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Wednesday, October 1, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 49.0° F  Overcast
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Fashion Conscious in Madison: Shopbop
Shopbop and Context give Madison credibility in the world of style
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Shopbop graphic designer Annie Kubena. For more photos, click gallery, above.
Credit:John Ladwig

Shopbop on East Washington. Context on King. Two acclaimed fashion retailers founded in Madison, doing major business on a global scale. Both credit Madison as integral to their creation and growth, and both strive to be active members of the business and social community. Though their impact on the runway of Madison's streets isn't always easy to gauge, they've given the city a fashion credibility that helps draw in local and national talent.

Shopbop and Context are, each in their own way, working to make Madison a little cooler.


Shopbop is a big deal, whether or not it's apparent from the street level of its new 165,000-square-foot warehouse and administrative space on East Washington Avenue. It's a big deal in fashion retail - its straightforward presentation of designer wares and the latest trends prompted its acquisition by retail monster Amazon in 2006 - and it's a big deal in Madison. The company's move from scattered spaces on the south side to offices above the Metro Innovation Center in 2011 was a key development in revitalizing this former industrial corridor. The company's steady rate of job growth has also made it locally significant.

The women's fashion retailer sells contemporary designer clothes that appeal to both undergrads and businesswomen. These can be seen at the company's original - and only - brick-and-mortar location, known as Bop, at 222 W. Gorham St.

When Bop opened in 1999, high-end denim was the star of the show. There was an idea of opening a series of Bops in larger markets like Chicago, but this was shortly after the launch of Amazon and eBay, and the potential of the World Wide Web was in the air.

Thus did the shop called Bop, started by Bob Lamey, Martha Michelson and Ray Zemon, blossom into Shopbop.com. It succeeded quickly, as fashion shoppers found they didn't have to buy from each designer separately any longer. Web sales expanded to include handbags, jewelry and high-end dresses.

Today, Shopbop is not really about dressing Madison better. At this point, it's more of a neighborhood revitalizer and a job producer. And it is endeavoring to become the kind of old-school, pillar-of-the-community business that likes to give back.

At the October launch of Shopbop's new space, Steve Cover, Madison's director of planning and community and economic development, indicated that a company like this makes Madison a "place to be." It helps boost the economy and the influx of young professionals into a neighborhood.

Helen Boyne, Shopbop's director of operations, and general manager Jeff Yurcisin both stress the impact the company has on the community. Shopbop employees have contributed significant time and money to Susan G. Komen's Race for the Cure, Madison Second Harvest and other charitable efforts. A partnership between Shopbop and Saris Cycling Group (another local business done good) rewards bike commuting; Boyne estimates that 50 employees are signed up.

"We'll find a place for you to flex your good-citizen muscle," says Yurcisin.

The company has put heart and soul into renovating the new space. It's retained original fittings for their character. Everything has been carefully considered, from the traffic flow from room to room to the local handiwork as decoration. Unused spaces are already being eyed for additional desks and expanded hiring.

Yurcisin's office looks out on EVP Coffee - a business that estimates a 15%-20% bump in sales since Shopbop arrived. "Down-to-earth, nice people," the fellow behind the counter says.

Yurcisin credits Madison: "It's hard to imagine another city in the Midwest where we could have been as successful. Our growth is the result of having tremendous local talent here...and it's driven by the university."

He wants the company's new visibility to be a spur to do more. "We're taking the role of being in this building more seriously."

On "Madison Day" at Shopbop, the entire company of nearly 300 people is gathered inside, preparing for the annual holiday party. It's also the day before Shopbop rolls out free two-day shipping within the U.S. Big things are happening. Even after the expansion, Shopbop is still almost growing out of its shoes.

Right now, Shopbop has some two dozen open positions, Yurcisin says, and plans are to hire close to 100 people in 2012 "and a great majority will be in Madison." These are usually well-paying and interesting jobs with opportunities for advancement, he notes, in IT, project management, human resources, graphic design, and the photo studio. Yurcisin also relates that Shopbop didn't lay off one employee when the market tanked in the fall of 2008.

In 2010, the company "took out a sign on the Beltline saying 'We're hiring developers!'" says Yurcisin. "We are trying almost anything we can think of, because our ability to really serve that customer rests with our ability to hire the right people."

I walked through the new offices and saw copywriters, digital imaging specialists, technical and customer support, and a makeup room where a model (who probably didn't need any help being beautiful) was being made up for one of the four to six photo shoots that happen each day.

One look at the new warehouse and it's clear that the web business is running the show. There's a scale and sprawl that dwarf the packed sales floor at the retail shop.

Customer services, information technology, photography and modeling operate out of Madison; advertising, fashion buyers and planners (who work with buyers to forecast their buys) are located where fashion usually happens, in New York City. That office opened in 2002.

"As companies grow," Yurcisin says, "it may require having offices across geographies and time zones. We're doing it because to be the leading fashion boutique worldwide, you have to have buyers in New York. We made that decision prior to Amazon ever being involved."

There is little effort devoted to traditional marketing and advertising. Shopbop's success has been driven by good press and word-of-mouth. No banner ads, no cardstock magazine inserts, no billboards and very few print ads, until recently.

The 2006 acquisition by Amazon.com signified a new level of success, and led to some major changes in the company.

Ray Zemon, one of the original founders, retired as soon as Shopbop was acquired. He stayed on as a consultant, but noted to me that there wasn't much use for the financial guy once Amazon's capital walked into the room.

"Typically when you sell a company, the company wants the key people to stay in place, to run it. And they ask you to do what you used to do. I made capital allocations and did strategy; with Amazon there really wasn't a role for me."

The other two founders - Bob Lamey, the original CEO, and creative director Martha Michelson - stayed on for a while longer. Yurcisin started when Lamey retired in 2008, and Michelson retired in 2011.

"We're growing so fast that the original leaders' jobs changed fundamentally," Yurcisin says, "from doing and building and creating, to now, leading large teams that are doing, building and creating. So [the jobs] turned into leadership roles, which is really exciting and energizing for some, and for others not as right."

Shopbop never publicized the terms of the Amazon acquisition, and doesn't release sales figures. I asked about a rumor of a recent $5 million sales day - and was told only that, though the rumor was inaccurate, two recent sales days were historic. Growth is strong. That's it.

Despite its huge new footprint on the isthmus, Shopbop is more than just a Madison business. "It's a big business. It's not a Madison business; they ship clothes all over the world. We shipped clothes all over the world," Zemon says, emphasizing that Shopbop shipped globally out of Madison before Amazon was involved.

Ray Zemon knows the aims were lofty from the start.

"We built an idea more than we built a business."

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