A Leader of Prep for Forty Years

 

In a way, it’s the tale of two companies: one, the high-end luxe establishment that goes the extra mile to ensure customer satisfaction above all else; the other, the down-home, make-you-feel-comfortable-in-your-own-skin retailer of reliable staples just blocks from home on Main Street. To wit, a customer in Saratoga recently phoned the local J.McLaughlin store and explained to her regular saleswoman that she was getting ready for a trip but had no time to shop. Not a problem: by the time her suitcase was opened at home, the customer’s closet had been lined up with an array of looks hand-delivered from the store—all perfectly selected to meet her personal tastes, yet appropriate for a climate change a plane ride away. She paid for what she wanted, and the rest was sent back. It was a retail move straight from the Stanley Marcus playbook; Marcus, the founder of the ultimate luxury retailer Neiman Marcus, famously encouraged his employees to go the extra mile in treating customers like royalty, even if it meant getting on a plane on Christmas Eve to ensure deliveries for Christmas morning. For customers loyal to the J.McLaughlin label, this level of personalized service should come as no surprise. “Make a customer, not a sale,” is what Kevin McLaughlin, the co-founder and current chief creative officer of the brand, has always taught his employees to do.

This kind of high-quality customer care usually comes from retailers who pride themselves on polished marble entryways or Rem Koolhaas–designed flagships, but there’s nothing fussy or intimidating about J.McLaughlin. Quite the contrary: the brand is so next-door-neighbor friendly and approachable that some customers don’t initially realize their local stores are part of a national chain. For instance, a customer from New Jersey remembers growing up visiting the J.McLaughlin store in Princeton, and always assumed it was a distinctly local shop. “I liked shopping there because it felt like a one-of-a-kind Princeton shop—cute, preppy polo shirts; no flashy logos; and staff who felt more like your mom or aunt with a genuine smile and comforting advice.” Indeed, each J.McLaughlin store is deliberately designed and staffed with a keen sensitivity to local architecture, lifestyles, and qualities of life. There’s nothing corporate or cookie-cutter about them, which might help explain why they keep popping up at a time when fashion retailers everywhere are cutting corners or closing bricks-and-mortar shops due to plummeting foot traffic. From the beginning, though, there was something about that mom-like smile at the front of any J.McLaughlin store. You wanted to walk in, which customers still do—40 years later and going strong.

Back in 1977, when their first shop opened on 74th Street and Third Avenue, brothers Kevin and Jay McLaughlin found themselves with a nearly instantaneous hit that catered to the neighbors. The retail store that bore their name became a preppy hotspot—the go-to post-brunch destination for the sort of crowd who’d gone to an Ivy League school and dined at J.G. Melon. With an emphasis on a comfortable retail environment—something that felt more like walking into your family’s country house—the McLaughlins struck a formula that seemed to work: well-crafted, high-quality staples of the preppy uniform, but with slight variations and nuances that kept them relevant, fresh, and just whimsical enough, like happy colors and off-the-grid patterns and designs.

Today, J.McLaughlin is synonymous with “inside-the-know” American prep. Kevin is still the creative force behind the brand’s impeccable designs and luxe accessories. Officially the chief creative officer, his taste and design sense (which he attributes to his mother, who used to hand-knit his father’s cashmere sweaters and monogram his clothing herself) continue to guide the collections. Each season, he introduces new pieces that are hailed as instant icons—an amusing detail on men’s swim trunks, or a sassy variation on the best-selling Catalina Cloth dress (Catalina is one of the defining fabrics of the brand; perfect for traveling or everyday wear, it is crafted from knit jersey with a hint of spandex, making it comfortable, durable, wrinkle-resistant, and flattering to the figure). His eye is on the details everywhere, as I witness firsthand on a tour of the company’s 40,000-square-foot corporate headquarters and design studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Walking me from floor to floor and department to department at the airy, loft-like space that looks like the set of the Nancy Meyers’ film The Intern, McLaughlin seems more like a friendly uncle than a boss. Stopping to chat with a young graphic designer who is crafting new patterns onscreen, he tells me how a whimsical fern-print pattern was inspired by a recent trip. “My wife, Barbara, and I were in the Adirondacks and at a private club for lunch, where she showed me a great photo she took of the wallpaper from the ladies’ room. ‘That has to be a print!’ I said immediately.” And here it is now—old-school fern-print chic—reimagined and morphing into pre-production before our eyes.

Kevin’s brother and the company’s former chief merchandizing director, Jay, strategically grew the business for years into the bustling success that it is today. But last summer, on the eve of its 40th anniversary this year, J.McLaughlin, which is owned by the consumer-focused private-equity investment firm Brentwood Associates, named former Ralph Lauren exec Mary Ellen Coyne as CEO, bringing onboard an industry veteran who’s poised to steer the quietly successful company into a country-wide, digitally visible label. “The spirit with which this brand was founded is incredibly relevant today,” Coyne affirms. It is, according to her, a classic American brand built on integrity. “I see significant opportunities to build on the core product assortment and add new categories.” Happily at home in her new office in Greenpoint, Coyne has been focusing on accelerating the brand’s growth across all channels of distribution, “by both increasing the current retail footprint and investing in the company’s direct-marketing efforts.” She’s spent a good deal of the past 12 months traveling to states across the country and zeroing in on communities for new retail stores. With measured acumen, J.McLaughlin has been popping up everywhere over the past several years in places like Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Nashville, and Coral Gables. Since Coyne joined the team, the decidedly East Coast preppy outfitter has set up shop quite comfortably among several communities on that other coast, in California towns like Carmel, Danville, Lafayette, and La Jolla. Today, apart from its two flagship locations in Manhattan—at 1311 Madison Avenue and the side-by-side women’s and men’s stores at 1004 and 1008 Lexington Avenue—the brand has 124 freestanding stores throughout the country. “We keep adding [stores] organically,” Coyne says.

Digital metrics are up as well, according to Coyne, who’s also planning on expanding the fashion line and its accessories. She oversaw the rollout this past summer of a dedicated swimwear line, and plans to grow more product extensions organically as well. Even with this infusion of new blood—quite literally, since the company has been more or less a family shop all its life—the DNA of the brand remains true to the McLaughlin brothers’ original, family-style flair. At corporate headquarters, Kevin pats backs, shakes hands, and has off-the-cuff discussions with staffers during my impromptu tour. “This really is one big family,” he explains, “And not just here, but in every store. Our store managers are like family, and many of them have been with us for many, many years—or come back to us after raising families or resettling.”

Like its employees, J.McLaughlin customers feel at home in the brand’s stores—and in its clothes. A company that distinguishes itself with its penchant for preppy bold colors and signature prints keeps expanding, but remains true to its original vision. Today, it’s not just New York and “expected” preppy markets that enjoy J. McLaughlin. With stores everywhere from Palm Beach to Princeton, Lake Forest to Louisville, the McLaughlin hold on prep is seeping both north and south, and now west. “The marketplace rewards craftsmanship,” the McLaughlin brothers once said. That truth, 40 years in, still holds.