When you think fashion, US discount department store Walmart isn’t the first brand that springs to mind. Nevertheless, it sells a lot of it. In 2020, despite consumers having very few occasions to dress up, the retailer is projected to sell US$22.4 billion worth of fashion goods, according to market data company Statista. The retailer has been steadily building out its fashion portfolio in recent years and has added over a thousand apparel brands to its online offer. Just last year, Walmart an
announced its big plan to become a “destination for fashion” with the relaunch of private label fashion boutique Scoop, and more recently, a partnership with re-commerce business thredUP has brought a range of pre-owned clothing brands to Walmart shoppers at knockdown prices. Now, the retailer has announced its latest attempt at private label fashion, a range of affordable wardrobe staples, that’s holding a lot more promise. Free Assembly is described by the retail giant as “a modern fashion brand” with “elevated style essentials at an incredible value”. Created by Walmart’s in-house fashion design team, the collection features 30 items for women and 25 for men, all of which are priced between US$9 and US$45. Walmart is taking a digital-first approach with this range, offering it on Walmart.com as well as select stores. A smart move, considering the retailer’s e-commerce sales shot up by 97 per cent in the US in Q2. Denise Incandela, SVP Women’s Group, Elevated and Online Brands, Walmart said the line has been “designed to have staying power”. “At its core, this new brand is born from thoughtful, simple design, quality fabrics, modern silhouettes and styles updated for today. It’s as timeless as it is versatile, with wardrobe staples that are easy to mix, layer and assemble freely,” she said of the launch. Clever branding With on-trend staples like organic selvedge denim, a structured blazer and fishtail parka, the line is expected to appeal to younger shoppers. “It feels very Gen Z and Millennial-friendly,” retail expert Rosanna Iacono and managing partner of The Growth Activists, told Inside Retail. “They have conceptualised a brand that taps into the macro-trends of the moment: inclusiveness, gender-neutrality or fluidity – one label for both men and women – and utilitarianism – casualised essentials for the working-from-home, post-Covid world.” Without distinctive brand handwriting, Iacono said the line could easily pass for a casual fashion collection by H&M or another mass retailer. And a catchy name certainly helps. “It’s reminiscent of other labels like Free People, Free City and Assembly Label. Whilst potentially slightly derivative, the name is well-matched to the utilitarian positioning of the brand,” she said. The look Dwight Fenton, an industry veteran who has designed for well-known brands like Bonobos, J.Crew and Old Navy, led the creation of Free Assembly. Fenton said in a Q&A with Walmart’s Incandela that he wanted all of the pieces to feel familiar, but new and appropriate for today. “We wanted to design a brand that anyone could see themselves wearing. It’s approachable and features modern and timeless pieces – think denim, sweaters, blazers – that are staples of any wardrobe and can be worn for a long time, season after season. The pieces are key items for any closet and are not going out of style,” he said. Iacono said the investment in a “quasi-big name” is something more major retailers seem to be doing with private labels, particularly at the high end. “Matches’ private label Raey has ex-Christopher Kane designer Rachel Proud at the design helm,” she points to as an example. “Whilst he is no household name, within the industry, he is regarded as an excellent commercial designer.” Designer Fenton calls it “a new, iconic brand in the making”, but without a particularly distinctive aesthetic, that remains to be seen. It’s affordable Walmart’s number one customer proposition is “everyday low prices” and the private label fashion line certainly delivers on that front. With no item over US$45, the range is within reach for the everyday consumer. The lead designer himself said: “I don’t think there’s been a great new modern brand offering this level of quality for such incredible prices – and at this scale – since the mid-1990s.” Value for money is key, and considering the brand hasn’t compromised on style and quality materials, it’s quite an impressive achievement in this instance. Iacono, a former global brand director for Levi’s Premium business, knows producing organic selvedge denim jeans isn’t cheap. “Offering them at $40 is providing extreme value to their customers,” she told Inside Retail. “The only consideration is whether the Walmart core customer will even understand and appreciate these attributes.” Whether the brand will be a hit with fashionistas beyond Walmart’s traditional customer base, is up for debate. “If their intention is to attract cross-channel shoppers, customers who usually shop at a higher value tier, the question remains whether brand snobbery will stop them from trading down to a Walmart brand,” Iacono said.