Apparel | Sunday, March 14, 2010
PUTTING A PREMIUM ON BASICS: How Supima, Majestic, and Bloomingdale’s collaborated on the Supima Col
By Nancy Boyd
NEW YORK — When the partners involved in a project can only shake their heads and wonder why they didn’t do this long ago, that means things are off to a good start.
A very good start.
“Everybody’s saying ‘why hasn’t anyone done this sooner?’” says Brian Cytrynbaum, the Montreal-based apparel maker who was a prime mover behind the recent launch of the Supima Collection at top Bloomingdale’s stores nationwide, and who is already finding himself dealing with replenishment orders, the sales floor demand for a larger line, and everything else that goes with having unprecedented sell-through success at a time when the rest of the fashion world is weathering the down market.
Now as he readies the second season of that Supima Collection—and fields phone calls from other retailers wondering how they can get their hands on a line that’s still very much a Bloomingdale’s exclusive—Cytrynbaum recalls how the whole project started, a little over a year ago.
As owner of Majestic Mills, Cytrynbaum had made his reputation with a roster of superstar retailer clients including not only Bloomingdale’s, but Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, and just about everyone who was anyone in the world of premium sportswear. He’d become known as the go-to guy for the fashion-forward T-shirts and tops, superbly chic jeans, and the top of the top end in licensed apparel. Customers trusted both his ingenuity and his technical expertise.
But, as both a fashion producer and a fashion customer, he had strong opinions about what was missing from the market.
“Nobody was doing premium basic T-shirts for men,” he recalls. “I can tell you that most men wear a T-shirt every day—whether they wear it with their jeans or they wear it under their dress shirt or work shirt.
“There’s no question that a white T-shirt is a commoditized item for men,” he continues, “but there was nothing in the market above a Hanes or Fruit of the Loom three-pack.”
All his experience told him that a premium T-shirt—one that was soft, strong, and superbly made—would fill a huge gap in the menswear market.
And immediately he thought of Supima.
“I’d first started using Supima cotton in the mid ’90s,” says Cytrynbaum. Founded in 1954, Phoenix-based Supima was the marketing organization for U.S. growers of extra-long staple Pima cotton, and offered not only a superb product but quality controls that weren’t available anywhere else in the world. In addition, it had a licensing program to help its customers explain the properties of Supima cotton to their own customers.
A longtime licensee, Cytrynbaum found himself using more and more Supima over the years: sometimes in blends, often on its own. “It was my fiber of choice.
“Besides the appeal of the softness, it had capabilities that I couldn’t get with anything else. You could do all sorts of interesting washes . . . you could really beat up the fabric . . . it would stand up to all sorts of treatment.”
But those weren’t the only advantages. “I’d always felt that, as much as Supima tried to educate resellers, none of it ever trickled down to the consumer level.” Cytrynbaum knew Supima was a good product and he knew it had a good message: A project that would offer premium T-shirts and tops for men would be the ideal way to get both across. Any line branded as Supima and made of 100 percent Supima cotton couldn’t help but communicate all the softness, strength, resistance to pilling, loft, and innumerable other great properties of the fiber.
In fact, what better way to do demonstrate the superiority of Supima cotton than to produce the ultimate white T-shirt for men?
So, at the beginning of 2009, Cytrynbaum took his idea to Jesse Curlee, Supima’s president.
“Jesse and the Supima Board of Directors really went out on a limb,” says Cytrynbaum. “They became important drivers of a project that, really, nobody had done before. The amount of commitment they were willing to put behind it virtually guaranteed its success.”
Both men agreed that, no matter what, the project would suffer by cannibalizing other Supima brands or licensees. “We were concentrating on a category that wasn’t already being made from Supima,” says Curlee, “and we were going to communicate the benefits of the fiber in a totally new way to a totally open market.” As Cytrynbaum put it: “A lot of the premium brands were using Supima for a specific purpose, but they weren’t even branding it as Supima. Globally, less than 50 percent were even calling their product Supima.”
The next step: Deciding how and when to get that still-on-the-drawing-board Supima Collection to its potential customers.
“We do a ton of business with Bloomie’s,” says Cytrynbaum, “and there’s no doubt that they were first choice. . . . also, David Fisher [Executive Vice President and General Merchandise Manager of Bloomingdale’s Menswear] is renowned throughout the industry.” Bloomingdale’s presented the perfect cross-section of fashion customer base, tourist shopping destination (especially at its storied 59th Street flagship in Manhattan), and nationwide network of stores. Its merchandising was not only respected, it was closely watched by competitors.
By the end of the summer, the first Supima Collection of T-shirts and tops—now touted as unisex because the women’s market was already clamoring for the same kind of great basics even before the Collection prototypes were finished—was being put together. Emphasizing that these were meant to be the ultimate basics, it was decided that the design would have to be impeccably understated—throwing all the emphasis on the quality of the cotton.
Under the supervision of Majestic’s general manager Susan Brender, the initial Supima Collection consisted of four strong pieces: the iconic, crew-neck, short-sleeved T-shirt; a slightly more fashion-forward short-sleeved T-shirt with a high V-neck; a long-sleeved henley; and a classic, zip-front hoodie.
In addition to a color range concentrating on wardrobe essentials like white, navy, red, and gray, the Supima Collection offered a three weights of fabric, from a super-light, tropic-weight knit that seemed ideal for layering, up to and including the standard T-shirt weight. “I think customers are really surprised when they see the lightweight knit and realize that it’s not some delicate piece, but actually a great basic,” says a Bloomingdale’s salesperson, “You couldn’t really do that with any other cotton.”
In September, to make sure the new project got off the ground without any glitches, Curlee and the Supima Board upped their commitment even more: Hiring Factory PR, a top Manhattan fashion public relations firm with special expertise in menswear and a reputation for having one of the best Rolodexes in the business.
Further underlining the collaboration between new best friends Bloomingdale’s and Supima, the October open call for the third annual Supima Design Competition was held at Bloomingdale’s 59th Street flagship—an event duly recorded by video crews from IMG and Fashion Week Daily. And to make sure that the emerging design talent was put in the loop, the 2010 Competition featured a sidebar contest: This time, in addition to creating women’s eveningwear that showed off the innate properties of Supima’s fiber, contestants were being asked to reinterpret the classic menswear T-shirt.
First prize: Being sold in a limited edition in Bloomingdale’s alongside the Supima Collection.
In late Fall, as the Collection began to arrive in stores just in time for the all-important Holiday shopping season, a concentrated blitz of special events began in earnest. T-shirts were rushed into production so they could be part of the goodie bag distributed to Karl Lagerfeld and the other elite invitees celebrating the fifth anniversary of T Magazine, the style publication of The New York Times. A top menswear stylist was hired to produce a lookbook. The first ad for the Collection appeared in the December issue of GQ magazine. Supima vice president Marc Lewkowitz began visiting some of the 18 Bloomingdale’s branches that would carry the Collection. Nylon magazine co-sponsored a shopping event at the Bloomingdale’s uptown flagship. then Factory PR staged a special event at the Bloomingdale’s SoHo store in conjunction with Assouline Publishing.
Then, in the New Year of 2010, much-coveted editorial mentions started to roll in. First came Men’s Health and Nylon magazines, plus online articles in Antenna, Homme Essential, features in the fashion trades, and blog reviews that routinely referred to the Supima Collection as “the best T-shirt ever.”
“With all the competition for editorial space and media notice and everything that’s out there, this is attention that even the most established brand would be happy to get,” says Buxton Midyette, Supima’s New York-based Vice President of Marketing. “For a brand-new concept it’s absolutely unprecedented.”
But for the Supima Collection, it’s only the beginning.