On the 23rd floor of Trump Tower sits the office of Ivanka Trump, the first daughter’s eponymous lifestyle brand. The office is awash in the brand’s soft pink and neutral hues: white couches, rose pillows, scented candles. Framed photos of Ivanka adorn the walls: There’s one where's she's sitting at a desk with her son; in another she is alone looking contemplative and steely, her legs up on a conference table; then one that came from a magazine shoot, Ivanka on a ladder overlooking the city dressed up in red gown.
But the president of this business is not a woman named Ivanka Trump; the president’s name is Abigail Klem. She looks like Ivanka Trump (with a splash of Melania, too). And she’s wearing Ivanka Trump: a black dress with white collar and cuffs; suede pumps that are the color of red wine. Klem took over the business from Ivanka in January just before President Trump was sworn in. The idea was that Ivanka Trump the person would separate herself from the business she founded to avoid potential conflicts. Klem was the natural choice to succeed her: She was the brand’s first hire back in 2013 and was its chief brand officer before she became president. She was the one who would be tasked with shepherding the brand once Ivanka was gone. “I really like Ivanka," says Klem, 47, in her first interview since she took over in January. “We are business associates. We're close in a way. But I want to do this with real integrity. So I feel like, while we're not banned from speaking personally, I think it's just easier if we talk as little as possible.”
Before the election, Klem recalls, “Ivanka was very almost like superstitious about talking about [who would win]. She was like, ‘We will wait and see what happens.’" But the week after, the first daughter and the brand she created in her image decided it was time to go their separate ways. First, they split their social media accounts: Ivanka got the Twitter and Instagram handles along with their 3.36 million the 3.1 million followers (respectively) while the brand launched a new one, @IvankaTrumpHQ (“the official Instagram of Team Ivanka”), that today only has 20,200 Twitter and 46,400 Instagram followers. Ivanka also rolled the company into a trust, which means that while she still owns the company and will receive payouts, she will have no say in how the business is run, including who it does business with. This gives Ivanka Trump some political distance from the day-to-day decisions that come with running a business, but it’s “extremely unlikely” to remove the conflicts of interest that come with her husband’s position in the White House, says Richard Painter, a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School and former White House ethics lawyer from 2005 to 2007. But losing her as a person was only a small part of the transition at Ivanka Trump, the brand.
On the advice of ethics counselors, the company can no longer use new images of Ivanka Trump in promotional, advertising, or marketing materials (it can still use the old ones), and it will add an extra layer of legal and ethical reviews involving any new international ventures. (One deal Klem had been spearheading before the election, plans for new Japanese boutiques, was scrapped.) The first daughter is also taking with her #WomenWhoWork, a kind of hashtag-turn-mission statement the Ivanka Trump brand built its identity around, which will be the title of her new book due out in May. “The mission that we set out three-and-a-half years ago was to inspire and empower women to create the lives they want to live, and I feel like [Ivanka is] doing that now,” says Klem. “She actually feels like she's living the mission of the brand.”
From a business perspective, Klem faces a bit of a challenge: How do you run a brand that sells a real person’s life — one that she's out there living very publicly — when you can no longer mention, refer to, or show her? And when she’s refraining from interacting with the brand entirely, too? While Ivanka Trump is out there, living out the brand’s mission, Klem, a registered Democrat, is left behind at headquarters taking the anti-Trump punches while also trying to carve out a second identity for it using Ivanka Trump’s name, minus the association to her. “It's an exciting opportunity to really define for our customers what [it means] to buy something that's Ivanka Trump, that is separate, apart from who she is as a person,” Klem says, nodding to her second in command, Rosemary K. Young, the company’s 41-year-old vice president of marketing, who is also dressed in Ivanka Trump: a business-casual peasant blouse, and pleated satin skirt with a tastefully edgy mesh panel. The two have ordered new research to better understand their customer but based on what they know already she is between 25 and 40 years old, has an income of about $60,000 to $100,000 a year, and probably lives in New York, California, or Texas (those are the brand’s three biggest markets). Once they have a better sense of who she is, they can target the brand’s messaging accordingly.
The mission that we set out three-and-a-half years ago was to inspire and empower women to create the lives they want to live, and I feel like [Ivanka is] doing that now.
Certainly, fashion labels have succeeded in parting ways with their founders and carving out distinct and independent identities in the marketplace: Kate Spade New York still exists without the founder who shares its name, as does Donna Karan. But for the most part, such departing founders fade back into the relative obscurity of private life while their eponymous brands flourish. As far as Ivanka Trump goes, the first daughter has emerged as the highest profile woman in America, and she’s using her political platform to push a similar message as the company she founded. In Washington, Ivanka is supposedly moving forward with her plans to make women’s empowerment part of the president’s agenda. White House officials have even touted Ivanka’s leadership on these issues: They say, she played a key role in launching a joint American-Canadian initiative to advance women business leaders and female entrepreneurs. A report in Axios said that a senior administration official credited Ivanka with inserting issues like paid family leave and women’s health into her father’s speech to Congress last Tuesday.
A sort of love-hate voyeurism of Ivanka’s wardrobe is expected given all that exposure, especially when it’s combined with the attention she draws to herself simply by sharing photos dressed to the nines with her husband or kids. Take the Governor’s Ball earlier last week, when Ivanka Trump shared an Instagram of herself decked out in a strapless blue gown with a high side split revealing strappy heels that look just like a pair from her line — although neither Ivanka nor the brand promoted it as such.
This puts the company in a complicated spot: Not only does the brand get the benefit of her public profile (on the Governor’s Ball photo one commenter wrote, “Just purchased my first Ivanka Trump dress! It is gorgeous. Ivanka looks stunning as always!”) but it also turns it into a punching bag for people who harbor bad feelings toward the first daughter (or her father). “It's unprecedented what this brand is dealing with,” Klem says. “We are really committed to having the brand be separate, even from [Ivanka], so certainly her dad is even more distant from that. We're committed to doing everything we can to carve an identity for this brand that is about what the brand stands for and the core brand attributes. And so absolutely, it complicated matters.”
In February, things really got complicated: Nordstrom publicly announced that it would drop Ivanka Trump products from its stores citing poor sales, which galvanized the boycotters who’d been campaigning for such a result since the election. The next day came reports that Neiman Marcus would drop the brand’s jewelry line; and five days after that reports surfaced that discount retailers TJ Maxx and Marshalls had told employees to “discard ” any Ivanka Trump displays and signage and hide the label’s items on less conspicuous racks.
Perhaps in an effort to demonstrate that Ivanka Trump is serious about separating herself from the brand that bears her name, the first daughter laid low: She never issued a statement about Nordstrom nor the “grabyourwallet” boycott. But that didn’t stop her dad. The same day that the TJ Maxx news broke, he tweeted: “My daughter Ivanka has been treated so unfairly by @Nordstrom. She is a great person — always pushing me to do the right thing! Terrible!” The tweet needlessly conflated Ivanka Trump the person with Ivanka Trump the brand. It didn’t help matters when presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway ended a Fox and Friends interview about the boycott by saying “Go buy Ivanka’s stuff” — a breach of conduct that resulted in an ethics investigation. (On Thursday, Conway was cleared of any wrongdoing.) It also reignited the debate about whether the Trump family was using the power of the presidency to enrich itself.
Despite the boycotts, Klem insists that the company is healthy. Although a Wall Street Journal report confirmed Nordstrom’s claims that the label’s sales had taken a dive, Klem says the brand shows an overall boost. “Since the beginning of February, they were some of the best performing weeks in the history of the brand,” Klem says. “For several different retailers Ivanka Trump was a top performer online, and in some of the categories it was the [brand’s] best performance ever.”
Although the company declined to share internal sales data, looking at products available online seems to support its claims: Out of 134 pairs of Ivanka Trump shoes on sale at Zappos, 43 are tagged with a blue “new” label, indicating that the site is still adding stock. Macy's also has items tagged as "new," and Bloomingdales and Dillard's still carry the brand on their sites. Also, according to a Refinery29 report in February, Ivanka Trump perfume was the no 1. selling fragrance on Amazon, with commenters suggesting that they were purchasing the item to counter the boycott. And then there is Lyst, an e-commerce aggregator offering goods and tracking purchasing data from thousands of retailers, which found that from January to February, Ivanka Trump sales increased 346%. If you compare February 2017 to the average orders in 2016, the brand sales increased 557%. Put another way: The Ivanka Trump brand was ranked as no. 11 in sales for the month of February, a jump all the way up from no. 550 in January. "Ivanka Trump brand has never ranked in as a top seller on our site,” says Lyst's U.S. public relations director Sarah Tanner. “To see such an extreme spike in one month is completely unheard of and came as a huge surprise to us."
Klem says: “We actually feel super optimistic because, I think, one, a lot of people support Ivanka, even across both political parties. And then I think a lot of other people feel like, Oh, I didn't know Ivanka had a shoe line. Oh, I didn't know she had a handbag line. And they're buying it.”
We actually feel super optimistic because, I think, one, a lot of people support Ivanka, even across both political parties.
AT HEADQUARTERS, Klem is giving a small tour of the new office they just moved to from a different floor. The words Women Who Work are emblazoned on a wall in the company’s show room and in the back, the office is laid out in an open floor plan, with Klem’s desk in a corner by the window. Young female employees type away at their desks. Now, Klem is showing off the design concept boards, a cardboard triptych with swatches of rose-hued gauzy fabrics, pictures of white lace, images of women posing in dresses covered in gemstones that is meant to capture the season’s latest looks. They use this board to present concepts to the licensees who produce the line four times a year. This is the business that Klem set up.
Although Ivanka Trump launched its shoe and apparel business in 2011 as a licensing company, it didn’t move to become a full-fledged mission-oriented brand until 2013. That’s the year Ivanka hired Klem, a former corporate lawyer who was at that time the executive vice president of global merchandising at Diane Von Furstenberg, where she spent more than 11 years. The job at DVF was essentially to act as a liaison between design and sales. “She was in a role that was not only analytical but also creative,” says her old boss, Paula Sutter, then the president of Diane Von Furstenberg. “She understands how to mine data and create from that data. I think that is a very powerful quality to have — she has the creative side and a scrappy and entrepreneurial spirit.”
At Ivanka Trump, it was Klem’s job to find a cohesive look across the brand’s disparate categories — shoes, handbags, apparel — and direct its licensees, who are independent contractors, in the products that they make. Ivanka Trump the brand doesn’t design or manufacture its products but it does come up with the overarching design concepts, like color palette, prints and texture, and then works with the contractors to guide designs that fit with the working woman brand. “It's a challenge, because on the one hand you don't have the minutia of production which can drag you, you can get lost in it. But on the other hand, you're trying to sort of oversee product made from different companies. They all understand what the brand stands for and what the brand guidelines are. But when I got here, none of that was set up. We didn't have brand guidelines. We had a name.”
In the three years that Klem has been at the label, the company also found a mission: #WomenWhoWork (the one that Ivanka Trump is taking with her). In a three-minute video that launched the mission on the brand’s website, 13 professionals (FEED founder Lauren Bush Lauren; women’s rights advocate Shiza Shahid; pediatrician, activist and CEO of the Center of Youth Wellness, Nadine Burke Harris, MD, among them) talk about issues like work-life balance and the way their professional lives bleed into their home lives. In a voiceover, Ivanka Trump tells us: “This brand is a celebration of women who work because it’s not just about the 9-to-5; it’s about having a full life lived to the fullest 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.”
Klem herself has the mix of the ambition and home life responsibilities that embodies the brand: She’s a single mother who decided to have a baby on her own when she was 40. “It's funny because one of the reasons I came to work here, the reason I was Ivanka's first employee, was for the opportunity to fully create a company — not just a brand but a company,” Klem says, near a kid’s desk set up for when her 7-year-old daughter joins her at work. “And one of the things that we decided from the very beginning...was to create a place that people, women especially, wanted to work. And flexibility was the most important part of that. You can't be a working mom without that, especially a single working mom.” The company has 15 employees, only one of whom is a man.
Last year, Ivanka Trump and co. did catch heat for not standing up for working mothers — in the first case regarding a former employee who claimed the company did not offer maternity benefits when she was pregnant (the company says she was only the third employee so benefits were not yet in place); and in another for the fact that one of its licensees did not offer maternity benefits at all (the brand doesn't oversee the human resources practices of its licensees.) “Ivanka and the other top executives consistently speak to licensing partners on a variety of industry-related issues, two examples of which are finding ways to produce more in the U.S. and the importance of having strong maternity policies,” Klem says.
These are new stresses for Klem who had been a relatively low-profile number two before the events of the past year. “It was completely unexpected, the whole thing. And honestly, it felt like a bit of a rollercoaster ride,” she says. “People wanted us to say things and weigh in on this or that. And we just tried to stay focused on building this brand, speaking to these women, offering this product. And was that hard sometimes? Absolutely.” Part of the challenge might be separating her personal beliefs from business considerations. Case in point: Just last week Klem attended a Planned Parenthood event in New York City.
For the time being, Klem is taking a long view: “I definitely felt very lucky because during the course of this, I reached out to people who are friends and mentors of mine, some who are industry leaders, and I asked them, ‘Do you think we can do this? Do you think it's possible to do?’ And they all said, ‘It's not going to be easy, but it's 100% possible.’” In 2017 the brand is branching into new categories: According to an Ivanka Trump press release, there are plans for baby bedding sets at Buy Buy Baby and a new fashion jewelry line to be sold exclusively at Lord & Taylor. There’s also a plan, they say, to expand to 1,000 new stores, and launch an ecommerce site. “I definitely think that the fact that our sales have surged over the past couple of weeks also makes us feel like we're excited and optimistic to move forward. But I think the morale is really positive and supportive,” she says.
If you want to guess how the women who work for the Ivanka Trump brand feel these days, you might glean something from the “#WiseWords ” category of the company’s website: “When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but creatures of emotion” (Dale Carnegie); “The best revenge is massive success” (Frank Sinatra); “The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me” (Ayn Rand). These are fighting words for a company that has spent the past months battling boycotts and a whirlwind of negative press. But the quote that seems to speak most to the mood among its leadership is one from Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter: “Good leaders need a positive agenda, not just an agenda of dealing with crisis.” Curiously, at time of publication, it had quietly disappeared from the website — another vanishing act from a brand trying to pull off what seems like an impossible reinvention. But in a world where we have a businessman-turned-reality-star in the White House, it appears that anything can happen with the right strategy.
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