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Suzanne Schwartz, CEO of SAM, applies decades of fashion experience to hot looks for cold weather.
Drop in on luxury outerwear brand SAM’s annual holiday party, and you’ll find Suzanne Schwartz raising a glass next to her husband and high school sweetheart, Andrew Marc Schwartz, chief executive officer and former owner of fashion label Andrew Marc. “Here’s to our SAM-ily,” the Schwartzes conclude their toast each year before a devoted staff of nearly 20 outerwear industry veterans.
“Sure, it’s a little hokey,” Suzanne Schwartz admits with a laugh. “But it’s true! Our small team has an authentic, homey feel that couldn’t be more like family.”
Built on the premise of everyday utility contrasted with alpine-inspired luxury, the New York-based outerwear company is approaching nine years of serving customers fond of its urban and outdoor styles. Designed with resilient, high-performance materials such as neoprene, 3M Thinsulate padding, lacquered nylons and fur, all styles are wind-resistant and water-repellent for everyday practicality with most pieces crafted from a resin-coated Egyptian cotton for year-round function. “The outerwear category is something people have always been willing to invest in,” Schwartz says, noting SAM’s kids’ styles range from $150 vests to $550 puffers. “Think of it as outer armor—what everyone sees you in,” she says. “Nobody necessarily knows where you live or what car you drive, so the jacket you walk out of the house in is your chance to make a statement.”
Offering styles for babies to tweens, SAM is trusted by parents as a trendy option that never sacrifices warmth. “Even if it comes out on the higher end of their budget, parents will simply size up in order to get an extra season out of it,” Schwartz says. “We’re known for having quality that matches the price tag.”
From the very beginning, Schwartz always had a place for the childrenswear industry in her business heart. Her first paying job in high school was at kids’ boutique Peanut Butter near where she grew up on Long Island. “I loved everything about working there,” she says, recalling the elaborate window displays she designed each season and the many customers she befriended. Schwartz attributes that experience to sparking her interest to work in the fashion industry. High school also marked when she met her husband and future business partner, dating him throughout college before getting married at age 22. Schwartz pursued her interest in fashion with a degree in marketing from New York University, first working in the city at a children’s showroom before joining her husband two years later at his own luxury fashion label, Andrew Marc, in 1981. Appointed as the senior vice president and creative director, Schwartz learned to juggle the many responsibilities around design and sales. “The combination of being creative and creating product that people want to buy is very motivating,” she says, adding that she’s always thrived off New York’s cutthroat fashion culture. “I never saw myself as a very competitive person, but in this environment, I want to win—New York is just that kind of place. Once you’re in it, you’re in it.”
After a successful run, the Schwartzes sold Andrew Marc at the end of 2005. The couple enjoyed the hiatus for a few years, however the urge to start another business crept into the picture once their youngest daughter went to college. The couple moved back to Manhattan and prepped for the next chapter. “We pretty much picked up where we left off—same approach with the same high-end aesthetic,” Schwartz says. “The void was there, and we were more than capable of filling it.” And that’s exactly what they’ve done since launching SAM in 2008. The brand has grown steadily each year, and is now stocked nationwide in specialty boutiques and department stores. The company added children’s styles in 2014, which has turned out to be a profitable brand extension. “We did very little with kids’ styles at Andrew Marc,” Schwartz says. “It was really my prior experiences in the children’s industry that helped shape our kids’ collection at SAM.”
For Fall ’19, Schwartz expects children’s puffer coats of all different shapes and silhouettes to perform well, citing faux fur trims to be popular in addition to fabrications with lots of shine. “I’m talking glossy to super glossy to satin-type looks,” she says. Velvet also looks to have legs next season and prints are on the radar, from metallic stars to plaid. Beyond being on-trend, Schwartz attributes the brand’s superior fit as a leading factor to its success. “It’s hard to make a puffer attractive, but we’ve mastered outerwear silhouettes that have great balance on the body,” she says. “A coat should never look like it’s swallowing a child.”
To date, SAM has generated most of its growth organically. “Our exposure has been mostly word of mouth,” Schwartz confirms, adding that the company stopped exhibiting at trade shows years ago and only has one showroom located in the Meatpacking District. “It’s really been a natural process,” she adds. That includes no social media campaigns, paid influencers or public relations efforts. “The product has done an amazing job selling itself,” Schwartz says. Of course, a key component of that success stems from the Schwartzes successful track record in outerwear that stretches back decades and two companies. It’s hard enough to build one successful company, let alone two in what are completely different retail eras. But when you stick to what you’re good at, stay focused and maintain standards in product, people and policy, good things tend to happen. That’s the SAM recipe, and Schwartz sees little reason to tinker with it. So don’t expect a SAM jewelry or swimwear collection any time soon. “A focused product creates the strongest brand identity,” Schwartz says. “Success comes from staying in your lane and being the full package for whatever you do best.”
Is it easier to manage an outwear business in today’s retail climate than back in your Andrew Marc days?
Oh, I think it’s definitely easier today. It’s simpler because the Internet provides a much quicker ramp up to achieving brand awareness. That’s the main difference. Years ago, you would got brand awareness through stores you sold as well as advertising on billboards and in magazines. It was a slower process and very expensive. But we did both because back then there was no alternative. Now when stores do a test unit, they usually put it online first, so it’s immediately visible to customers nationwide, even worldwide. The feedback can be phenomenal.
Has the ease of introducing a brand made the playing field overly crowded?
Yes, that’s the negative side of anyone being able to start a business in five seconds. While it’s very easy to get into business, it comes down to being able to rely on the product to sell itself. If it’s a unique design, of good quality and a fair price, the product can carry itself online. New is new, but the reliability of a superior product is what creates staying power in today’s market. You have to be consistent and be good season after season.
How does SAM stand out from the competition?
Being stylish without being outlandish. As a sophisticated company based in New York, we understand modern, clean-line designs with an underpinning of functionality. Put it all together, and there’s a luxury element that shines through in the outerwear market.
Where do you look for design inspiration?
All over the place! And it changes all the time. Honestly, I don’t think anyone or anything retains importance for too long these days. Everything moves so quickly. Somebody might see a celebrity on the red carpet and think they’re influential. Then, the next day, somebody in the business world is making headlines as being influential. Before you know it, a movie star is the next must-watch style icon. It’s a moving target more than ever.
So how do you keep up?
I don’t, and that’s okay. I try not to study anything specific and just take life in as a whole. I design what I would like to wear myself. Basically, whatever feels right at the time goes into production. Then I just hope it translates to whoever wants to come along for the ride.
Was it easy to translate SAM’s adult aesthetic into kids’ styles?
Definitely! We already use a lot of fun colors that resonate well with kids. It also helps that the children’s industry is getting more and more sophisticated, so now whatever styles Mom and Dad have the kids are bound to want. That was even starting to happen when I worked at the children’s boutique decades ago.
Well, back then, I remember being shocked by kids starting to wear black. That was very taboo at the time, but it was a fashion trend for adults at the time. Today, most children’s styles are takedowns from adults. Everything is simulated for kids, from the top brands down. Say hello to Gucci sneakers for infants! You name it, and there’s probably a miniaturized version either out now or in the works.
Would you say there’s increasing demand for kids’ luxury outerwear?
There’s a bit of an uptick. I’d say puffers are getting more attention as a trend, but luxury outerwear in general has always been a necessity to many parents. Most understand that it’s worth the investment for a piece that will be worn every day that must keep the child warm. This year also saw momentum due to the earlier start to winter, which helped across the outerwear spectrum.
What are your biggest challenges right now, and what are you doing to overcome them?
It’s always a challenge on the production side. We can’t take our eyes off the price of the downs. Some of our production is in China, so we’ve been keeping an eye on the tariffs, too. We also buy all European fabric, so the exchange rate between the countries is very important. While there’s some price elasticity the product can withstand, you don’t want all three things collapsing on you at the same time. We must maintain our high-end quality yet keep pricing from being prohibitive to someone perusing our collection. It’s tough, but we’re doing well.
How was business in 2018?
Great! We’ve had very steady growth across our accounts along with positive direct feedback from customers. Some say last year was tumultuous for retail, but personally we didn’t feel it. I owe it to the beautiful products and superior customer service.
What exactly does superior customer service entail?
Fast and convenient communication! When it comes to wholesale, our sales team deals directly with customer service. It’s just not effective to have it passed to someone else. A salesperson should know everything about the wholesale customer, and it’s best when they follow-through 100 percent. On the direct-to-consumer (DTC) side, it’s a little different because there is so much to keep up with, so we have a separate team to field consumer-driven questions and issues.
How is your DTC channel doing?
As a brand, we take our website very seriously. We re-photograph everything each season just to keep it fresh, while also keeping new colors and styles particularly visible. It’s a constant effort to showcase the collection in a sophisticated way that gives everyone access to what we’re doing next. While I think selling through your website has a lot of benefits these days, you must take that responsibility seriously. You’ve now opened yourself up to the public, so you really need to address it, answering demands properly and on time.
What about retailer partners who view DTC as competition?
We haven’t received any complaints. We support a full-price business, so we’re not competing on a promotional basis with our retailers. The purpose of our website is twofold. One, it supports the brand as a place to learn what SAM is all about. Two, it’s a chance to see the full collection because every store buys it differently. Many consumers look online at what we offer and then go buy it at a local retailer. Our website doesn’t let them try-on as easily as going into a store can, obviously.
Any advice for retailers still trying to adapt in what is a volatile and rapidly changing landscape?
The main objective is to differentiate your product mix from the competition. It’s also important to support online efforts. With so many consumers shopping online, many of our retailers have begun shifting their business to be more accessible digitally. The Internet is not a trend; it’s a new way of life.
Balance, which can be defined as omnichannel, is key.
Exactly. Retailers must make sure they’re keeping up with the growing online demand. At the same time, in-store events are always good supplements to drive traffic and sales. It’s also important to keep tabs on the financial performance of each and every location to determine whether it’s worthwhile to continue with that overhead cost. I think that’s what most retailers are doing right now—trying to find the right mix of stores and ecommerce.
What are SAM’s goals for 2019?
We want to grow our brand awareness. We also want to work on controlling the amount of inventory, trying not to flood the market at the end of any season with excess. Our eye is always on the ball, keeping inventory very tight and trying to end each year with as close to nothing as possible.
How do you envision SAM in five years?
It’s hard to say for sure, but all we can do is stay in our lane. The name of the game is focus. Focus on what we do well and avoid trying to do too many things. We’ll grow, but in categories that make sense. There’s a lot of growth to be had right under our nose. Just you wait and see. •