As a third-generation fashion entrepreneur, Tara-Rudes Dann, a partner in beloved women’s fashion brand, L’AGENCE, knows what works (and what doesn’t) when you are playing the long game.
So does her uncle, Jeff Rudes, a 35-year fashion veteran, best known for pioneering the French-jean trend in America, co-founder cult denim brand J Brand, and currently CEO and Creative Director of L’AGENCE, who has guided her along the way.
“Fashion was shop talk growing up with my family. I love it,” Rudes-Dann tells me. “Even at a young age my passion for fashion was undeniable. I started my career off at Barney’s New York in the shoe department. I was in sales and I was a beast. That is where and how I learned retail and eventually segued into wholesale.”
Rudes-Dann is quick to tell me how fortunate she feels when compared to so many others in the fashion industry to have had many supportive colleagues. “There were a lot women in the industry who were degrading. I was so lucky to have so many women who supported me,” says Rudes-Dann. But some of her biggest supporters were within her own family.
“In my younger years, my grandfather was the role model,” shares Rudes-Dann. “He was everything that people admire and love about a human. He was humble, tough in business, loving to his family, and family came first. He was incredibly successful. He passed away two and a half years ago and it is still one of the most challenging aspects of my life.”
“Uncle Jeff”, as she refers to her uncle Jeff Rudes, became a strong influence to Rudes-Dann in her teenage years. “My uncle essentially raised me and he taught me how to build a business. He is a miracle worker and is able to see details that no else can see. He is captivating and crazy, but a good crazy,” says Rudes-Dann, who first worked for her uncle when he was president of To The Max, a sister company of Max Azria in her late teens. “My uncle really gave me the opportunity to get my hands dirty. ‘You got to give it up to get it all,’ he would say to me.”
Before officially joining the family business at J Brand, Rudes-Dann worked for a few other brands then detoured into selling mortgages. “The industry was male dominated. But, I learned the gift of gab and became a top selling agent. One night at a birthday party, my co-workers told me that I didn’t belong in the industry and that I should be in fashion.”
That conversation got her thinking so she reached out to her uncle who had just launched J Brand. “Jeff sent me to Chicago to visit the largest denim business and I walked out with a $40K re-order and I knew I was where I belonged.”
At J Brand, empowerment was always part of the intrinsic company culture. “For Tara or anyone on my team for the matter, I want that person I am training to come with me to meetings and learn firsthand. I believe in empowering the team to rise,” Jeff Rudes tells me. “I believe in hiring within because those people have been there and know the company DNA. It is all about leadership. I will tell Tara, now that you know, give it away to you new team. I want her to be doing what I did when I built J Brand. She now has all of the tools and she does it better than me. It is a total home run!”
“There is no ‘I’ in team,” adds Rudes-Dann. “ At J Brand, we would have daily affirmations as reminders to respect and honor those you work with. Everyone has a role. I was lucky in that I pretty much had the same team the whole ten years I was there. Now the three that were closest to me are a part of L’AGENCE—one is our retail specialist and the other two, who were formerly assistants, are now executives and are my left and right hands. My grandfather would always tell me to treat the people at the professional bottom the same as the top because one day that intern will be running the company. For me, that still rings true today. Through the years, we have picked up such great people because we are known for creating a healthy working environment.”
L’AGENCE, which launched in 2008, continues the Rudes’ philosophy of empowerment of their team, their partners, and the women who wear L’AGENCE.
“Fashion is female empowerment. Even the men in my life like my uncle and husband (Steven Dann, a fashion designer and founder of eponymous luxury e-commerce destination) get how fashion empowers women. As a brand, L’AGENCE captures that strength,” says Rudes-Dann. “For me, I work day-to-day with the sales and design teams. My whole thing is empowering others. Come up with a solution before you start talking about the problem. It sounds cliché, but communication is key. When I see my team carrying on the same values—it’s gold.”
Besides creating a culture that attracts and retains solid talent, another aspect of L’AGENCE’s winning formula is the brand knows exactly who their customer is.
“Here’s the thing. What we aren’t as a brand is runway,” Jeff Rudes tells me on the art of simplicity in fashion and learning how to dress a woman by watching his mother try on Pucci dresses as a child. “We aren’t tricky. We do wearable clothing that women love. They are classic essentials that you can count on time and time again. It’s easy to produce 100 pieces—creating only 25 is a whole other ball game.”
While the brand offers a variety of separates, dresses, knits, denim is fifty-percent of L’AGENCE’s business. “It’s all about the jeans. The jeans are the common denominator to the outfit and from there you can build out,” Rudes-Dann adds.
Notwithstanding L’AGENCE’s close working relationships with their e-commerce and retail partners, the pandemic reinforced the need to empower their partners in new and agile ways for everyone to stay afloat.
“From day one, we had a plan action,” says Rudes-Dann, who was separated from her husband and son for the first four months to stay in Los Angeles with her uncle when COVID hit last year. “It was horrible. But it was healthiest for our relationship and a savior for our business.” One of the pivots the brand made was to launch Luxe Loungewear, an elevated sweat collection of comfy, yet stylish separates to alleviate the pressure from blazers and blouses not being in demand with everyone at home and on Zoom calls.
“Most importantly, the goal was to help our stores out. We took a financial hit. But we made products that would sell. Luckily, we work with experienced partners which allows for gear-shifting quickly and efficiently,” continues Rudes-Dann. “As early as the second week in March, we were on the phone with all of our partners asking them, ‘What can we do to help?’ and to let them know we would reduce spring orders. We focused on e-commerce. Jeff came up with this great idea of putting together L’AGENCE packages to pump of the visibility of the brand for online stores like Shopbop, Revolve, Net-a-Porter, Saks, Neiman, and Intermix.”
When it came to supporting their brick and mortar partners the L’AGENCE team had to figure out a way to deliver the showroom experience for buyers in the new remote normal.
“My relationship with our retail partners is crucial. We needed to create platforms for them to give them the juice to keep selling”, says Rudes-Dann. “It’s all about coming into the showroom and I am an actress in this game. It is a drama. We had to re-created the L’AGENCE experience digitally to be different from everyone else, which definitely made a difference through the pandemic.”
That keeping it in the family and staying loyal to those who’ve stayed loyal to you ethos has only been reinforced during the pandemic.
“It comes down to getting what you give,” Rudes-Dann tells me of navigating through the last year. “Am I tough? Yes, of course I am, but in a passionate way. Not everyone agrees all of the time. But we all love what we do.”
As for what is next for the brand, Jeff Rudes tells me that he is on a quest to build a global omnichannel brand. The company just launched their new shoe collection. “Jeans are the most emotional piece in a women’s closet. The shoes complete the look,” says Rudes. “Eyewear, outwear, accessories, and intimates are next up. When that is up and running, we will look at adding cosmetics.” Rudes-Dann adds, “It’s all in the edit. We always design for the customer and we know her really well!”