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Photo: Pam & Gela
Photo: Pam & Gela

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Juicy Couture's Founders on Launching That Terry Tracksuit and Staging a Comeback

Pamela Skaist-Levy and Gela Nash-Taylor are in the midst of their next fashion act.

There are few brands that evoke early-aughts nostalgia quite like Juicy Couture. The label of choice for cool teenagers, trendy moms, and celebs like Madonna, Paris Hilton, and Britney Spears, Juicy dominated the market for years with its terry tracksuits and velour zip-ups.

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LA-based founders Pamela Skaist-Levy and Gela Nash-Taylor launched the brand in 1996 and proved the power of athleisure way before Lululemon took off. At one point, Juicy was reportedly pulling in $499 million in sales before experiencing a steady decline. Several acquisitions came after an initial fall in sales; Juicy was later dropped by major department stores, only to close all of its own stores last June, leaving its remaining operations online and at Kohl’s.

Skaist-Levy and Nash-Taylor exited Juicy in 2010, and debuted the now-defunct Skaist Taylor soon after. Last year the duo once again reentered the fashion world with Pam & Gela, a new label that carries those beloved terry track pants that made Juicy Couture so popular, as well as fringed jackets, distressed jeans, and cheeky tees.

With Pam & Gela’s e-commerce site now officially open for business, Racked caught up with Skaist-Levy and Nash-Taylor to talk about the pains of letting Juicy Couture go and the plans for their new brand.

What did you do before starting Juicy Couture?

Pam: I went to the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising. I was a costume designer for feature films and a stylist for commercials and music videos.

Gela: I went to Carnegie Mellon and was an acting major. When I was pregnant with my son, I made a pair of maternity pants out of my husband’s jeans and that inspired us to start our business.

Juicy Couture store

A Juicy Couture store in Las Vegas, 2004. Photo: Getty Images

How did you two meet?

Gela: We met through a mutual friend who saw my maternity jeans and said, "Those are incredible, you could totally sell those." So Pam and I went into business. We called our company Travis Jeans and sold maternity pants. We learned our trade in the niche maternity market before we were ready to jump into the big pond and start making clothes that we wanted to wear. That's when we decided to change the name to Juicy.

What was the original vision for Juicy Couture?

Pam: It was casual luxury: really amazing clothes that you could wear every day. First we designed a sexy V-neck T-shirt and that really took off, so we made it in 26 different colors. We manufactured everything in Los Angeles, which was a big part of our success. It turned out to be very profitable because LA was our backyard.

Who was the Juicy customer in those days?

Gela: We always designed for us, and we were so meticulous about what the clothes felt like. Is it really soft? Does it wash really well? Does it fit impeccably? Every seam was placed in a way that made your leg look thinner and your waist look smaller. That was our philosophy: fit, fabric, comfort, and color.

Pam & Gela with Pamela Anderson and Courtney Love

Pamela Skaist-Levy, Gela Nash-Taylor, Pamela Anderson, and Courtney Love at a Juicy Couture store opening in 2004. Photo: Getty Images

Where did the terry tracksuit come from?

Gela: It started with a terry tank top I found in Tokyo. We were toying with terry for a long time. We were garment dyers, and terry and velour just soak up color in a crazy way—they make color look unbelievable. We started with a jacket and were looking for a bottom to go with it, and that’s where that whole thing began. You never know what people are going to be obsessed with, but I will say, once people put on those pants, they seriously could not take them off. After that, it became this crazy trend; people like Christina Applegate and Cameron Diaz were trading monogrammed tracksuits. We were even monogramming Madonna’s tracksuit with "Madge" when she first was with Guy Ritchie.

Which celebrities do you credit with helping Juicy get big?

Pam: Madonna, JLo, Cameron Diaz, Sarah Jessica Parker, Gisele, Plum Sykes from Vogue.

How did you expand the business?

Pam: People think that it was an overnight success, but it really took a long time. The start was grassroots. It took off through word of mouth and then through stylists. Eventually, we hired Janey Lopaty, who did celebrity product placement.

Was product placement a big thing back then?

Pam: It wasn’t! Janey really put that on the map, but it wasn’t as commercial as it is now. We saw celebrity relationships as a way to hang out. Our idea was to do a celebrity suite at the Chateau Marmont, where we had a girly afternoon of manis and pedis with racks of our clothing.

Venus and Serena Williams and Gisele were just a few of the celebrities who attended Juicy gifting parties in the early aughts. Photos: Getty Images

How has this type of marketing changed?

Gela: It’s very different now. If celebrities wear something, they want to get paid for it. Back then, we were just having fun. We never took advantage of anybody. We used to make tracksuits for all of the dancers on Madonna’s tours, and in return, we’d get invited to shows. It was a mutual lovefest. It’s very different now when you have so many celebrities getting paid to wear a product. It was an innocent day back then, in terms of celebrity product placement. We did it because we didn’t have money for traditional press.

What was one of the harder lessons you learned?

Gela: Early on, we realized we were two girls in a man’s world. The guys at our fashion accounting firm weren't taking us seriously, they didn’t see potential in us. We weren’t trying to act corporate, we were just being us—two wacky girls—and they didn’t think that we were going to turn into a billion-dollar brand. Men looked at us back then in a very different light, but we just had to believe in ourselves and keep our eyes open.

Was it hard to leave the company?

Pam: It was time to let go, but it’s always hard to let go of something like that. Juicy will always be my baby, our baby. Every entrepreneur dreams about selling their business and cashing out, but there’s a price that you pay with that. You have to understand that you can get into business with someone—whether it’s private equity or an outright sale—and absolutely not share their vision, their sense of anything. It can be a very difficult road.

An image from the Pam & Gela lookbook. Photo: Pam & Gela

What was it like watching Juicy veer off in a different direction?

Gela: Well, we didn’t have any control over that. I don’t think it’s a secret that we tried to buy Juicy back and didn’t succeed. At that point, you have to wish them the best of luck, be a forward-thinking entrepreneur, and make your next venture. You just have to not look back.

Is the fashion industry kind to people who try to make a comeback?

Pam: No, it’s a tremendous challenge. All eyes are upon us, but I also think it ultimately doesn’t matter because the product speaks for itself. Once you’ve come up with a product that’s compelling, you’re in the business, whether the industry wants you to be or not. Also, one of the things that’s to our advantage is that we’re based in Los Angeles. We're outside of that New York fashion bubble. LA fashion is very isolated.

Tell us about Pam & Gela.

Pam: The brand is a little more sophisticated. Gela and I have always been obsessed with outerwear, and outerwear mixed with casual. We’re doing these amazing French terry jeans that are a little slouchy—they’re like joggers. They’re more rocking, and they look so amazing with our outerwear and a T-shirt. We still have our sense of humor, so we have logo tees people love that say things like, "FYI, all brunettes end up blonde."

Pam & Gela with Rachel Zoe

Skaist-Levy, Nash-Taylor, and Rachel Zoe at a CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund event in Los Angeles. Photo: Getty Images

What’s your strategy in making sure it sells?

Gela: We’re working with great partners like Neiman, Nordstrom, Bloomingdale's, Forward by Elyse Walker. But I would not start a business in today’s world with just a wholesale strategy. I think back in the day, you could definitely have a business that was just wholesale. Today, our strategy is e-tail, retail, and wholesale.

How does Pam & Gela compare to Juicy?

Pam: It really doesn’t look anything like Juicy, though we do have velour in our line. It’s one of those funny things that people are dying to wear again, but they’re still a little bit afraid of. That’s a challenge for us: making velour current in 2015, so people want to wear it and don’t feel like they’re wearing Juicy, which unfortunately seems very dated today.

What's your best piece of business advice?

Gela: Know what you are capable of and what you're not capable of, and if you're not capable of something, hire it out! Don’t think that you can do everything well. I know from building our businesses that there are certain things Pam and I just don’t do well. I am very happy to let someone else do those things. There are very talented designers who have lost their way because there's a difference between being a designer, an entrepreneur, and a really good businessperson.

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