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Exclusive: The Lead Awards ‘The Defiant 25’ to 2020’s Most Resilient Retailers

The emphasis on retail’s struggles has admittedly been a significant component of the ongoing narrative of the COVID-19 crisis, but that doesn’t mean the industry has been barren of success stories in 2020. In fact, many brands and retailers have continued to push the envelope and lay the groundwork to land in a position of strength when the clock ticks forward into 2021.

The Lead, a multi-platform media company that aims to “bridge the fashion and retail industry with the global Silicon Valley,” is honoring a select few that have accomplished this feat with the release of The Defiant 25 of 2020, an annual list of brands and retailers that have demonstrated resilience in the face of the unprecedented adversity driven by the coronavirus pandemic.

This year’s Defiant 25 of 2020 spans a host of apparel and footwear players, including custom online wedding dress seller Anomalie, Canadian fashion chain Aritzia, footwear upstart Birdies, mission-driven sock brand Bombas, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Hanes, Hermès, data-first clothing company Ministry of Supply, men’s wear startup Rhone, Skechers, streetwear marketplace StockX, Target, resale platform ThredUp, Ugg, Uniqlo and California-cool label Vuori. Home goods brands like Wayfair, and beauty brands including Estée Lauder, were also named.

Released in partnership with JBC Holdings, the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA), Wiland, and retail tech accelerator XRC Labs, The Defiant 25 list was based on a variety of decision-making criteria. Selected companies were evaluated on their pre-COVID technology investments, the performance of their digital channels, how well they managed cash and liquidity, their ability to pivot, steps they’ve taken to manage and mitigate risk and whether they have diversified their business internationally.

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The evaluation process was similar to previous research lists released by The Lead, including The Foremost 50 and The Leading 100. The Lead’s decision makers sifted through Wall Street analyst reports and stock performance, spoke with analysts, interviewed CEOs, factored in off-the-record discussions (through programs such as its LeadTalks sessions) and considered insider feedback from The Lead’s advisory board when arriving at the more than two dozen standouts on the list.

Overall, the final list was designed to be a mix of art and science, with components of the selection process rooted in quantitative analysis, while the final decisions were ultimately guided by a qualitative lens.

Rhone, for one, has been infusing data into more areas of the business in recent years, according to co-founding chief product officer Kyle McClure. “In addition to implementing NetSuite to create a strong backbone, we invested in a head of data and a strengthened planning department. These functional leads are building their own tools, models and dashboards,” he added. “With the advent of these key hires, we created a data matrix of information accessible to functional leaders to drive data-based decisions. The information feeding into the data matrix allows for greater access to information and thus greater dexterity in decision making.

“I believe it’s now more important than ever for all brands to prioritize communication and information sharing across their organization,” McClure said.

Vuori founder Joe Kudla says though the label has always focused on creating clothing that merges active-ready performance with wear-everywhere styling, “when we launched in 2015, at the time as a men’s-only brand, nobody else was thinking about product in that way.” Fostering a sense of community, not just locally but globally as well, has helped the California company carve out a distinct niche in the increasingly crowded active space.

“From hosting yoga classes and art shows in our Encinitas flagship, to sourcing brand ambassadors from all over the world, to making sure we have the absolute best customer experience we possibly can, we view people who purchase Vuori gear as family, not mere shoppers,” Kudla said. “Incorporating that level of thought around customer happiness into our business model from the start has gone a long way.”

And when Covid-19 struck, Vuori zigged when most of retail zagged. “Instead of resorting to furloughs or layoffs, we were able to double down on associate training and redeployment into other areas of the business,” Kudla added. “This has led to a new era at Vuori where members of our retail team also serve in customer support to provide a true omnichannel level of service to our customers.”

Aritizia CEO Brian Hill acknowledged the outsize challenges of steering through the coronavirus outbreak’s choppy waters. “We’re pleased to be recognized as a brand that is excelling despite the impact of COVID-19 on the fashion business, which we see as a direct reflection of our team’s resilience and concerted efforts to preserve our strong financial position and successfully safeguard our business,” Hill told Sourcing Journal.

COVID-19, he added, has tested processes and systems while challenging staff and stretching “our people to new levels of performance.”

“Upon the closure of our 96 boutiques in mid-March, we immediately pivoted to drive e-commerce revenue, adjusting our product, marketing, and operational strategies appropriately,” Hill said. “Despite the many COVID-19-related challenges, our beautiful product assortment, best-in-class distribution center, aspirational website and response from our loyal clientele led to e-commerce growth in excess of 150 percent through the end of May.”

Birdies, maker of “shoes that are secretly slippers,” is fortunate to offer a product that’s well suited to consumers’ at-home lives, co-founding CEO Bianca Gates told Sourcing Journal.

“This foundation became more relevant than ever during COVID-19, when we saw our customers wear their Birdies as the go-to shoe for all their at-home duties such as working, cooking for their families, or teaching their children,” Gates said. “We immediately shifted our messaging to follow the journey of these strong women inside their homes so we could better connect with the realities our customers were facing. We also continue to prioritize more direct, one-to-one interactions with our community so we can really listen to what they want and need during this time. We’ve quickly shifted our product strategy as a result of this customer listening, focusing on specific styles—such as slides—that better fit the needs of our customers’ WFH lifestyle.”

A tech-centric mindset earned Ministry of Supply its place among the Defiant 25. “We look at everything from our products to our supply chain, with the aim of using science and technology to solve common problems in traditional fashion and retail,” Aman Advani, co-founding president, told Sourcing Journal of the brand’s mission “to make clothing scientifically better.” That includes building an intelligent heated jacket—a first-ever, he claims—and borrowing NASA-level temperature-regulating materials to create a dress shirt that bucks the “stuffy and uncomfortable” stereotype.

Though no one has a crystal ball foretelling the future, Advani says brands must be primed and ready to keep up with a customer who’s always one step ahead. “Brands need to be nimble enough to react to shifts in demand and consumer shopping. In our case, our team had been experimenting with our supply chain for years, testing out on-demand manufacturing, 3D knitting and micro-distribution,” he said. The company leveraged its “familiarity with alternative processes” to manufacture a “new kind of mask” for essential workers, healthcare professionals, and consumers, while also reorienting toward quarantine-friendly casual clothing suitable for Zoom calls from the home office.

“This level of fluency in agile design and manufacturing helped us roll with the punches, so to speak, and pivot quickly in response to COVID-19,” Advani added.

For Bombas, the Defiant 25 distinction is especially meaningful in light of the year’s manifold challenges, according to co-founding CEO David Heath.

“With so much uncertainty over the last few months, we’ve had to shift our marketing priorities; however, during this time, our mission has not changed, and we’ve continued to provide support to the homeless community in new ways,” Heath said. “We wouldn’t have been able to pivot so quickly without the help of our incredible team of 130+ employees, who all remain dedicated to our mission.”

Direct-to-consumer bridal brand Anomalie quickly doubled down on everything fit when the pandemic struck. “We hired senior engineers from Stitch Fix who specialize in fit and visualization tech,” said co-founder Calley Means, and “developed an at-home try-on measurement process, Fit Kit, which allows brides to simply try on a sample pattern at home and take pictures to determine their custom measurements.”

Doing so, he added, helps Anomalie “analyze the measurements and create a great fit for her body,” driving 70 percent lower alteration costs versus made the made-to-measure gowns found a top New York City boutique. Plus, more than 1.5 million brides have created accounts with the nuptial newbie since the onset of Covid-19, handing over valuable details about their preferences and fit data.  “We’ve also launched new tools to help the bride visualize their dress by answering simple questions,” Means said.

And StockX, which brands itself as a “stock market of things,” even launched a new product launch concept called DropX during the pandemic, allowing for brands to drop or auction products directly to the consumer through the company’s marketplace

“The significant impact of COVID-19 has been felt by e-commerce companies around the world. As we navigate the evolving challenges of the pandemic, StockX continues to prioritize the safety of our team members and community, while also balancing the needs of our marketplace, which remains open, stable, and strong,” said Greg Schwartz, StockX co-founder and chief operating officer. “The new normal has changed the way we live, work, and shop and companies like StockX—and those on this list with whom we’re proud to share this honor—have put the customer first and led the way in adapting to the shift in their behavior.”

Executives from The Defiant 25 will be speaking at and facilitating workshops for The Lead Classroom, an online/offline experience in September and October designed for brand and retail professionals to learn from industry leaders, connect with peers and discover relevant innovations. Focusing on e-commerce, marketing, innovation, merchandising and product development, and store operations, The Lead Classroom aims to offer an actionable framework that attendees can immediately apply to their businesses as well as over the long term.

Attendees can enroll in one or more of 11 Classrooms with 35 of their peers. Each Classroom includes a Part A and Part B (1.5 hours each), which will take place a week apart. Part A will focus on retail business strategies and tactics, while Part B highlights personal leadership, organizational effectiveness and technology.