Franchise and the Growing Influence of the Ashley Stewart Woman

James Rhee
Chairman & CEO, Ashley Stewart

In 2018, Ashley Stewart, the iconic fashion and lifestyle brand, partnered with the National Urban League to encourage our respective networks of customers, employees, vendors, partners and friends to exercise their collective right to register and vote in their local, state and federal elections. We harnessed the same infrastructure, technology engine, people and distribution channels that fuel our fashion, media and events businesses to get out the vote.  To further complement our partnership with the National Urban League, Ashley Stewart invited non-partisan voting organizations in states like Georgia into our stores to help our customers verify proper voter registration. This was far from our first foray into non-partisan voting advocacy. In the run up to the 2016 presidential election, we quietly and independently created and produced a video encouraging voting, amplifying its message with our vast social media apparatus. 

As we look ahead to the 2020 election, what do Ashley Stewarts’ non-partisan voter activations suggest about the importance of increasing voting participation via the private sector?

For a variety of reasons, the private sector is assuming responsibilities once traditionally carried out by the public sector.  Whether this shift is good or sustainable for our society remains to be seen, but there is little doubt that private sector leadership—whether by choice or necessity—is driving change in “general welfare” areas such as education, healthcare, defense, housing, environmental matters and city planning. The proliferation of digitally-fueled, virtual worlds, with their own currencies, languages and news streams, gated by access to technology and new forms of payment systems, further complicates matters. 

The public sector, ostensibly charged with serving the collective good, has found it difficult to enact forward-looking, visionary legislation and policy to address the new ways people live today—and will live in generations to come.  The private sector has always proven more adept at seizing control of opportunities in transitional periods; that advantage is more pronounced as that change becomes increasingly digital and multi-dimensional.  Realistically, most corporations will best serve the narrow cross section of society that makes up their top employees and shareholders. But a future that prioritizes the privileged few will inevitably disregard the needs of groups outside the borders of this narrow cross section, leaving them outside the scope of influence of the increasingly powerful private sector.

Since 1991, Ashley Stewart has championed inclusion, becoming a safe, familiar, supportive and local space for curvy African-American women to congregate and shop for stylish, affordable fashion among friends. It is arguably the oldest and largest women’s fashion brand, size agnostic, whose origins are rooted in the African-American community. 

For almost 30 years, the Ashley Stewart woman has visited the visually appealing neighborhood and downtown stores, oftentimes more than once per week, for a healthy dose of fellowship, self-affirmation and general self-care, briefly shielded from the sting of racial discrimination or size-based shaming.  Ashley Stewart is a space for her and about her.  It is one of the few places where she can be her true self among familiar faces and unburden herself of the many responsibilities she tends to shoulder and overcome—usually without accolades or appreciation.  Customers are on a first name basis, employees are oftentimes called “Ms. Ashley”, and it is common for employees and customers to develop genuine friendships outside the four walls of the stores.  The Ashley Stewart brand elicits feelings of pride, confidence, solidarity and hope amongst a group of women who generally give more than they receive and quietly provide critical leadership without fanfare in communities across the country.

In 2013, only three years removed from a prior bankruptcy, Ashley Stewart was on the verge of liquidation.  The situation was dire. There were no computers in the stores and no Wi-Fi at headquarters.  The prior revolving door of owners and leaders hemorrhaged cash for decades and consistently failed to pay its bills, consequences of an antiquated and mathematically unsound business model and a lack of appreciation for the fact that the brand’s true impact transcends fashion.  Unsurprisingly, Ashley Stewart was paid scant attention by Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Seventh Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue. Perhaps because of its target customer base, capital was also harder to secure. Relationships in places of influence were more limited in scope and the recruitment of top-notch talent in a fast-paced, increasingly technology-driven business environment proved difficult. Corporate pride did not parallel the pride that customers have always exhibited wearing Ashley Stewart’s confident colors and styles.  Long-term planning and a vision that saw past short-term crises were non-existent, drowned out by the woes of day-to-day survival and handicapped by eyebrow-raising and myopic decisions. Ashley Stewart’s demise would have come and gone without any press.

Today, only five short years later, Ashley Stewart’s influence has grown on a national and increasingly international scale.  An alliance of unlikely and ordinary people, including the author, fought for Ashley Stewart during a made-for-Hollywood, six-month test of resilience and loyalty that happily culminated in its improbable rebirth in 2014. 

The new Ashley Stewart is profitable, technologically capable and digitally savvy.  Our financial success story has been documented by leading periodicals, news agencies and industry conferences across the globe. Today, Ashley Stewart has a seat at the table on the board of the National Retail Federation and the advisory council of JP Morgan Chase’s Advancing Black Pathways initiative. The company that had no Wi-Fi at its headquarters now shares its story as a keynote at leading professional and digital conferences. The mathematical foundation of the company is sound, and we believe our business model is unique among retail and media companies alike.  Our influence has dwarfed our size.

Ashley Stewart was able to reinvent itself despite not having vast financial resources or a network of powerful friends to rely on. Early on, our efforts were met with a certain level of disbelief and sometimes disdain.  The single most important change catalyzed on identifying, embracing and operationalizing core intangible assets:  confidence, self-care, fellowship and trust. These guiding assets had sustained the brand during its darkest times. Despite the company’s business failures, Ashley Stewart devotees never failed the brand, as evidenced by stories of worried customers returning hangers to help defray costs.

Our internal corporate culture stresses kindness, math, self-acceptance and accountability.  We held up a mirror to long-tenured employees and asked them to see Ashley Stewart for what it is: a historically unique, national and yet hyper-localized series of non-commercial relationships cemented through hundreds of millions of woman-to-woman interactions and transactions grounded in genuine trust. Then we turned that mirror to our customers and used it to proudly broadcast their voice and appearance in a newly crafted, user-generated content media strategy. Our corporate values are basic, traditional and never go out of style. These values have translated into a net promoter score of 90 and an explosive ecommerce business with millions of monthly visits.  We fundamentally believe that the Ashley Stewart consumer deserves recognition, and her story of being the success she already is is worthy of being documented, told and heard.  For many of our customers, Ashley Stewart’s rebirth serves as a source of motivation, inspiring them to continue to thrive despite their own individual crucibles.

Today, Ashley Stewart is extending its influence in a variety of ways by leveraging its earned trust across our vast network.  Our media arm has mobilized millions of women through our Finding Ashley Stewart tour, which culminates in a star-studded finale that crowns the next “Miss Ashley Stewart” and annually sells out Brooklyn’s Kings Theatre.  Our reach and unique relationship with our customer base have opened eyes at leading media players, financial institutions and consumer products companies who recognize the benefits of our endorsement and distribution channels.  The outreach from business leaders and celebrities has been greatly appreciated.

By remaining true to our core customer, while extending respect to other groups of women, we have broadened our influence in new communities. Approximately 40 percent of our e-commerce demand is now Caucasian, and we are exploring partnerships in Europe, South America, Africa and Australia.  These new sources of capital inflows are vital for the future success of Ashley Stewart.  Further, we have forged relationships with educational institutions and philanthropic organizations to utilize our platform to create positive, multi-generational impacts for our core customer base.  In 2019, we became a champion partner of Susan G. Komen to do our part in making a dent in the disparate breast cancer outcomes for Black women.  We were approached, not for our size as measured by revenue or physical footprint, but rather for our hard-earned power of influence.  For the last several years, I have been teaching a life, money and happiness class to the children of our customers at historically Black colleges and colleges and universities with high numbers of students of color.  Fundamentally grounded in pride of heritage, fellowship and integrity, but steeped in financial principles, the Ashley College Tour is not just inspiring a whole new generation of potential entrepreneurs and difference makers.  It is also funding change through the granting of scholarships presented at the finale of the Finding Ashley Stewart campaign.

Given Ashley Stewart’s history of difficulties, especially against the broader backdrop of today’s accelerated blurring of lines between the private and public sectors, it should come as no surprise that we thought encouraging our customer base to exercise its collective right to vote was not just consistent with our efforts but vital.  The values and strengths that sustain the Ashley Stewart community closely align with those that have sustained generations of immigrants in this country.  There is no greater act of self-determination and self-confidence than deciding that one’s voice has meaning at the local, state and national levels.

Voting takes resolve, and Ashley Stewart stands for the values encouraged by the franchise: community engagement and bipartisan alliances. Our company’s renaissance over the past five years is a testament to what is possible when ordinary people—consciously or subconsciously—rally behind values that transcend all ideologies, like dignity, empathy and kindness.  Good things tend to follow (yes, including profits) from mutual respect. 

As we look to the future, we remain optimistic that Ashley Stewart will continue to thrive and remain committed to providing moments of inspiration, boosting self-esteem and encouraging new alliances and investments into Ashley Stewart’s community. Ashley Stewart will need support from friends, both old and new.  Above all else, we believe our nation can only benefit when the Ashley Stewart community is respected, recognized and assumes its rightful seat at the table. 

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