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Walmart expands fashion focus with new private clothing label for men and women

CNBC logo CNBC 9/21/2020 Melissa Repko
  • Walmart is launching Free Assembly, a private label of men's and women's clothing, which will sell online and in stores.
  • The big-box retailer's leaders have looked beyond the grocery aisles and sought to sell more general merchandise to turn e-commerce into a profitable business.
  • With the coronavirus pandemic, Walmart has a new opportunity to grab market share from apparel retailers like J.C. Penney that have filed for bankruptcy protection and others, such as Kohl's and Macy's, that have seen sales drop.
  • Yet Walmart still has to prove it can keep up with consumer tastes and provide good value in the fickle fashion world.
a person posing for the camera: Free Assembly Men's Lifestyle © Provided by CNBC Free Assembly Men's Lifestyle

Walmart is doubling down on its expansion into fashion with a new casual clothing line for men and women called Free Assembly.

The brand will debut this week online and in 250 stores, hoping to appeal to shoppers who want style and value.

This is not Walmart's first attempt to build up its fashion credentials. It acquired popular brands like menswear retailer Bonobos. It tapped celebrities including Ellen DeGeneres and Sofía Vergara to inspire clothing collections. And it struck a deal with ThredUp, a seller of secondhand apparel, shoes and accessories, to offer higher-end brands on a budget.

With the coronavirus crisis, Walmart has a new opportunity to grab market share in apparel. Customers have shopped at its website and stores for everything from pantry staples and puzzles to workout clothes. Many major apparel retailers, on the other hand, were forced to close during shelter-in-place orders and furlough thousands of employees. Some like J.C. Penney and Neiman Marcus filed for protection from creditors in bankruptcy court, while and others, like Macy's and Kohl's, saw profits drop. 

The pandemic has led to a dramatic shakeout between the haves and have-nots in retail industry and apparel business. Apparel revenue is expected to drop by 20% to 30% industrywide this year and by 10% to 25% in 2021 compared with last year, according to McKinsey & Co.

a man wearing a suit and tie: Women's Tiered Maxi Dress Blue Floral © Provided by CNBC Women's Tiered Maxi Dress Blue Floral

Mass retailers like Walmart and Target, in contrast, are expected to see apparel revenue grow by 10% to 20% in 2020 compared with last year, said Althea Peng, who leads McKinsey's apparel fashion and luxury work in the Americas. She said they're taking that share from department stores, off-price retailers and mall stores, which will likely see sharp declines between 30% to 40% this year.

"Consumers are really valuing the convenience of a one-stop-shop," Peng said. "They are making some of their apparel purchases at the same time that they're going to pick up the essential items."

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She said those buying clothes have different criteria, too: They prefer comfortable and casual, instead of suits or dresses, as they work from home and have few social gatherings. They want items that won't go out of style. And they're hungry for good deals as they watch their wallets during the recession.

Walmart's brands could appeal to those kinds of consumers. It has several other exclusive apparel brands for women, including Scoop, a New York City fast-fashion brand it revived, and Eloquii Elements, a plus-sized women's brand based on one that it acquired and reimagined. Free Assembly is its first elevated brand that it's launched for men.

Yet Walmart must still prove its ability to navigate the world of fashion, where trends come and go and consumers can be fickle about sizing, fit and quality.

The mounting bankruptcy filings during the pandemic included one of Walmart's former business partners: Lord & Taylor's parent company, Le Tote. Walmart had struck a deal to carry the department store's clothing on its website, an effort that quietly faded away.

It has also bought some clothing brands, only to quickly sell them — including women's apparel brand ModCloth.

Free Assembly was designed by Dwight Fenton, former chief creative officer at Bonobos and a veteran of brands that have a following, including J. Crew, Vineyard Vines and Old Navy.

a close up of a person wearing a shirt and tie: Men's Vintage 2 Pocket Flannel Red Plaid © Provided by CNBC Men's Vintage 2 Pocket Flannel Red Plaid

At a virtual launch event, Fenton said Free Assembly was two years in the making. He said he designed the brand's clothing to feel like "familiar, timeless pieces" that customers can mix and match with what's already in their closets. 

Denise Incandela, who leads women's and online fashion brands for Walmart, said she sees the new line as "a very versatile brand" that spans age groups from 20s to well beyond. At launch, the brand will not include kids or accessories — but said it will consider that for the future. 

Its fall collection includes items such as a chunky sweater and corduroy wide-leg pants for women and a flannel button-down for men. The items are priced from $9 to $45. 

She said its fashion lines, such as the Sofía Jeans developed with Vergara, have caught on with consumers — and Walmart is confident the new brand will resonate, too.

"We believe very much in these elevated brands at these price points and are excited to expand our assortment for our customer who has responded very well to them," she said. "It's a big part of our strategy."


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