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How Kevin McLaughlin Created a “Retail Triumph”

By Haley Panessa

“Intuition is critical! You go with your gut.”

These are the words of successful entrepreneur Kevin McLaughlin who saw a great opportunity in New York and with his brother Jay, took a risk in launching what is now the renowned retail clothing store, J. McLaughlin. According to Kevin, the brothers’ goal was to “create a new American sportswear brand that offers two key components: classic clothes with current relevance and a retail environment with a neighborhood feel.”

The fascinating backstory of J. McLaughlin’s founding began in the late 1970s. Kevin was in his early twenties, attending NYU’s Business School and working part time at a boutique clothing store on the Upper East Side of Manhattan while also helping his brother buy and renovate old brownstone buildings in Brooklyn.

During his time spent working at the boutique, Kevin observed a trend: the consumers had a growing appetite for classy and traditional clothing, but the market was not meeting this demand. With passion, he explained to me: “I knew at this time we had to capitalize on this opportunity.”

With this realization, Kevin suggested the brothers open their own clothing store. Jay agreed and together, they eventually found an ideal location on Third Avenue, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Fortunately, they had a solid background in construction and were able to build and launch their first retail clothing store with very little capital.

“We were young and had little to lose,” he said. With a low budget and crafty hands, they gave it a try. It was an extraordinary success right out of the box.

“It was fresh, and it was in New York,” Kevin said.

The brothers created a niche market that centered around re-invented yet traditional and classic apparel. It was then that preppy clothing was officially born and they were “off to the races.”

Forty-two years later, the J. McLaughlin company consists of over 140 stores throughout the United States. To this day, the company still reflects the brothers’ vision of an innovative and unique preppy store with a neighborhood feel and impeccable customer care. The company also prides itself for its effort to give back philanthropically. While his brother retired, Kevin still plays a major role in the company as the Director of Design.

Jay and his brother did not come from the world that bought their clothing, but they understood it.

“Unlike the finance industry, in the clothing business, your intuition is very important,” he said.

Kevin admits that he was not top of his class by any means, but he believes that he had this strong intuition and common sense skills. This personality trait was crucial in enabling him to keep up with the ever-changing fashion industry. J. McLaughlin is still thriving today and standing apart from competitors because of this dedication to differentiating the brand, keeping their products fresh and playing to their strengths.

When making business decisions, Kevin still follows the four P’s of marketing: product, price, place and promotion.

He believes that the product is key; the items sold must be compelling enough for people to invest their money.

The pricing has to be right: “You don't want to be the cheapest in the world and you don’t want to be perceived as overpriced or not a good value.”

Place is not only customer experience at the physical store, but also your online presence.

Lastly, he believes that promotion entails not only making your brand visible, but attractive to the market.

“Believe it or not, I still go back to the four P’s of marketing when I am thinking about what to do,” Kevin states.

Advice for Aspiring Entrepreneurs and My Takeaways Among the advice Kevin has for aspiring entrepreneurs and leaders is:

  • Create your own brand and always sell under your own name. It creates the illusion that if people want your products, they must come to your store.

  • Do the right thing for the brand – make a customer, not a sale.

  • If you make a good hire, it's tremendously helpful. If you recruit the wrong people, it's a disaster.

  • Timing is everything.

  • Position yourself in the right place at the right time.

  • Be self-aware. Know what you are good at and delegate that to determined staff.

Kevin believes that “if you do what you love, you got a lot better chance of being successful. Don’t worry about that first job you take right after school. Get that job and just say yes, just do it! Understand yourself, be honest with yourself, and follow the career path of interest to you.”

Through my interview, I learned a tremendous amount not only about how Kevin got to where he is today, but also his views on the fashion industry’s future. Understanding this idea of “fast fashion” or “disposable clothing” and how it affects the environment is crucial. There is a sensitivity to the environment and how things are made, therefore, Kevin believes longevity and quality is the route to go. He embodies quality not only within the clothing but also the environment for customers.

Kevin’s journey is inspiring. He enjoys the psychology of selling clothes which is clear in his determination to both understand and please the consumer. The joy that this sales experience brings him really resonated with me and allowed me to gain further confidence that this industry is meant for me.

Envisioning Kevin and his brother’s journey to a “retail triumph” demonstrates that with vision, impeccable timing and hard work, anything is possible. Taking that first job out of college and just saying “yes” is crucial in discovering your skill set. Kevin has given me the assurance that if I do what I love and follow my intuition, things will inevitably work out.

Haley Panessa is an International Business Major at Rollins College who aspires to one day follow a similar career path as Kevin McLaughlin. Connect with her on LinkedIn. Learn more about J McLaughlin.

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