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Express—yes, the ’90s mall fixture—is launching an online wellness brand

With CBD creams, fireside slippers, and crystals, UpWest is everything that Express is not.

I have a thought experiment for you. Picture Express, the 40-year-old mall brand that became famous for its trendy jeans and party clothes. Now imagine the exact opposite of that. Chances are you’ll land on something like UpWest, a newly-launched spin-off brand from Express. While Express makes clothes for being seen, the company’s new brand focuses on cozy products for lounging around.

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[Photo: John Urbano/courtesy UpWest]

But beyond the differences in design, UpWest also represents a business pivot for the mall brand. Express has a large retail footprint of more than 650 stores around the country, but its net sales have fallen. In a 2018 earnings report it announced a 2% sales decrease. The same report detailed that e-commerce sales were up by 20%, which may help explain why the new brand, UpWest, is launching entirely online.

[Photo: John Urbano/courtesy UpWest]
Jamie Schisler, who has spent the last decade and a half working in various leadership roles at Express, led an internal task force responsible for coming up with a new brand concept in just nine months. They saw UpWest as an opportunity for Express to build something from scratch, focused on younger consumers. After all, Express first came to market in 1980, when the twentysomethings of the day were Gen-Xers eager to climb the career ladder and prove their mettle. In focus groups and consumer research, Schisler found that millennials have a completely different life philosophy—one that appears to be a reaction to the generation that came before them. Many of today’s twenty- and thirtysomethings are wary of “always on” culture and are concerned about burnout. Schisler thinks that young people, in contrast to their elders, are more focused on having a cozy home, rejuvenating after work, and doing low-key things with their friends.”Express was all about ‘FOMO,’ or the fear of missing out” says Schisler, UpWest’s CEO.  “Meanwhile, UpWest is really about JOMO.” (If you don’t know what that turn of phrase means, don’t worry, I didn’t either: It means the joy of missing out.)

[Photo: John Urbano/courtesy UpWest]

In practice, that looks like a clothing brand and home products focused on comfort. You can buy a “cozy turtleneck sweater” for $78, or the “sweet dreams” pajama set for $68. There are fleece-lined “fireside slippers” for $84 and a “campfire flannel shirt” for $48. There’s a range of blankets for every different kind of snuggling. There’s also a selection of products right out of the millennial wellness playbook, including CBD creams, a jade roller, and a $15 crystal. Put another way, UpWest is a lifestyle brand that follows in the footsteps of Goop—albeit a much more affordable one.

[Photo: John Urbano/courtesy UpWest]

As a corporation, Express is still a giant in the apparel industry, generating more than $2 billion in 2018. But the company’s sales have been declining over the last few years, like the sales of many other legacy fashion brands that first emerged in malls. Part of this is because the company has a very large retail footprint at a time when mall traffic is going down. Comparable sales at stores have been going down, while e-commerce sales have gone up. UpWest gives Express an opportunity to tap into a new consumer base without opening new stores.

Schisler tells me that Express’s customers from the ’90s and early 2000s have grown with the brand, so Express now tends to appeal to a slightly older customer base than in the past. Meanwhile, UpWest is carefully calibrated to appeal to today and tomorrow’s young people. “As a brand, we’re operating like a startup that is quite different from our parent company,” says Schisler. “But we’re lucky to have all the resources and the financial backing of Express behind us.”

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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