Breakfast with the Boss: Sammy Aaron, Vice Chairman of G-III Apparel Group and CEO of Calvin Klein Divisions

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of fashion? Chances are, you didn’t think of analytics. But after an informational breakfast with Sammy Aaron, Vice Chairman of G-III Apparel Group and CEO of the Calvin Klein Divisions, the YMA Fashion Scholarship Fund scholars gained some new insights into the facts and numbers that truly drive the business. We also had the opportunity to hear from Roni Seiderman, President of the Handbag Division of Calvin Klein. Sammy and Roni shared with us the ins and outs of what makes G-III’s business so successful, and also generously gave us a tour of the Calvin Klein showroom spanning multiple floors. Here’s a snapshot of what we learned! 

About G-III
G-III, a leading apparel company, manufactures and distributes outerwear, sportswear, dresses, women’s suits, handbags and luggage. The company distributes under licensed brands, including Calvin Klein, Sean John, Kenneth Cole, Cole Haan, Guess?, Vince Camuto, Jones New York, Nine West, Jessica Simpson, Tommy Hilfiger, Ellen Tracy, Kensie, Levi’s and Docker’s, as well as a number of its own brands. G-III announced its license agreement with Calvin Klein in December 2011. Today, Calvin Klein is an extremely profitable division at G-III, and we had the incredible opportunity to tour the highest performing floor in the industry.

Steps to Success
The key to G-III’s success?  The facts. A fast-paced company that changes its merchandise 12 times a year, G-III’s partnership with Calvin Klein is based on producing what will sell, or in other words, what the consumer truly wants. Roni explained that she chose G-III because of its entrepreneurial nature, always designing, sourcing and pricing products so that they fit the desires and tastes of the consumer. As Sammy noted, “This is not a business of throwing darts or guessing. It’s a business where creativity is undoubtedly important, but it’s about tempered creativity. We do business here to put wearable clothing on America’s backs, and to do that, there are a lot of analytics.” Sammy highlighted the importance of studying the industry, whether you work with merchandising, sales, design or production.
As we took a tour of the showroom, Sammy brought the concept of using analytics and logic to life through real-life example. When the company wasn’t sure if a new unit would sell, it ran a test assortment of the garment in different styles and colors to learn which SKU’s were winners before mass-producing. When peacoats took a backseat to down coats, the company tried merchandising the down-trending item with infinity scarves, taking note of how the pairing improved sales. Lastly, when a $149 garment wasn’t selling, it was marked down to $99 and sold out completely, teaching the team what would work for the following season. Sammy explained, “It’s important to take liability as an asset. You can take a bad experience and make it very good by learning from your mistakes and applying them towards the future.” Strategic testing, logic, numbers, ratios—these are the elements that will take even the most creative business far. 

Words of Wisdom

  • It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. Get into the industry, no matter what it takes. Even if it means sweeping floors, do whatever you need to do to get your foot into the door. Offer to do any task, big or small—the more you ask to do and help other people with things, the more valuable you become. Once you get in, you have the ability to start to shine. 
  • Don’t be afraid to change direction. “50% of you will change direction once you get into the industry, and that’s ok.” 
  • Study your business. Roni has partnered with retailers to study the exact square footage of department store space needed for the brand to perform at its best. “Everything is analytics, from the square foot, to the dollar.” 
  • Get retail background. “I encourage all of you to gain some retail background, even if you’re in design. Retail language is different, and to understand it will really serve you well in the future of your career.” 
  • Listen. Although Sammy started out skeptical of a new Calvin Klein bra model, he listened to his co-worker who believed in its potential, and now over one million units are being produced and sold. You never know what you will learn from others.
  • Surround yourself with great people—people who have the same enthusiasm for the industry as yourself. “My mother always used to tell me when I was growing up, ‘Tell me who your friends are, and I’ll tell you who you are.’ The same thing continues to stay true as you start your career. There are people that will dive for the ball, and there are people that will watch the clock until it’s time to leave. Surround yourself with the divers—dive for that ball, and you’ll be something.”

Q: Jameel Mohammed (University of Pennsylvania, Wharton)- “How do you go about managing a brand so that it presents a cohesive vision to the customer when you are working with so many different product lines and segments?”
A: “It’s always a matter of collaboration with our licensor. There should always be a common thread running from sportswear to performance wear to handbags—without a common thread, you’re going to lose. When we make non-Calvin-like product, it typically doesn’t sell—you have to stay on brand. Sometimes you must push the boundaries—right now, for instance, floral prints are very hot, so we try to push them in small ways without losing the Calvin Klein style. Ultimately, I have 10 different divisional presidents that report to me, and I have found collaboration to be crucial in maintaining a common thread. G-III has 28 other licenses, but the Calvin Klein model works incredibly well because they are great partners. It’s partners that make business happen.”
Q: Samantha Stern (Cornell University)- “Given how quickly your product line rotates, do you look to outside research [to inform your decisions], or is all of the information gathered in-house?”
A: “It’s important to know what you don’t know. We use a lot of outside sources for information—we grab intelligence wherever and whenever we can, which includes paying for surveys, color information…absolutely everything.”
Q: Madeline Hanley (Indiana University)- “How do you maintain brand integrity worldwide?”
A: “We have a license for performance worldwide…The same brand integrity that goes into building U.S. distribution goes into building international distribution. Calvin Klein runs a lot of its own businesses internationally, but our partners there make sure there is a common thread not only domestically, but abroad in places like Asia and South America. It’s a big job, but an important one. We watch our product running through production all the way until it gets to a port and comes to us…we never lose sight of it.”

Top Takeaways
Some of our scholars shared with us what they found most meaningful or memorable about Sammy's presentation. Take a look!

Alicia Underhill (University of Virginia)- “Sammy spoke a lot about the importance of analytics and really understanding the numbers. The fact that Roni knows the exact square footage of showroom she needs to meet her sales goals is pretty amazing.”
Amanda Bass (Washington University in St. Louis)- “I like what he said about tempered creativity. It’s not just sketching and design, but it has to do with working with a lot of different departments to get product out there.”
Grace Dusek (Texas A&M University)- “I learned a lot about the relationship between wholesalers and their retail partners, and also the relationships within wholesale. G-III has strong relationships not only with the brand that licenses its product to them, but also within design, product development, sales and planning teams.”

Thank you to Sammy for a wonderful morning!

Copyright © 2015 YMA Fashion Scholarship Fund, All rights reserved.

Rachel Feller