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Photo: BFA
Photo: BFA

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Can Marissa Webb Get You Shopping at Banana Republic?

"New" is a word Banana Republic has been throwing around a lot lately, but it's unclear exactly how different the brand actually is, or will be. Files

When Marissa Webb attends a party, people swarm. That, at least, appeared to be the case last week at Banana Republic's Fifth Avenue store redesign party. Dressed in a lace dress paired with a blazer, skinny jeans, and a healthy dose of jewelry, the new creative director waltzed through the crowd, flashing a smile to the bloggers and reporters who lined up by the dozens to meet her.

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Webb was tapped by Banana Republic this past April to "guide the brand's overall creative direction," as the company put it in a press release, and judging by the mobs of people gushing over her, it's apparent she has an impressive following. She joined Banana Republic after building her career at companies like Polo Ralph Lauren and Club Monaco, not to mention J.Crew, which she left after a decade in 2013 to start her own line.

Her first collection for Banana hits stores next summer, and while Webb wouldn't reveal what shoppers can expect—details will sharpen into focus next week, when the collection is unveiled at a press event in New York City—the company promises her take on the brand will be exciting and new.

"New" is a word Banana Republic has been throwing around a lot lately—they've even been using the hashtag #thenewBR on Instagram for the last few months. But it's unclear exactly how different the brand actually is, or will be. The redesign of the Fifth Avenue store is fairly subtle, though there is an artsy book installation hanging off one wall. A pretty sales associate walked me through the flagship, pointing out that Webb signed the chalkboard walls with little "XO's" and fun quotes. The back portion features a "lab" where Webb handpicked some looks and a lounge area sprinkled with jewelry and candles to give shoppers a more casual feel.

Photo: BFA

Perhaps this "new" Banana Republic is referring to its current strategy of incorporating Webb into its every move, using her name, face, and aesthetic as a lifeline for a brand. While Banana has remained stagnant over the last decade—reliable, yes, but stagnant—cool-girl fast fashion brands like Asos, Topshop, and Zara have creeped onto its turf, offering conservative yet stylish silhouettes that are just a little punchy. J.Crew, arguably its largest competitor, has far surpassed Banana; certainly, it's no coincidence Webb has J.Crew on her resume. Take one look at how Banana is having Webb model looks on its Instagram, and it's clear they're banking on her becoming the next Jenna Lyons, transitioning them from a standard mall store to an all-out lifestyle brand.

"It wasn't actually a difficult decision to come to Banana Republic, it wasn't like a long courting or anything," Webb said of joining the brand, speaking softly despite the blaring music. "I looked into it a little bit, and I started remembering back to going shopping with my father—he loved Banana Republic when it was very safari. The history of the brand is really what sealed it for me."

What are some of Webb's future plans in assisting "the new BR?" The details of the new collection will remain a mystery until next week, but you can expect its office-friendly duds to get a bit of a shakeup.

"Banana Republic has been very popular for straightforward workwear," she said. "We are pushing that 360-degree lifestyle. I think it's about being adventurous. My phrase is, 'Don't be so dull.' You can undo that top button. We want people to know that this is who we are and we are taking risks and we're being adventurous and we are leading the conversation and really being creative."

Webb acknowledged Banana Republic has seen ups and downs, and stressed that all brands need to go through a change at some point.

Photo: BFA

"The brand has been around for so long, it has to change," she continued. "When people think you aren't going to change, it's kind of silly. Right now it's a big time for retail in general to get that facelift, and for Banana Republic, it's our time to really move things forward. I think it's about being personal. It's about having a personality, it's about engaging with the customers, really talking with your consumers."

Webb's much-anticipated first collection has retail analysts excited, too. Brian Sozzi, chief equities strategist at Belus Capital Advisors, explained that the brand's "safe zone" image has hurt them over the years and that the company has been in dire need of a shift.

"When I walk into the store, I feel like I'm walking into a morgue," said Sozzi. "Up until now, Banana has just been plodding along. They've been sterile. It's almost like they need a relaunch."

Sozzi said that Webb's move was the most exciting news the brand has shared in years. Banana just doesn't seem to be a top priority for parent company Gap Inc. During quarterly conference calls, when the company releases its earnings and projections, the conversation is almost always about Athleta's growth, Gap's improvement plans, or Old Navy's Asian expansion—Banana is rarely mentioned.

And while it may seem the stakes are high for Webb, A.T. Kearney retail practice principal Kosha Gada added that many brands have gone the route of attaching a figure to a brand—and it usually works.

"There's been a lot of leadership and management change at the company over the years," Gada said, "and they've recognized that one way to stand out is to personify the brand and put a face to it. Consumers identify with that. It's a clear bet that they are making, placing their stress on the talent of Marissa."


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