“Women’s’ shoes are
like vegetables,” Philip Wexner used to say, “they may
be ruined by the time they come in.”
Mr. Wexner, who co-founded The Wexner Companies, Inc., parent of the Joseph stores, was talking about fashion. As his son and company president Alfred Wexner explained, “When you buy in Milan in early March for delivery in August and September, you’re predicting what the customer is going to want six months down the road. That’s the risk we’ve been dealing with for the last eighty-five years and will be dealing with for the next eighty-five because that’s what the fashion business is.”
Today’s Joseph stores in Memphis and New Orleans, now under the direction of Mr. Wexner’s daughter Barrie Wexner Wurzburg, are among the top four or five retail operations in the U.S., outside of the Neiman Marcus group and Saks, in sales of designer shoes and handbags, as well as jewelry, apparel and cosmetics. Their success stems directly from two great retail traditions: The company established by the brothers Philip and Henry Wexner when they leased their first shoe department in 1930 at Levy’s in downtown Memphis; and Joseph, a Chicago fashion institution dating to the early 1940’s. The two companies were built on the same approach to fashion and quality but differed in the way they did business.
The Wexner Companies developed as a leased department operator. “In those days, most specialty stores didn’t know how to run their shoe departments,” said Alfred Wexner. “They were afraid of them, and they didn’t want to make the capital investment. So they found specialists to run them instead. My father and uncle were shoe business pros, so Levy’s brought them in.”
Thus began one of the country’s most successful leased shoe operations. By the early 1940’s, Levy’s shoe department was doing over a million dollars annually, translating to approximately 70,000 pairs of shoes sold at an average price of $15 per. In today’s dollars, that would have amounted to $14,000,000 in retail shoe sales.
“My father was an incredible salesman,” said Wexner. “Customers knew him and loved him. And he had an uncanny ability to recognize fashion in advance.”
In 1939, the brothers Wexner entered the Houston market by leasing the shoe department at The Fashion, a specialty store attracting the city’s most stylish women. Henry Wexner built up the shoe business there, but when The Fashion was bought out by Neiman Marcus, which ran its own shoe departments, the Wexners leased the shoe operation at another upscale women’s’ specialty store, The Smart Shop. By the mid-forties they had expanded to Fort Worth as well.
Henry Wexner died prematurely in 1948. At that point, Philip Wexner decided it was time to bring the next generation of his family into the business. Henry Wexner Jr. took over the Texas operations. In Memphis, twenty-one year-old Alfred Wexner came on board in 1949 and was joined by his brother-in-law Hugh Jacobson a year later.
For the next few years, Philip Wexner stayed involved, but the young men learned fast and Philip went into semi-retirement in 1955. Alfred and Hugh were running the business by the time they were twenty-five. Two decades later, they were operating the nation’s largest leased shoe department operation in better specialty stores.
By the late fifties, stores all over the country began approaching The Wexner Companies to take over their shoe departments, and the business gradually expanded. Then the New Orleans based Gus Mayer stores brought in the Wexners to operate the shoe departments in its high-end specialty stores all over the country. “That one deal was an enormous expansion,” says Wexner. “Then we went into stores in other cities all over the country – Buffalo, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Atlanta, Birmingham, Tulsa, Nashville, Scottsdale, La Jolla, Louisville, Jackson, MS, Lexington, KY, Beaumont, TX. By the late seventies we were in thirty-five stores, from New York to Southern California, Oregon to Florida.”
In the meantime, Alfred Wexner served
for two years as president of the National Shoe Retailers Association
and was selected in 1979 as National Shoe Retailer of the Year.
“And then, at the peak of all that expansion, we looked around one day and realized that everything we had was dependent on other businesses,” Wexner said. “And we also saw those businesses changing. The mid-sized specialty stores were losing out to the big department store chains. Our expertise is in high fashion, not mass marketing. So we decided to change with the times.”
In 1980, The Wexner Companies bought one of the finest shoe, accessory and jewelry operations in the country – the Chicago-based Joseph. And the company began to shift away from its leased department business model.
“We became a different animal,” said Wexner. “Even though we were always in the top grade fashion business, it was synonymous with shoes. When we bought Joseph we broadened our scope and became a small specialty store. We became strong in jewelry, handbags and apparel.”
When the recession of the early nineties hit large older cities like Chicago especially hard, The Wexner Companies again altered course, refocusing its expansion plans southward. The Joseph Store in Memphis doubled its square footage and put in a high-end cosmetics department. The company opened its New Orleans store in 2017 with shoes, handbags, jewelry & apparel.
Now Joseph is the foundation of the Wexner Companies and has undergone major growth in all its luxury designer categories. As Alfred Wexner said, “The consumer used to be content with high-end goods, but not necessarily luxury branded products. Now it’s very much name-oriented.” Joseph added the Gucci line in 1996 and Prada in 1998. Today the stores carry the best designer shoe, handbag, jewelry and apparel collections, among them Christian Louboutin, Valentino, Stuart Weitzman, Jimmy Choo, Manolo Blahnik, Pedro Garcia, Michael Kors, Thierry Rabotin, Tory Burch, Chloé, Theory, Diane Von Furstenberg, Marc Jacobs, Donald J Pliner, John Hardy, Jemma Wynne, Linda Lee Johnson, Margaret Ellis, Martin Bernstein, Mizuki, Paul Morelli, Steve Vaubel & a number of others. The fragrance and cosmetics lines at Joseph include Creed, Bond no.9, Erno Laszlo, Giorgio Armani, Bobbi Brown, Laura Mercier, Yves Saint Laurent, Sisley, Keihl’s, La Mer, Natura Bissé, RéVive and Yves Saint Laurent.
In 2007, Joseph launched JosephStores.com, making available online the store’s designer shoes, handbags and jewelry. Wexner said, “It’s just the latest in an eighty-year series of moves to keep up with the times. Women today are mothers – and they are also lawyers and doctors and entrepreneurs and corporate people. They don’t have the time they used to have. So we’re accommodating them with online shopping.”
“JosephStores.com is just another Joseph location,” Wexner continued. “We made a very conscious decision that it would contain the same merchandise that’s in the stores. We are not mass marketers - we are an intimate, highly focused specialty store. That means service, it means that we don’t just buy everything with a designer name on it, and that we’re selective within the lines we do buy. We pick and choose. That’s part of what our customers rely on us for – online and in the stores.
“And it’s the reason our vegetables aren’t ruined by the time they come in.”