Lifestyle Brand Jenni Kayne Took a Journey of Self-Discovery, With Surprising Results

December 11, 2018

By Suzy Strutner(opens in new tab), managing editor at Grow Wire

In short:

  • When Julia Hunter joined the team at Jenni Kayne(opens in new tab), it became clear the already-successful brand needed to refine and optimize … but not in the way you might think. 
  • Hunter based her recommendations on sales data, which laid out a somewhat unexpected path for the company’s growth.
  • The team’s introspection period took years, and the model it chose to follow was unconventional. But it worked.

Devotees of fashion’s current “minimalist” aesthetic(opens in new tab) know Jenni Kayne(opens in new tab) as the epitome of California cool. The L.A.-based brand produces “modern essentials” including laidback apparel, shoes and home goods that look casual but still appear in Vogue(opens in new tab). Its models and employees tend to dress alike, in various combinations of oversized sweaters, cropped jeans and the retailer’s signature D’Orsay flat(opens in new tab). The shoe embodies the Jenni Kayne brand: a staple that stays fashionable season after season. 

The Jenni Kayne aesthetic includes neutral tones and the brand's signature mules. (credit: Instagram/jennikayne(opens in new tab)) (opens in new tab)

Current Jenni Kayne fans—a loyal crew that includes celebrities like Courtney Cox and Jessica Alba—might be surprised to know the brand’s aesthetic wasn’t always so understated. The product mix once comprised a mishmash of high-fashion and toned-down pieces. Where a neutral color palette and warm photography(opens in new tab) now reign, there were formerly pops of neon and brooding models.

The brand streamlined in a major way over the past few years.

Defining Jenni Kayne

And it was a lengthy process, according to president Julia Hunter(opens in new tab). Hunter joined the company in 2014 as a strategic planner. The brand's eponymous founder, Jenni Kayne, is the head designer. Kayne started her business at 19 years old, and by the time Hunter joined 10 years later, the company needed a revised business plan for growth.

Hunter realized Jenni Kayne was operating like her former employer, J.Crew, but without nearly as many resources.

“The business was the same as J.Crew in terms of we were wholesaling(opens in new tab) product, carrying our own product in stores, buying third-party goods, building out stores, trying to do e-commerce(opens in new tab), creating content … We were doing all the same things as this billion-dollar business, but we were doing just a few million dollars in revenue and had a tiny team,” she said. “Cleaning that up was a big effort.” 

Jenni Kayne stores showcase a streamlined mix of apparel, accessories, shoes and home goods. 

Step 1: Get your product right.

Today, Jenni Kayne’s six stores(opens in new tab) and online shop offer a cohesive selection of approachable women’s clothing designed to be worn again and again(opens in new tab). The blog(opens in new tab) and events like flower-arranging workshops anchor a broader lifestyle brand centered on wellness and entertaining. 

But five years ago, the offerings were a dissonant blend of high-fashion and laidback: Kayne herself had grown from a teenage, aspiring New York fashion designer into an L.A. mother focused on living well. The brand, however, hadn’t completed the transition.

“Getting the product right was the biggest challenge,” Hunter said.   

Doing so involved discussions that were tough to moderate as a new leader. Team members took wide-ranging views on where Jenni Kayne should go next. 

More frustratingly for all, “There were a lot of different conversations about what the company could be, but not a lot of planning,” Hunter said. “It was lots of going over these conversations day in and day out, without making a lot of progress.” 

It took about four years for a single strategy to emerge, she added. In the end, “working harder than everyone else” caused certain ideas—and the team members who championed them—to win out.

For example, a segment of the team felt strongly that revving up Jenni Kayne’s social media presence was the right move. Instead of just talking about it, Hunter said, they tested their idea in action. A few years later, an ad that went viral on Instagram(opens in new tab) is the brand’s biggest coup to date.

“We kind of just created a path and kept working on that with the team members who were excited about it, and then it became very clear that it made the most sense,” she said. “There wasn’t this moment we all decided to march toward a path together.” 

Last spring, Jenni Kayne billboards featured a breastfeeding model. They went viral, and sales ballooned. (credit: Instagram/kristenanniebell(opens in new tab)) (opens in new tab)

Step 2: Choose your category.

Next, the team had to decide “which category to go after.” When Hunter arrived, about 20 percent of Jenni Kayne’s revenue came from items designed in-house, while 80 percent was from third-party goods. (That ratio is now reversed.) Within these two categories, there were many more: women’s apparel, kids’ apparel, boys’, girls’, home. 

There were few official sales reports(opens in new tab), and sales data came mostly from anecdotal reviews from store employees. The sample size of customers was small, too.

“It was hard to tell what the core business was,” Hunter said. “Nothing really stood out as a substantial piece of the revenue pie.”

The team ended up relying on what little data they had to determine which items sold best. Of the 150 SKUs(opens in new tab) of Jenni Kayne apparel released each season, they concluded that just five drove 80 percent of business: various sweaters and the D’Orsay flat. What’s more, these five items were often not “new” for the season. They were almost the same as the season prior, just updated in color or fit.

Jenni Kayne's cashmere fisherman sweater(opens in new tab) is a historic bestseller.

Hunter determined the brand needed to move away from the wholesale model(opens in new tab), which entailed selling its styles to third-party retailers like Shopbop and Intermix who marked them down at the end of each season, then demanded new styles for the next one. The more lucrative option seemed to be focusing on those five bestselling styles and changing them minimally from season to season, then ditching the middleman.

It was a less common model in the industry overall, and it wasn’t how Kayne started the brand. But data suggested it was a smart move. (And sales would say it was: Revenue has tripled in the past three years.)

The transition was uncomfortable. It sometimes felt “boring” to offer the same styles every season, Hunter said. But whenever the team was tempted to return to old ways, she’d pull out sales reports and remind them “there was no case to be made that we were going to lose customers” by offering just the basics.

Step 3: Streamline your inventory.

The next step in Jenni Kayne’s brand transformation was streamlining its inventory from about 2,000 total SKUs (including those from third-party vendors) to 150. Hunter says this took about three years. 

And throughout the process, the team responded to other industry trends. The company launched an e-commerce site, then scrapped it and started over two years later. It decided to double down on social media and the blog, allowing audiences to connect with the brand in an era that values authenticity and storytelling. It also got into the pop-up shop(opens in new tab) game with a nationwide Airstream tour(opens in new tab) and temporary outposts in Nordstrom stores(opens in new tab).

Earlier this year, the brand outfitted an Airstream trailer with its new home line and toured the country. (credit: Instagram/jennikayne(opens in new tab)) (opens in new tab)

Now, there’s a devoted e-commerce team, and the digital user experience is more seamless than ever, said Samantha Moore, director of marketing and partnerships. The brand’s social audience has grown threefold since 2015, and online users are up a startling 930 percent since January 2016. Jenni Kayne is now unquestionably considered a lifestyle brand(opens in new tab), not a fashion house, thanks in part to the launches of a home line last fall, dinnerware last winter and furniture over the summer.

Next steps

After finally reaching brand clarity, one thing’s clear. 

“[The transition] is never done,” Moore said. After all that, “We’re having conversations and saying, ‘How do we change it now?’”

But the baseline is higher now. Gone are the days of neon camisoles clashing with tan sweaters. The main task is sharing the results of a successful quest for identity. 

“The challenge right now is how to take this brand we’re finally all proud of, which has great infrastructure and a beautiful product and a clear brand point of view, and make it bigger by acquiring new customers and increasing the loyalty of existing customers,” Hunter said.

The team’s definition of scale(opens in new tab) is “turning Jenni Kayne into a household name,” she added.

Now that the brand's identity is clearer, the next step is establishing it as a leader in Lifestyle. 

To do this, the brand will soon launch a book. Kayne prefers anonymity as a designer, so she’s more comfortable promoting the brand via a lifestyle book then her apparel collections, Hunter said. Hunter also envisions pursuing a TV show and partnerships to reach audiences at a lower cost than digital advertising, which “has great returns” at a price.

The team’s current mantra is “failing fast” and testing new ideas often in an effort to reach a broader audience. The company’s products will soon appear on CBS’s “The Talk,” not because the show “fits” the brand, but because it reaches three million viewers. It’s a quick and worthy experiment.

And so another quest begins … with questions. 

“What story can the brand tell that resonates with a larger audience?”, Hunter asked. “And then what mediums can we use to tell the story?”

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