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Madewell CEO on Communities, Men’s Denim and Why Sustainability Works

It’s one thing to open a new store. It’s another thing to put down brick-and-mortar roots with community connections virtually from the get-go.

Madewell CEO Libby Wadle credits the denim-centric chain’s Hometown Heroes program with helping the brand expand into new markets with support on the ground from the very early days. Through the initiative, Madewell connects with artists and artisans, musicians and makers, and other local creatives doing something unique that would attract the Madewell consumer, Wadle shared Wednesday at WWD Retail 2030 in New York City.

From pop-ups to panel talks, the events that Hometown Heroes participants put on leverage Madewell stores as community spaces, strengthening the customer ecosystem beyond the basic buyer-seller relationship. The company hosted 2,000 such gatherings across its 130-store fleet last year, Wadle said, and now the program has evolved to include the Hometown Heroes Collective, a partnership with nonprofit Nest that enables select Hometown Heroes makers to sell their wares in Madewell’s stores and on its website. Beyond that, Collective creators receive mentoring and have access to grants, Wadle added.

Madewell continued that focus on community when it brought men’s denim—a new online category as of September—to its newest Nashville outpost on 12 South, the first store with a permanent men’s section. (Its Meatpacking New York store is experimenting with a pop-up concept right now.)

For the March 21 launch party of what Wadle says is the first Madewell Denim Edit store, the chain brought in the customary local bands and epicurean edibles. The night was such a success that Madewell had to “leave the store open and keep the party going longer so we could continue to check people out,” Wadle said, adding that plenty of guys were grabbing things to try on at the Denim Bar.

The CEO described it as an encouraging sign and contrary to how the majority of such in-store parties play out; most people just come for the free drinks and the live tunes, she said, without having commerce in mind.

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Madewell has also made sustainability a focus since it joined Cotton Incorporated’s Blue Jeans Go Green program about five years ago. Since then, it’s diverted 500,000 pairs of jeans from landfills and the eco-conscious campaign has expanded into working with Habitat for Humanity to insulate homes, for example.

“Our associates are really passionate about everything involved in sustainability,” Wadle explained, describing how any initiative around environmental responsibility gets a “ton of engagement” from customers, community members and employees alike.

Wadle said she likes to ask potential new hires—typically young women reflective of the brand’s demographic—where they tend to shop these days, and what she’s hearing is that Gen Z and millennials enjoy the social aspects of going to quality stores and lifestyle centers with their circle of friends. Buying things online “obviously is super convenient,” she said, but mall investments that bring together an exciting mash-up of brands are creating “a much more dynamic way to shop.”

The chain is doing its part to meet customer expectations when they choose to visit a store, incorporating the smartest elements of the online experience into the brick-and-mortar environment. The denim try-on bar shows shoppers all of the products available online without having to hold all of that inventory in store, Wadle noted, though they can still gauge their fit, size and color and have these products expedited to their homes. Newer stores like those in New York City’s Brookfield Place and Hudson Yards feature life-size screens where shoppers can interact with, a move that, based on associate feedback, has been instrumental in enhancing the shopping experience, according to Wadle.

Expect Madewell to continue pursuing collaborations with like-minded brands as Wadle says these partnerships are “an important part of our DNA.”

“We think our Madewell customer expects a sense of discovery when she comes to us,” Wadle explained. “Our foundation is jeans but she really does expect that element of surprise.”

Asked what she believes retail will look like in 10 years’ time, Wadle didn’t pretend to have all the answers. “I don’t have a crystal ball but we just have to look up and pay attention to what consumers are doing,” she said. “I’m confident that the store experience will be alive and well in 2030.”