No two designers have done more to define Southern California style over the last decade than Juicy Couture's Gela Nash-Taylor and Pamela Skaist-Levy. By transforming the sloppy sweat suit into a sexy uniform embraced by fashionistas including Madonna and Vogue editor-at-large Andre Leon Talley, they ushered in an era of relaxed luxe that -- for better or worse -- has taken over the world.
In the six years since the company was acquired by Liz Claiborne for an undisclosed, multimillion-dollar sum, they've opened nearly 100 stores worldwide, launched two fragrances and splashed their P&G; initials across a mind-blowing array of products, including charm bracelets, tube socks, T-Mobile Sidekicks and dog "pawfum."
Juicy Couture is no longer just a clothing brand. It's a $600-million universe, with Skaist-Levy and Nash-Taylor continuing to oversee all aspects of design. And though rhinestone-studded tracksuits and "Have a Juicy Day" T-shirts still have their fans, it's a sort of sunny Goth sensibility of newer L.A. fashion labels such as Rodarte and Thomas Wylde that defines Southern California style now.
But this fall, Nash-Taylor and Skaist-Levy have an answer to the darker mood: a new, edgier line called Bird that they hope will put them back in the realm of serious fashion. They describe the new line, nearly all black, as "Southern California bespoke." It is more sophisticated, but shares with Juicy the same emphasis on versatile pieces -- a tailored military jacket with brass buttons and satin collar; a cropped lambskin biker jacket with three-quarter sleeves, leather leggings, a shaggy, faux-fur capelet with a sequin tie, and a long cashmere sweater with a zipper down the back that can be left open for a drapey look--all priced from $150 to $850, about 30% higher than Juicy Couture. Bird is being launched with limited distribution at more upscale stores such as Maxfield in L.A., Bergdorf Goodman in New York, and Harrods in London, as well as online at Net-a-porter.com and juicycouture.com, and at five Juicy Couture brand stores, including Rodeo Drive.
Bird may seem like an abrupt departure from the happy colors and relaxed silhouettes for which the designers are known. But Juicy Couture has always had rock 'n' roll soul. Nash-Taylor is married to Duran Duran's John Taylor, and when she strolls into an interview in Skaist-Levy's impressive Beverly Hills Georgian manse (where the kitchen staff wear Juicy T-shirts), she's wearing cutoff denim shorts, gladiator sandals, a Bird military jacket and studded Hermes cuffs on each wrist that make her look like a pint-sized fashion superhero.
Her partner in crime, Skaist-Levy, has the same cuffs. The two met in the early 1990s while working at L.A. boutique Diane Merrick. They shared a love of thrift store shopping and old English style, hitting Aardvarks for vintage riding jackets to customize with lace. In 1994, they started Juicy Couture with $200 as an upscale T-shirt line. But it wasn't until 2001 that the famous tracksuit (which is now in the fashion holdings of London's Victoria & Albert Museum) took Juicy global.
"The most difficult thing about having a brand like Juicy, which becomes so successful and so iconic, is that your customers are a huge wave that pushes you in a certain direction," Nash-Taylor says.
"We didn't start this to be a thing that teenagers were dying over," Skaist-Levy adds. "It's supposed to be casual luxury that's aspirational, so we're pulling back."
Juicy Couture, they agree, got away from them. The wake-up call came a year and a half ago when they walked into the Rodeo Drive store and tried on some clothes they hadn't seen before -- a hippie-looking dress and a pantsuit. "The fit and fabrication had major problems. We developed the fabric in Italy, but then it had been copied and manufactured somewhere else. It was not up to our standards," Skaist-Levy says.
"We knew it was a matter of time before things imploded," she says. So in 2008, they hired a president, Edgar Huber, the first in the company's history, and a new senior design team, tapping industry vet Sue Stemp and Marc Jacobs senior designer Laura Horner, among others.
The designers see Bird as their laboratory, a place to develop ideas that trickle down to Juicy. "Bird lends credibility to the entire Juicy Couture brand," says Laura Mays, senior vice president of wholesale for Juicy Couture.
The clothes are already looking better. Recently at the Rodeo Drive store, between the bubble-gum pink P&G; school supplies and fuzzy flip-flops, there were some great grown-up pieces, including a pair of black platform booties with a ruffle down the side ($395), a motorcycle sweater with gold buttons and zippers ($398) and a lovely A-line wool coat ($448).
But the designers know there is more work to do. Going forward, they plan to limit logos, embellishment and "things with a junior-y vibe."
"I was in a design meeting yesterday and I said, 'Rhinestones are not the enemy. But now we have to do it in a grown-up way,' " Skaist-Levy says. "Just because it sells doesn't mean we have to do it."
The launch of Bird comes at a challenging time for the entire fashion industry, but especially for Juicy's parent company, Liz Claiborne, which has seen three straight years of earnings declines. According to first-quarter financials reported in May, Juicy Couture's comparable store sales were down 22% from the same time last year.
Still, Skaist-Levy and Nash-Taylor are more creatively charged than they have been in a while, aiming for Juicy to become a billion-dollar brand soon. Still, one senses they are also starting to plan their exit strategy. There's talk of a book, "a fun, 'Devil Wears Prada'-kind of beach read," and another unnamed project. But not retirement.
Nash-Taylor says, "We still share an office in Pacoima, we go to work every day. We like to work. We want to do something else, but Juicy will always be our brand."