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Marie Holman Rao

Brand builder.

Fashion industry heavyweight Marie Holman Rao is responsible for the construction of some of the retail world’s biggest names. The creation of private label 424 Fifth for Hudson’s Bay and Lord & Taylor is the most recent addition to an already impressive style resume that includes Ann Taylor, Banana Republic, Bath and Body Works, Macy’s, Perry Ellis, and Victoria’s Secret, to name a few.

Prior to aligning with Hudson’s Bay in November 2012, Holman Rao led her own creative agency, MRao Designs LLC, providing consultation services to retail and private equity firms. Now, the senior vice president and chief creative officer of Hudson’s Bay Company’s Private Brand Division is candid about her strong suits: “I’ve always been involved in inventing brands, which I love to do. Banana Republic is a great example. It used to be an African safari store, and in 1993 we turned it into the modern store that it is today,” a far cry from the Jeep motifs and rhinoceros references of the label’s early years. One of the most important characteristics in the projects Holman Rao champions is relevance. “Shopping should be a surprise and a delight. You go for something you need and pick up something you want too. I learned a lot [at Banana Republic] about capsule collections and private labels, how to study the customer, how to please the customer, how to hone in on what she doesn’t have in her closet but probably wants.”

Equally as impressive as Banana Republic’s reinvention is the mass market the Holman Rao carved out for Victoria’s Secret with its Pink label. Navigating the murky waters of what was appropriate for a younger audience, Holman Rao, along with a small team, developed the wash-and-wear line of undergarments and loungewear aimed at college-age girls, now a $3-billion brand.

Not one to shy from a challenge, Holman Rao was approached to develop a new line of womenswear for Hudson’s Bay and Lord & Taylor. “The private label is meant to satisfy the customer’s needs in a lot of ways. Fashion, affordable clothing, and exclusivity. The world is so full of clothing companies and there’s so much competition,” she explains. “Everyone thought it was such a great idea to have an exclusive brand on both sides of the border. Bonnie Brooks was a big influencer in terms of wanting this done. Again, I started with nothing, just the idea that we wanted modern clothes, and that changes from decade to decade. You can’t keep the same woman in mind. You have to be aspirational.”

Named for Lord & Taylor’s flagship Manhattan address, 424 Fifth is a distinct blend of au courant fabric-driven sportswear. Varied in texture and silhouette, clothing “deliveries” arrive monthly, each batch with its own theme. Early spring offered elements of architecture and minimalism in graphic black and white options, while March and April have seen the arrival of feminine florals, digital prints, and injections of blue, mint, and electric pink and citron accents. “We replenished black pants, we did outerwear in a leather bomber jacket and leather pants. We tried to put a little twist in the styling, a chambray shirt with the white laser-cut skirt,” says Holman Rao. Next month will see a delivery of the summer capsule collection, which includes maxi dresses, sheer embellished tees, shorts, and linen garments.

“[The line is more relaxed] because that’s how people dress now. I didn’t start with anybody age-wise. Younger woman want to look older, older women want to look younger, and this is the meeting spot. It’s not disposable clothing. The clothes are meant to last,” she says, acutely aware of market holes that slip by competitors. “We knew it would be a feminine spring with lots of skirts. We have a satin skirt that is mid-calf, we have the tulip skirt. These are items that weren’t in closets.”

Holman Rao likens the design process to a math game, calculating look, print, colour range, and factoring in the reaction of buyers and merchandisers. The formula relies heavily on the constant and versatile variable of sportswear. “You gauge it by what you have seen in previous years and by the direction of street style,” she explains, adding that the bomber jacket was a more mature riff on varsity jackets. “We saw a lot of longer vintage skirts but our customer is not a vintage shopper. But why not give her the same fashion? We have to sell that idea and we really put our hearts into it. It’s a building of trust, a virtuous cycle.”