ours,” says Michael Hollander, the director of sales for the brand. “The reaction was incredible.”

Only a year in with their children’s business, Collection B’s mini-me designs are definitely turning heads of little sisters everywhere looking up to an older sibling or a favorite celeb. Takedowns of their contemporary line are tweaked for smaller folks and run $50-$145 retail, making them competitively priced for the children’s outerwear market. “Everyone’s getting a jacket that’s realistically priced. It’s about the look, the color, the texture and fashion. It has to be trend-right,” Hollander notes. With the ability to offer exclusivity vis-à-vis different skins and fabric combinations, Collection B is able to reach a host of stores with unique offerings.

Bernardo Fashions President, Stuart Pollack, recalls the division’s recent launch: “Two years ago, we approached Nordstrom’s children’s buyer with the idea that we make some Collection B styles in girls’. We created pieces for her and they sold out.” Even though Pollack could see it would be a good idea to expand the collection into the kids’ market, he says he didn’t further pursue the business at the time, as he knew that the company didn’t have the in-house expertise to lay the proper foundation. As luck would have it, soon after, Pollack got news that children’s outerwear company Paramount Apparel was going out of business. He quickly snapped up Hollander, their vice president of sales, who had been working in the children’s apparel business for 18 years. “They made the announcement on a Wednesday and I called him on Thursday,” Pollack says. “My entire business has been predicting trends in fashion and taking advantage of opportunity.” Opportunity seized—he now had the expertise and could strategize to build the business and become what he calls a “category killer,” with the intent to dominate the outerwear category in the U.S.

This is the heart of the business, Pollack says. “We find niches and markets that aren’t there yet.” Because the majors already have a relationship with the company through their adult lines, their reputation for quality and on-time delivery is already established. Brand-building is a key for Collection B, Pollack says, and they don’t have a track record of being tentative. “Four years ago we made a sizable investment in print advertising, close to $1 million, to build the business and have done so yearly since then. This has helped us to produce millions of units of jackets,” he says, mindful that in this day and age of Google searches and brand-first shopping, getting the name front and center is essential. But seeing it out “in action” is the real raison d’être of course. Hollander says, “I love seeing a boy or girl wearing one of our designs—that’s priceless to me—it’s a real ‘attaboy.’”

Earnshaw’s sat down with Pollack and Hollander to learn more about Collection B’s children’s business and how the company has positioned itself to be a “category killer” with fast-fashion outerwear for all.

How did the business start?
SP: In 1980, I was a junior buyer at Eaton’s, which was at the time the biggest department store in Canada. I had been buying from the largest leather and faux fur producer in Korea, Jindo. My liaison at the company suggested that I go out on my own and said he’d finance me as I only had $10,000 of my own. I told him that I needed $2 million to get started. He said no problem. We had no contract—it was all done on a handshake.

I started the men’s leather company in Montreal. Outerwear is a natural fit for Canada—this was a place I could build volume. I was under no obligation to buy from Jindo, even though he was financing me. From men’s, the company expanded into women’s outerwear. European information was strong in Canada so we were always on trend. We were not producing original coats at the time—we would mimic or copy other samples from Europe. In 1989 we opened a showroom on Seventh Avenue. A Nordstrom buyer said she loved our line. She told me, “I don’t have time now, but don’t sell to any division other than Point of View (her’s).” Today, we’re a huge supplier to Nordstrom. We brought to the market items that weren’t in the U.S. at the time—like microfibers with fox trim hoods and washable suede.

In 1995 I sold the Canadian business and moved to New York with my son and daughter. Bernardo Fashions evolved into being one of the top three to four outerwear brands. About four to five years ago, we started Collection B as an offshoot. It was our answer to buy it-wear it-trash it, inspired by the Topshop model. It’s not just the latest fashion but also at the right price and on trend.

That sounds right on point for children’s outerwear, which gets replaced seasonally. Is this type of “fast-fashion” what it’s all about now?
SP: It’s all about time to market. We can ship in 60 days. We watch the runway and then we design our garments. (We don’t copy now, it’s all original—in fact I’d be happy if the U.S. does end up deciding to copyright fashion design as it would make it harder for our competition.) After we design the garments, we send them overseas to be patterned and sourced. In 30 days we have samples in our showroom that can be shopped around. Orders can be shipped from Asia 60 days later and will be to the customer in 90 days. This is where the business is going. You need to set up your company to support this. The garment trade used to be considered “rag trade” but now it’s really high tech and sophisticated. You have to be tech-savvy. The key to fast fashion is to have multiple deliveries—you need 10 times a year in sportswear, and the other two months are for clearance.

Do you have any advice for buyers?
SP: Buy the key items that you carry and then keep buying through the season. Don’t show an item twice—always move it forward. You don’t want to frontload your season—it’s better for your cash flow. The manufacturers will handle the multiple deliveries. Delivery is our problem.

You say you want to be a “category killer.” What gives you a competitive edge in the outerwear business?
SP: I own my own company in China with 45 employees that do everything from sourcing, fabrications, trims and samples to quality control. We don’t go through agents and representatives. Whereas many others use independent contractors for quality control, who just check things at the end, our employees are checking garments throughout the production cycle and can flag problems early in the process. If the owner of the factory disagrees with our quality control person, in 10 minutes they can be in front of the head of the China office to understand the issues. My team knows what Bernardo requires and we will refuse shipment of things that don’t meet these standards.

This year with the millions of garments we make we had no claims. That’s unbelievable in the industry.

Also, we do a lot of business in few factories. We generally will take 40 to 60 percent of production capacity in a factory because we want leverage. We then have a big say in how it operates.

You launched your children’s line in February. Isn’t that after the traditional “buy” for the season?
MH: It was a soft launch—a test run. There was a great opportunity in opening up accounts when others were late on shipments. We have a smooth-running production team that’s fine-tuned and always delivers on time. This stems from Stuart. After 20 years our left and our right hands work well together.

One of our early milestones is when we had a half-page in Nordstrom’s back-to-school catalog—they featured a girl’s jacket in faux leather. It was great exposure and validation. We sold 30 percent of the product in the first week.

How does the climate affect your business?
MH: It’s getting harder and harder with the weather. There’s a limited wear-time. That’s why for us the mid-weights sell so well. In outerwear, consumers really react to the weather—they want to buy now and wear now. We’ve had a great reaction with our light down jackets as well as our faux leather in kids’.

The flip side of those are our systems jackets—they are heavier “winter” jackets—and we’ve been very successful with these as well. The warmth of a jacket is what parents want to know first. Our buyers tell us that parents pick up the kids’ jackets by the sleeve to assess weight and do their buying by the pound.

Our strategy is that we have a lot of great styles but not a lot of inventory per category. We make packable downs, faux leathers, fashion and active jackets. We keep it lean and mean.

So you basically are diversifying your weather-related risk with variety.
MH: Exactly. It’s nice to have variety—it’s meaningful throughout the country. In stores in the South, they don’t need systems jackets because of the climate. Some of these southern stores don’t need a large assortment, but certain styles work really well. In the Northwest, we make sure we sell rain and water-resistant styles.

SP: Our business is very much a third quarter business. It’s still hot outside and our season is already done. Our success is not dependent on the weather. This makes our buyers happy—they get their bonuses. You don’t want them sitting there through the fall and winter crossing their fingers.

How do you keep the line on-trend?
MH: We have a lot of information from our women’s and men’s line—and tons of experience—which gives us our real competitive edge. Our adult lines really speed up the learning curve.

SP: The 12 year olds want to look like their older sisters and mom has a limited budget. People have low attention spans today. If something’s not value-priced, they don’t get it. This is the concept and it has evolved—it was a junior business but then became contemporary junior fashion. Contemporary is higher priced and junior is lower priced, but lacks quality.

Nordstrom recently brought in 12 Topshops as store-within-stores and they are learning about these customers. They are somewhere between junior and contemporary. A gap has opened up and there are no suppliers for this market. Over 20.3 percent of girls between 16 and 29 years old know the Collection B brand.

Where do you write most of your business?
MH: We do most of our business in the United States and a private label business in the U.K. and Canada. Our focus is on growing the Collection B brand.

SP: We also work in Australia and New Zealand (we have licensing partners there) as well as Taiwan, Korea, Japan and Mexico. Buyers know we ship Marks & Spencer in the U.K. They have the reputation for the being the most difficult factory audit in the world. We’ve built all of their standards into our process. All doors are open for us and we do a good job.

What tops your 2013 to-do list?
MH: We’re always looking to expand our distribution with the right retailers and continuing to grow the line. In our first year, we exceeded our three-year plan. We’re growing the kids’ business category by category and looking to cover it all. We’re very excited about our growth potential.

SP: At the top of my list is our new website, which includes kids’ clothing, for direct sales to the consumer so that we can present the brand to consumers exactly how we see it.

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