Juicy Couture: A business that's oozing success

With their nearly waist-length hair, sky-high heels and matching outfits, the two co-founders of Juicy Couture look more like some of their high-style customers than their fellow corporate executives.

As it happens, that's the way they want it. Pamela Skaist-Levy and Gela Nash-Taylor, a former Hollywood costume designer and an actress, respectively, have no patience for the stuff of supply chains and fine-print balance sheets. Given their company's surging success, no one's suggesting the pair should stress too much about spreadsheets. In June, they ended any pretense and gave up their titles of co-presidents of Juicy Couture at parent company Liz Claiborne liz to become co-creative directors so they can focus on what they love most: fashion.

In public, the women known as the "Juicy Girls" resemble retail celebrities. At their flagship store on Rodeo Drive here, teenage girls swoon when they spot the women doing a photo shoot. Sixteen-year-old Kristen Wahlen of Memphis asks if she can join them in a giant bird-cage prop so her mom can snap a picture. A girl in a hot pink polka-dot shirt, pink flip-flops and head scarf appears trancelike, mouthing "Bye" when Skaist-Levy and Nash-Taylor wave as she leaves the store.

Just a few years ago, Skaist-Levy and Nash-Taylor were running a lesser-known brand that shared the limelight at the Liz Claiborne company with more traditional women's designers such as Sigrid Olsen and Dana Buchman.

Since then, Juicy has wrested the spotlight away. The Juicy brand may rankle some parents for its high prices and risqué slogans, including "I'm a Juicy Girl," but no one can deny it's taking retail by storm. As classic clothiers, including Ann Taylor and Talbot's, struggle to reverse falling sales, this 12-year-old tracksuit company is expanding into every facet of fashion, from $45 computer mouse/pad sets to $180 charm bracelets to $2,000 couture dresses — and defying the economic slowdown.

When Liz Claiborne acquired the label five years ago, annual sales were about $50 million. Liz Claiborne said Wednesday that Juicy's sales for the first six months of this year were $288 million, up 52% from the same period in 2007. Juicy is, by far, the most profitable of the 25 Liz Claiborne brands, analyst Jennifer Black says, adding that it will likely end this year with close to $700 million in sales. Black, of Jennifer Black & Associates, says Juicy could become a $2 billion brand within five years. (By contrast, only in 2000 did Polo Ralph Lauren, a 40-year-old brand, became a $2 billion company.)

"There aren't a lot of innovative, fun, whimsical brands out there," says Black, who owns several Juicy Couture tracksuits. Of the stores, which are often pink and filled with giant decanters of candy, she adds, "They are just fun places to go."

Juicy Couture has encountered plenty of doubters along the way. Even now, Nash-Taylor says, they often aren't taken seriously in meetings.

"When they first launched, I respected them but thought they got kind of kitschy," says Andrei Najjar, interim CEO of Bonwit Teller. After getting "overly commercial," Najjar says, "they are creating a culture around their brand with groundbreaking marketing … and imagery that just grabs you."

The label, which targets women of almost all ages, has benefited from a move by many middle-age women to dress younger, a trend that the pair epitomizes. But it's young people, teens especially, who form its core clientele. Abby Fox of New Albany, Ohio, says that when a friend wore a Kohl's sweat suit jacket to middle school, kids kept coming up to see if it had the Juicy "J" on the zipper pull.

Asked how much "Juicy" she owns, Wahlen lists three purses, a laptop case, nearly 20 other pieces of clothing and accessories and 11 charms. Wahlen says she loves the stores and the brand's slogans, especially, "Dude, Where's My Couture?"

"So much of it is so unique, unlike anything else I could find anywhere else," she says of the products.

'The Juicy Girls'

Skaist-Levy and Nash-Taylor say girls often stop them, yelling, "It's the Juicy Girls!" and ask, "Are you guys really best friends?" or, "We're going to start our own business, too!"

"Celebrating friendship and girl power — that's very Juicy," says Skaist-Levy, 45.

Retail wasn't always such a heady experience for Skaist-Levy and Nash-Taylor, who doesn't disclose her age. After a foray into maternity wear starting in 1988, the women decided it was "too boring" and began designing and selling fashionable tracksuits in 1996. Nervous about piling up debt, they refused to borrow the kind of money that people told them they'd need — up to $100,000 by some estimates at the time. They managed to launch their business with little start-up money.

Yet, theirs isn't exactly a rags-to-riches story. Skaist-Levy is the daughter of a pediatric urologist. She grew up wearing Lacoste dresses and penny loafers, and remembers "secretly crying" at summer camp when she heard that Richard Nixon had resigned the presidency in disgrace.

It was feather boas and pointy glasses for Nash-Taylor, daughter of a former corporate executive who often advised the pair. She recalls an early obsession with "the clip-clop of high heels" and a strong affection for Nixon, as well. Nash-Taylor, who spent more than 10 years acting in soap operas and series, including Hill Street Blues, called herself "Miss Priss, the Hollywood Miss" as a child.

The business fared well but took off only after Skaist-Levy's childhood friend and now public relations chief, Janey Lopaty, sent a tracksuit to Madonna with "Madge" embroidered on it about seven years ago. To their delight, Madonna wore it in public. The tracksuits became Hollywood and Middle America favorites, in part for their cachet. That, and for often having the word "Juicy" emblazoned across the backside and hefty prices — now up to $350 for a matching velour top and bottom.

The 2003 acquisition by Liz Claiborne gave the women the capital needed to create a "Juicy World." Along with jewelry, dog accessories, baby clothes and school supplies, Juicy has moved into:

•Actual couture. The company launched a luxury line last year because, "We got tired of wearing other people's clothes," says Skaist-Levy, referring to other designers' evening wear. The clothes are made with Italian fabrics designed just for Juicy.

•Intimates. A full line of sleepwear and underwear is hitting retailers in time for back to school, with slogans including "Prep it up!"

•Expanded menswear. A sunglasses and men's fragrance line, Dirty English, was launched this year, and the whole menswear line will be renamed Dirty English in early 2009.

The rapid expansion, though not without risk, isn't the nail-biting venture it once was for the two women. Four years ago, Nash-Taylor says, they were so nervous, they were "sitting on the floor, crying" into margaritas and asking themselves, "Is it too soon to open stores?" That was as they were preparing to open their first store in Las Vegas.

"And now, that store is a gold mine," she says. There will be 62 full-price retail stores in the USA by the end of 2008, and 18 more internationally.

Nash-Taylor and Skaist-Levy say they start each day by calling each other at home. Before they get to the actual business of the day, ("But who cares who we're meeting?" laughs Skaist-Levy), they cover what seems to really matter, asking each other: "What are you wearing today?"

Defying the status quo has been their shtick for years. Showing up at a black tie event in the same outfit is always "the biggest faux pas," says Skaist-Levy, so they purposely did just that in 2003 when they wore the same Zac Posen outfits for a Costume Institute gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They've been dressing alike ever since. "We try to be light and to have fun with it," Nash-Taylor says.

When they were feted by Nordstrom for being a "Vendor of the Year" earlier this year, Black says, the pair's presentation "made the entire annual meeting." They peppered their free-flowing girl talk with details of their plans to be "No. 1!"

"They have these free, creative spirits, and they're not afraid to let that be seen," Black says.

'Good, clean fun'

If that's considered somewhat, um, provocative, then, in their view, so be it. Asked about arguments by some parents and others that the name and slogans, including "Kiss my couture," carry sexual connotations, Skaist-Levy wrinkles her nose. "Yeewww," she says. "It's not that at all. It's like, 'Get a life.' There are so many other things to worry about."

The idea to sometimes splash the word "Juicy" across the backside of the company's pants came to Nash-Taylor at a game at her son's school, when she noticed cheerleaders with the word "Cheer" on their rear ends. "That's genius," Taylor recalls thinking. "We've got to put 'Juicy' on the butt."

The founder of the Pure Fashion movement has another view. "When most men see the word 'Juicy' across a woman's butt, they're not thinking anything wholesome," says Brenda Sharman, whose group advocates more modest clothing.

It isn't only those from socially conservative backgrounds who have been troubled by it. Nash-Taylor says Jimmy Iovine, now chairman of Interscope Geffen A&M Records, came up to her once at an event and said, "Are you responsible for my daughter having the word 'Juicy' across her butt?"

It's all just "good clean fun," Nash-Taylor insists.

While they will acknowledge their success — including the new Juicy Couture "G&P" Barbie dolls — the women still find it rather funny. When Nash-Taylor visited her alma mater, Carnegie Mellon University, in 2006 to be honored with other leading alumni, "There was the woman (Stephanie Kwolek) who invented Kevlar —serious scientists and engineers," Nash-Taylor says. "Then there was me, with my Barbie."

The second incarnation of the Pam and Gela Barbie dolls, with their matching ruffled mini dresses, has a fairy tale summing up their story so far.

"Once upon a time in a land called Pacoima, there were two nice girls who liked stuff," goes the story on the back of the box. "Juicy Couture swept the land, and they lived happily ever after."