With help from new CEO, Maurices works to expand store footprint, products and brand awareness

DULUTH – David Kornberg spent 15 years as a top executive at Express, the trendy mall retailer that appeals to fashionable 20-somethings.

When he was later approached to become CEO of Duluth-based Maurices, Kornberg first decided to visit one of the company’s stores, which, with their bright lighting and decor, are quite different from the gloss of Express.

But it wasn’t the store design that made a lasting impression on Kornberg. Instead, it was an outgoing sales manager who greeted him and his wife, then remembered him on a second visit a few weeks later.

“I saw that there was something extremely special about the brand,” Kornberg said. “It wasn’t just her. It was the company. It was the culture. And it was the people.”

Now a year after he took the reins at Maurices, Kornberg is leading the charge to evolve the nearly century-old “hometown women’s fashion brand.”

The company plans to open about a dozen stores this year, adding to its chain of approximately 900. A new line of clothing for girls premiered this spring. At the beginning of the year, Maurices signed its first celebrity brand ambassador.

At the same time, Kornberg has tried to keep the company true to its small-town roots. Its emphasis on quality, girl-next-door designs separates Maurices from cheap fast fashion and online-only retailers.

“Really what you see is an authentic human interaction and there’s so many cases in this day and age when people don’t have an authentic human interaction,” Kornberg said.

“You go online and you don’t deal with anybody,” he added. “You go into a Walmart, you are in a 100,000-square-foot store and you can’t see an associate to help you. Our associates are really like trusted stylists and friends to our customers.”

Kornberg, who hails from England where he cut his teeth at major British retailer Marks & Spencer, spends about three weeks a month in Duluth, where Maurices in 2016 opened a new headquarters complex in downtown.

“It’s the birthplace of the brand … but it actually relates very, very well to the type of hometown that we do well in. Honestly, when I came I didn’t know I would love Duluth as much as I do,” he said.

Maurices competes with a wide range of low- to mid-price stores, like Walmart, Target, Old Navy, J.C. Penney and Kohl’s. Its stores are usually in smaller towns and cities. While it is present in hundreds of malls, Maurices has far more locations in strip malls and outdoor centers. Its target customer: women between 25 and 45 years old who like to dress comfortably.

Jaime King, Maurices’ senior vice president of design, said part of her goal is to create fashion that is accessible and made to last.

And because coronavirus cases have been on the wane and women are eager to get out more, King said she wanted to design versatile clothes they could wear to events, to work or to a date.

“It’s been exciting to see what I call ‘fresh-air style,'” King said. “This idea of being comfortable but wanting to get outside and how we’ve all learned to really value that walk around the neighborhood or a hike or being outside and having dinner and what that means to style.”

In late March, Maurices launched Evsie, a brand for tween girls ages 8-12 that incorporates soft-colored tees, dresses and denim as well as shirts emblazoned with positive messages. The line is an opportunity to get “a totally new generation of customer into Maurices,” Kornberg said.

During the holiday season, Maurices launched a new intimate-apparel collection as well as an online exclusive sleepwear collection. Maurices last year expanded its popular jeans category with the addition of premium denim jean brand Edgely.

Some of its biggest steps this year have been in marketing and working with celebrities. “There is work to be done in terms of growing the business through brand awareness,” Kornberg said.

In February, Maurices partnered with the Home Edit organizational experts Clea Shearer and Joanna Teplin for a Maurices wardrobe giveaway along with a closet makeover. The company also tapped country music star Lauren Alaina as its first celebrity ambassador. She is modeling Maurices clothing throughout her national tour and helping to spotlight female heroes who will receive Maurices shopping sprees.

Maurices plans to continue to expand its line of products — especially online where the company has introduced new items such as maternity and swimwear. Company leaders want to add more stores that sell the Evsie brand and possibly test some Evsie side-by-side stores, which would be next to Maurices shops.

In contrast to other retailers that closed stores in recent years, Maurices held fairly steady. It paused new openings two years ago, aiming to open a dozen this year and around 20 the next.

Kornberg said he thinks the brand could open another 50 to 100 stores, including more in Canada, where Maurices has about 40 retail locations.

“There was a massive shift to e-commerce when COVID struck, obviously because the stores were closed in many cases, but as we think about this business, we still think that there is an opportunity for us to continue to build out the store footprint,” Kornberg said.

When London-based private-equity firm OpCapita bought a majority stake in Maurices from the Ascena Retail Group in 2019, the retailer hovered around $1 billion in annual sales. Since then, OpCapita said Maurices has more than doubled its profit and nearly doubled its online business. Maurices declined to disclose precise financial results, but year-to-date sales are up 26%, Kornberg said. Kornberg said since last year Maurices has produced results well ahead of pre-pandemic numbers.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges ahead for the company. Maurices has to fight to stand out in a competitive market that has become saturated with clothing options, including online-only outlets like Shein that sell trendy clothing for cheap prices.

Soaring inflation can also translate into less discretionary spending by consumers. Rising freight prices and raw materials are affecting prices. Kornberg said he expects customers will see minimal price increases for some of Maurices’ products.

As an outsider following company veteran George Goldfarb, who spent a decade as president and CEO and nearly 40 years in total at Maurices, Kornberg also faces the challenge of helping a legacy brand take risks and seize opportunities it hadn’t before.

It’s something that King thinks he does well.

“David has such a can-do attitude and a how-might-we [approach],” King said. “He’s such a curious leader and I love that. You need someone who’s challenging you to think about ‘what’s next?’ and ‘what are we missing?’ and ‘why can’t we?'”