This Affordable Southern Jewelry Brand Isn’t Just For Sorority Girls & Their Moms Anymore

Photo: Courtesy of Kendra Scott.
Even if you don’t know Kendra Scott’s name, you've probably seen the Austin-based designer’s creations. The stones steal the show on these mostly under-$100 fashion jewelry pieces that err on the chunkier side, rather than delicate, dental-floss-thin, Catbird-esque bands and layering chains. Scott makes the epitome of “statement earrings" — but when those statement earrings are in the ballpark of $65 a pair, like this best-selling style, they’re not the sort of pieces you have to relegate to weddings and the swishiest of occasions. This is fancy jewelry that doesn’t have to be worn like fancy jewelry — costume jewelry pricing for stuff that isn’t, well, all that costume-y.

The conceit seems to be resonating: the brand raked in $160 million in sales in the 2015 fiscal year, up from $74.8 million in 2014. Sales are up from $1.7 million in 2010 — Scott’s business increased nearly 10,000% in five years and, at its current run rate, is poised to make $220 million this year. While Scott’s is not a complete rags-to-riches story, it’s got quite an aspirational American dream-chasing ring to it. The incredibly bubbly, blonde, Wisconsin-bred designer and CEO started her eponymous brand in 2002 with just $500, three months after giving birth to her first son, peddling her designs in a tea box to boutique owners.

Scott’s baubles may be most recognizable in the South, particularly in the designer’s current home base, where UT Austin’s stadium is filled with fans donning their favorite game-day jewelry — goldstone, a glittery manmade material that’s the same rust-like hue as the Texas Longhorns’ team color. But Scott has expanded beyond the brand’s home turf: By the end of 2016, the brand is slated to have 55 store locations nationally and recently opened stores are scattered around the country, including outposts in Denver, Miami, and San Diego, CA.

Refinery29 was invited down to Austin to check out Scott’s immaculate, stone-bedecked new headquarters this summer — and figure out, firsthand, how a brand beloved in the South (and to a somewhat lesser degree, the Midwest) is trying to accessorize women all over the country and, eventually, around the world.
Photo: Courtesy of Kendra Scott.
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"The Kendra Scott girl has personality, she’s not afraid to express herself, she’s not a wallflower, she walks with confidence, but she has a heart that beats for her community,” the designer explained. The customer base spans a wide age range: "18-year-old girls, their mothers, their grandmas; three generations,” she explained. “We have aspirational customers who think our prices are not inexpensive, but obtainable, but there’s also that customer who wears Kendra Scott with her Cartier Love bracelets.”

Scott has struck up “great relationships” with a number of sororities on a national level, savvily tapping into a sizeable (we’re talking in the ballpark of 500K) potential new customer base by doing so, as Bloomberg recently pointed out. The brand does trunk shows in some chapters and pairs up with the houses' respective philanthropic causes.

“They’re influencers,” Scott says of her Greek letter-flaunting contingent. “They engage with everybody on social media; Younger girls want to dress like them and older women think, ‘Ugh, I wish I could be back in college!'”

There’s a big philanthropy slant, too. Kendra Gives Back events take place at all store locations and 20% of proceeds from these events go to local organizations (or national organizations that that store's community cares about). The company also donates jewelry (50,000 pieces in 2015) for auctions, raffles, and more. Charity is often a cornerstone of the sorority experience, so it makes sense that the power-in-numbers segment of Scott’s customer base, often prone to dressing alike, would flock to a label that places a premium on giving back.
Photo: Courtesy of Kendra Scott.
Aside from the sorority quad, celeb sightings have boosted Scott’s sales, too, though it’s not something the brand hypes nearly as much as its philanthropic component. "We don’t do a lot of celebrity gifting, though we will send some things out after we see somebody wearing something, as a thank you," Scott explained.

Taylor Swift was given a Kendra Scott piece by a fan and continued to wear it; Jessica Alba and Selena Gomez have also been spotted in her wares. “I don’t know where exactly she got it,” Scott said of Alba sporting her wares. “She is here in Austin quite a bit, so she might have bought it in one of our stores.”

The selection can vary a lot from store to store based on regional bauble tastes; for example, rose gold has been selling well on the West Coast lately, while Florida customers are snapping up brightly hued stones. D.C. stores have done brisk business with statement necklaces. While Scott’s designs err on the safer, tried-and-true side, she’s been pleasantly surprised that slightly edgier stuff can sell, too.

“We’ve introduced some more fashion-forward styles that are more aggressive,” Scott explains, citing ear cuffs, ear climbers, and, yes, chokers. This spring, the brand tried out fine jewelry for the first time with the Iconic Collection, doing some of brand’s best-known shapes in diamonds and 14K gold, stocked in 17 stores and online. Though considerably pricier than Scott’s usual offerings (we’re talking about diamonds, after all), the 12-week stock sold out in less than two weeks.
Photo: Courtesy of Kendra Scott.
Photo: Courtesy of Kendra Scott.
In Scott’s designs, stones are truly the focus — and have been since she started the brand 14 years ago. “I felt that there was a void in the market: I really wanted to utilize these beautiful, semi-precious, natural stones, but do them in a unique cuts and shapes,” Scott said. “I loved semi-precious stones, but everything that I wanted was unattainable for me — I couldn’t afford a $350 pair of earrings. That was just not option and everything in my price range was just cheap, not well-made, not high-quality.”

The company buys all of its stones, like magnesite, jade, and aventurine, in the rough. “I went straight to the source and cut out all the middle men; all the importers, exporters, stonecutters,” she said. Much of it is colored after it’s cut: “We are able to get some really dynamic, unique colors that aren’t out there anywhere else,” she explained. Semi-precious rocks have become big business for Scott: For example, she told us that the brand is the biggest importer of drusy in the world.
Photo: Courtesy of Kendra Scott.
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Glimmering hunks of stone are all over the designer’s immaculate new corporate headquarters in Austin, which opened this spring. Think mod chandeliers constructed of the same stones used in Scott's jewelry designs; conference room walls made from agate slabs; framed displays of sparkly lab-created opal in a rainbow of colors. It’s 63,000 square feet of polished, perk-packed bling-making that induces serious cubicle envy.

There’s a nail bar for employees to get free manicures. Over the summer, the brand launched its own line of nail polishes that coordinate with its baubles. There's a gym with group classes and locker rooms to rival the swankiest boutique fitness studios, a kids’ room for employees’ children stocked with Xbox, coloring books, toys, and the ilk, and the Kendra Café, filled with an impressive snack selection and a made-to-order juice and smoothie bar, all gratis.
Photo: Courtesy of Kendra Scott.
“I want every employee, no matter where they work, whether that’s our distribution center, our corporate HQ, or our stores, to come to work and know how much they are valued and appreciated,” Scott explains of the tricked-out digs and the emphasis on an office culture that underscores work-life balance and is female-centric. It's apropos of the company’s 1,200-plus employees, 95% of which are women. “They call me ‘Mama K’ here; these girls are my family, and what do you do for your family?” Scott said. “You are going to provide them a beautiful place to come work.”

Fancy perks and exceptionally pretty decor aside, the kitted-out offices represent something bigger for Scott. “I started this business out of an extra bedroom in my house; you have to imagine, for me, I walk in and it’s just surreal,” she said. “For the first two weeks after we moved into the new headquarters, I literally cried every day; I got emotional about how amazing it is that we’ve been able to accomplish all of this.”
Photo: Courtesy of Kendra Scott.
Employees at Scott’s stores might not have all those bells and whistles at corporate HQ, but she’s mindful of her salespeoples’ quality of life on the clock, too — because of her own experiences working retail in high school at places like Gap: “I remember that the backrooms of the retail stores being so dreary and sad, but the front of the store would be really beautiful.” (Judging by a much-needed bathroom pit stop to the back room of one of Scott’s Austin stores, she’s not bluffing about changing this in her own eponymous business.)

Beyond the considerable creature comforts, the offices house a state-of-the-art design lab, where the design team creates every mold in-house; a photo studio for shooting campaign and catalogue imagery, and a sophisticated distribution center. There’s also a mock store for merchandising test-runs at Scott’s brick-and-mortar locations.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kendra Scott.
And those polished, girly stores, awash with pastels and chandeliers and replete with Color Bars for customers to customize their latest drusy pendants and dangly earrings, are integral to Scott’s strategy: 75% of her business comes from her standalone stores and website, with the remainder of sales happening via wholesaling to around 1,000 boutiques (some e-comm) as well as retailers like Bloomingdale’s, Neiman Marcus, and Nordstrom. (The latter is particularly significant for the designer, as it’s the first big store that snapped up Scott’s collection when she was just starting out.) While those department store accounts aren’t the main way Scott’s raking it in, they serve as an important testing ground of sorts: “Our first introduction to a market is through our department stores in a lot of cases,” she explained.

While there’s hundreds of millions in sales to validate the company’s success, Scott’s pieces aren’t exactly spotted in street style shots or on fashion people on the regular. But the designer did get some (perhaps overdue) industry recognition when she got initiated into the CFDA in 2015.

And sure enough, once you’ve seen or worn Scott’s designs, you’ll probably start spotting them all over. That girl two seats away on your flight. The woman in line at Starbucks. If all goes according to Scott’s ambitious domestic and international expansion plans, there will be even more drusy domination in the future.
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