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Recap: CEO Speaker Series / James Rhee / Ashley Stewart

posted by Gabrielle Aranda

James_RheeIn an industry where only a certain dress size is considered acceptable, Ashley Stewart catered to a different set of consumers. The CEO of the iconic plus-size fashion brand, James Rhee, dropped by LIM College Center for Graduate Studies to share with the graduate students his company's triumphs and struggles.

Last year, Ashley Stewart filed for bankruptcy and 27 of its stores closed. Though this was clearly a challenge to overcome, Rhee and Ashley Stewart employees did not falter. They were confident in the brand and everything it stood for.

Before he began his talk, Rhee warned LIM students that they would be “getting the perspective of a teacher, financier, operator, eternal optimist and overall lover of people”. He is proud to share that he is all of these.

He says that to succeed in life, one must know all the things that that one is not. “You should be aware of what you don’t know and it takes humility to admit that,” he says. So he admittedly asks a lot of questions. This is something that most people are hesitant to do.

Speaking about the company, Rhee stuck to the core values of the brand. The company adheres to authenticity, transparency and humility. He says, “Life is fun but there are certain principles you should stick by.”

Most people admire Rhee for transforming what was "the laughing stock of the business" into one of the leading plus size brands in the country. Though he is undoubtedly knowledgeable in the skills required to make a business successful, it is his heart and passion that stood out and made all the difference.

He realized that it was important to go back to who really mattered: the customer. "Ashley Stewart customers are the best.” Rhee says excitedly. The brand offers a very social shopping experience. He shared that a customer went into a store once and shouted, "I have an event, can someone help me choose a dress?" And everyone rushed to her aid (fellow customers included).

This is how he measures their company. “I know if we're doing our job well when we treat our customers well,” he explains. Ashley Stewart is more than just a clothing brand -- it is a community. “The Ashley Stewart shopper brings it,” says Rhee. “ She loves fashion and she wants to look good.”

Another thing to consider was the operations aspect of the company. The business was insolvent. They had to figure out how to move their merchandise correctly. It was a good thing that they identified with the consumer so they could do this the right way.

“It’s going to be a huge competitive advantage for you to be able to exude empathy.” Rhee explains. Kindness, compassion and empathy all contribute to the makings of a great leader.

Even after filing for bankruptcy, they donated $10,000 to YWCA in Brooklyn, a non-profit organization that helps empower women and eliminate racism. Rhee says, “If there’s a last thing that his company was going to do correctly, this was going to be it.” Supporting and empowering women has always been what Ashley Stewart was about.

It’s not often that fashion brands sell sizes from 14-26. Women should enjoy fashion whatever size they are. In any business, it’s important to know the customer, and Rhee and his team not only understand their customer, they care about her.

Rhee says that he is most proud of his team. He jokes that he manages a "circus." They work together like a family. The one takeaway from all of this, he says, is that “Success is being able to do the right thing.”

Rhee left off with some sound advice for LIM students. “When you work somewhere, you have to earn your keep. Don’t be naïve, you won’t get your dream job right away.”

Gabrielle Aranda

Topics: LIM Graduate Studies, C-Suite Speaker