How effective is a design-led product strategy? What can help bolster product development success?
Well, we got to sit down with Sali Christeson, the Founder, and CEO of Argent, the brand redefining workwear for the modern woman, to find out.
Sali explored how a product void sparked a new way of looking at the product design process, ways to identify sweet spots and make your product stand out in the crowd, and more. Here, we’ve got some of the key highlights from the session, but if you want to listen to the full interview, simply click below. 👇
Q: Has product development been a success from the beginning for you? Has the market always seen your vision and responded well to it?
A: With most companies, I would say it's definitely a journey. It's an iterative process. So, just to give a little bit of the backstory, Argent was founded, so I quit my job. I was working at Cisco Systems in 2014. I officially had my last day in early 2015. And then we launched in the summer of 2016. I remember starting this project and so many people challenged my reasoning behind it, but I felt like there was a huge product void.
It just felt like women had never been considered in the design process even in the workwear category. There were glaring omissions. We design with an eye for functional elements and really streamline a woman's workday by solving what she might need. These are things like interior pockets for your credit cards, bands on the sleeves so you can push up your sleeves to hold them in place, etc. Early on, I recognized the product void.
It felt like brands really weren't speaking to the working woman, and they're not reflective of the modern woman. Women are really doing incredible things on a global stage across all levels. Why are brands not reflective of that? The goal of Argent is to introduce a product that really delivers on style, versatility, quality, and function.
And at the same time, it showcases and highlights that incredible women doing incredible things is a source of inspiration. It’s an attempt to really encourage our community to take whatever risks they want to take. Our goal is just to give women whatever tools they need to optimally navigate the workplace.
Q: Did you find that investors understood your vision, or did a lot of education have to take place?
A: For female investors, it would take half a second to recognize the issue and the gap in the market. And for male investors, it took a lot longer. I think it took actually showing the product and bringing it to life in order to convince them of the need and to actually show how it was resonating with our target audience.
So, probably more data and lead conversations converted male investors. I think just more of an emotional understanding of the problem that we're solving convinced female investors of at least the opportunity. Much less education had to happen with our female investors for sure.
Q: What was the initial collection? What did it include?
A: Yeah, I really wanted to have a cohesive assortment. It almost served as a staple or core assortment for your closet. We had 16 styles, and I think in total it ended up being 33 skews, not accounting for size. We had 33 colors across 16 styles. Really, we had two dresses for suits. A handful of the top t-shirts, and a jumpsuit. I think that's it. It was a lot for this category. But we learned a tonne from that launch assortment.
Traditionally, in retail, you buy into blacks and navies. And that was certainly the case with our initial buy. But we also introduced color and novelty in a way that hadn't been done in this category. We had a beautiful red, cobalt, olive, and an incredible plaid suit. We sold out of all of our colors overnight.
It very much aligns with the brand that we're building. We want to inspire boldness, we want to inspire women to really own their own personal brand. That was really a great learning opportunity for us, but also an exciting one because we recognize that women really respond to color. We've really put our investment in color. And you can see that evolution over time, and it's certainly something we become known for.
Q: What's the process by which you pick a color that's bold, inspiring, and will resonate with the market?
A: Yeah, it's definitely a balance. And we pride ourselves on offering a full spectrum of colors. We've got your core essentials, we've got your black and navies, etc. But we also flex into your bright pinks and your bright blues. The way that we plan each season is really merchant-led.
We have a merchant look at historical sales work with our supply chain team. A lot of it's based on trend analysis and the gut of your designer in terms of where they think we're going to have success.
Oftentimes, we're leading the way on some color choices. With pink, for example, that was a color that we felt really strongly about, and that we weren't really seeing out in the world yet. And so we bet big on pink, and that certainly paid off for us. It's a little bit of a dance between your data points and your gut sense and a lot of communication across teams.
I'm involved in this conversation, so is our operations team, our supply chain team, our production team, our merchants and our design team. But setting the color palette really starts with a designer.
Q: How has the product evolved over time?
A: I think the wake of the pandemic is going to force a lot of change across many retailers. It's going to force a number of companies into doing what we've been doing for four or five years. So, from day one we have been comfort, function, style, and quality-led. That's a lot of boxes to check, but comfort is certainly a leading filter for us.
I think we've become known for that. The interior details of our blazers are certainly a signature for us. Women will get complimented on maybe the style or the color of the blazer that they're wearing when they're wearing Argent. And then they'll immediately hold open the blazer and showcase the interior pocket.
I think that's certainly something we've become known for in terms of product evolution. I think it's just a matter of improving fit over time, and improving or introducing new functional elements. Some of it’s based on consumer insight and input, and some of it is based on our own personal experiences with wearing the product.
In terms of where we're going, we've spent the last year and a half really focusing on introducing a core assortment, something we probably should have done a long time ago. It’s about asking which of our core styles are really resonating? What styles are checking all of our boxes and delivering on comfort?
It’s about making those into a core offering that we'll have on the floor at all times. Those are really the staples that you can build your own work wardrobe around. And then the infusion of colors is really effective. But I think going forward from all retailers or at least the ones that are going to succeed, we're going to see performance in a way that we haven't seen before.
The workwear category has historically been overlooked to be honest. But now we're just wanting way more out of our clothes. And that really is like the ultimate goal there for us. We’re continuing to push there and innovate there as much as possible.
We’re going to continue to select performance fabrics and functionality at that level. I think that's how we're going to continue to evolve. But in terms of look and feel, I don't know that we've changed too much. We've been more focused on fit and function, and continue to improve there.
Q: Is the performance aspect something that’s unique to Argent and the lens that you’re bringing? Or is that something that’s wider within the market?
A: I think you'll see it happening more and more across the wider market. It's definitely something that we've been at the forefront of in terms of a conversation. I think what's unique to us is the style that you get. So, we really want to trade off on style to offer you performance and function. Versatility is also a really important piece for us. You get the comfort and it allows you to look polished when you're going into the office.
Let's say you’re a lawyer and you're going to the courtroom, you can get that from Argent. But there's also the opportunity to mix and match, for a more casual workplace. That's been a huge focus of ours since day one. Because my background is in tech, I'm intimately familiar with the changing landscape of work and the lack of dress code or guidance for women especially.
And that's been a huge area of focus for us as always, having solutions for that woman who doesn't want to be completely casual but not necessarily fully suited. We've always been focused on providing comfort and performance. But I think you're going to see that happen more broadly across the industry going forward, not specifically in workwear, but really in every retail company.