A FINE FOUNDATION
Laurie Troske Van Brunt, Fashion Buying and Merchandising ’79, is brand president of Soma Intimates

As brand president of Soma, Laurie Troske Van Brunt, Fashion Buying and Merchandising ’79, crafts strategy for this intimates powerhouse.

Laurie Van Brunt remembers passing a Dallas store window several years ago and spotting a picture of a model seated atop a washing machine, holding a bra. The idea was a “wash-and-go bra,” but Van Brunt thought the messaging was all wrong.

“I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, it looks like a Sears Kenmore ad! And what woman wants to be reminded she has to do her laundry?’”

That store was a branch of Soma Intimates, launched byits corporate parent Chico’s FAS in 2004. Chico’s, a specialty retailer of private label women’s clothing known for unique, “expressive” design, began in 1983 as a Florida beach boutique and has since grown to a four-brand family (including White House Black Market and Boston Proper) across the U.S., Canada, and Puerto Rico. But by 2010, Soma hadn’t reached its growth goals.

That’s when Van Brunt came to Soma as brand president, following merchandising and brand management roles at companies from Petite Sophisticate and Lane Bryant to Chadwick’s of Boston and J.C. Penney. Van Brunt had intimates experience—building Lane Bryant’s Cacique brand, for one—and she’d had her eye on Soma. Her goal: to help Soma find direction.

“We want women to
feel that Soma is their store no matter what
their body type.”

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This holiday 2014 entrance display featured the limited-edition Grandeur and Sensuous Scroll collections in trend colors medieval blue and black. Both linen and glossy mannequins were used for textural variety, and the gold-foiled brand images tied back into Soma’s mailer design.

Van Brunt set out to understand the Soma customer and tailor the brand’s approach. To do that, she’s had a say in decisions from store layout and design to fabric. She’s an accessible executive, eager to share her experiences, quick to laugh and blunt when necessary. Her stories about Soma, now with 280 stores, are case studies in brand positioning, customer service, manufacturing—and she delivers a business seminar in the course of a conversation.

When Van Brunt arrived, the Soma customer—affluent and 50-something—was confused. Soma’s brand positioning had changed multiple times. “There were so many different aesthetics in the store—we had a lot of apparel that looked like it should be in Chico’s, some like BCBG,” she says. “Most of the time the windows didn’t even have lingerie; they had some kind of sportswear.” The bottom line: Soma didn’t look like what it was trying to sell. “You get a lot of people really ticked off at you,” says Van Brunt, who studied customer focus groups and worked Saturday store shifts for firsthand feedback.

Soma’s layout was also part of the puzzle. The stores were physically linked to Chico’s, although with separate storefronts, and weren’t drawing a broad enough consumer base. “Talbots customers, Coldwater [Creek], Ann Taylor, Banana [Republic]—none of those people were walking in the door.”

So Van Brunt started by eliminating some of Soma’s clothing stock, including sportswear. “We had a sweater table at Christmas; we’re a lingerie store,” she notes wryly. While engaging loyalists who had hung on through Soma’s changes, Van Brunt looked for potential customers who weren’t being served.

“I mapped out all the competitors, both national brands and department stores, and looked at where there was an opportunity for another specialty store.” Though Van Brunt agreed with criticism that Soma was looking “matronly,” her mission was never to turn it into Victoria’s Secret. “They own ‘sexy’
and obviously they do very well,” she says, matter-of-factly pointing out that Victoria’s Secret does “more business in the malls than all the other retailers who sell intimates added together. We had to find our own customer.” Research revealed a broader target audience of “real women” ages 30 and up, averaging in their mid-40s. “They don’t all have perfect figures, they’re not all Barbie dolls,” Van Brunt says. The Soma customer is a “beautiful, sensual” woman who “dresses more for herself. As we say, she’s beautiful underneath.”

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Soma’s Butterfly Chemise is made with the proprietary Cool Nights breathable rayon/spandex knit, which retains its shape and silky drape when machine-washed.

Van Brunt aimed to keep “amazing personal service,” a staple of Chico’s corporate DNA, and essential for intimates. She also made fitting rooms spacious enough to accommodate both a customer and a store associate—key in selling a product that 80 percent of women wear in the wrong size. “Most wear the same size they wore in college,” despite changes in pregnancy, midlife, and beyond. The larger fitting rooms help make an often awkward bra-fitting experience more successful.

Soma broadened its size range—32A to 44G—and added maternity and post-surgery bras, allowing a customer to start and stay with the brand. “We are trying to help her throughout her life,” Van Brunt says. “We want women to feel that it’s their store no matter what their body type.”

Beyond sizing, Van Brunt also updated the brand’s prints and colors, while improving Soma’s atmosphere. “We worked with our internal design team to create a store that supported our brand position: warm, modern, beautiful, luxurious—and looked like a lingerie store.”

Ideas for the brand have come from beyond the executive suite. An operations department employee came up with the name for Soma’s best-selling Vanishing Edge panties, which don’t show panty lines. “The secret is in patent technology and silicone,” says Van Brunt, who’s a wearer (“I’m hooked”) and credits quality and durability for the product’s popularity.

Another best seller resulted from store associates’ reports that customers wanted a bra that would be invisible under clothes, and make the back look smooth. “So we started working,” Van Brunt recalls. A knitted fabric helps achieve desired effect.

Van Brunt has learned that bras are more complicated than they look. “People don’t realize how hard they are to make,”she says. Most bras have at least 30 components, involving time-consuming sourcing and manufacturing. Bra design also requires technological expertise, to provide the latest innovations in comfort and support. New products debut only after they’re wear-tested on Soma’s Fort Myers, FL, campus.

While bras and panties are Soma’s stars, Van Brunt says sleepwear, all-knit loungewear, and a fragrance line are popular as well.

Van Brunt’s retail roots run deep. She worked at Macy’s while attending FIT, and less than two years after graduation was promoted to buyer—something she credits to her education. The basics, including retail math, she says, “are still part of you.”

Van Brunt returned to FIT this spring, when Soma servedas the sponsor of the Fashion Merchandising Management program’s senior capstone project. Student teams conducted Q&As with an executive panel and developed a plan for building Soma’s business. In addition to winning a cash prize, the top team will present their plan to Soma’s executive board in Florida.

In discussing her path from FIT’s classrooms to Soma’s boardrooms, Van Brunt sounds like her own best customer: someone who, thanks to a good foundation, is confident in her own skin.

Watch Laurie Van Brunt talk about Soma’s Giving Is Beautiful campaign www.soma.com/givebras to support the National Network to End Domestic Violence and donate bras to women who have left abusive relationships.