A new 11-story office tower rising above Duluth this summer will be the largest downtown commercial development in the city's history.
But the $80 million project has nothing to do with the region's economic mainstays of mining, shipping, tourism or health care. Instead, it will be the new headquarters of a women's fashion retailer.
With 425 employees spread among four downtown buildings, Maurices is bursting at the seams in the downtown area. Its new home will cement its presence in Duluth, Minnesota's capital of fleece and flannel.
But the company isn't just growing there.
Over the past 10 years Maurices has more than doubled its number of stores in the United States and Canada to 945 and by spring aims to have 1,000. The company now has 9,000 employees.
In the past decade, sales have grown from less than $400 million annually to $1 billion this year, CEO George Goldfarb said.
"It's not the fashion capital of the world in Duluth, but I will tell you that we have great people," Goldfarb said. "It's really a strong workforce."
Maurices dates back to 1931, when Maurice and Ella Labovitz started a clothing shop in downtown Duluth. The company was privately held until 2005, when it was purchased by Dressbarn. It is now part of Ascena Retail Group, which also owns Lane Bryant. In May, Ascena Retail Group announced a deal to buy Ann Inc., Ann Taylor's parent company, for $2.16 billion.
One of the things that distinguishes Maurices from other brands is its presence in small to medium-sized markets where other players do not have stores. In Minnesota, that means cities like Albert Lea and Brainerd.
In Duluth, Maurices has a store at the Miller Hill Mall, where 24-year-old Nikki Lindholm goes for deals like the pair of shoes she found last week.
"They were only $7, so I was pretty excited about that," she said. "I love shoes."
Lindholm also likes how Maurices offers sizes that fit pretty much everyone.
"I like to shop at Express a lot too, but a problem I have with their clothes is their biggest size will probably fit like an 8-year-old," she said. "[In] this store they have clothes that fit any type of body size, so I appreciate that."
Goldfarb said his stores have a unique customer niche — women in their mid-20s to 30s who want to shop at an outlet that appeals to their varied lifestyles with clothes for work or play.
The focus on larger sizes sets Maurices and other Ascena brands apart from competitors, said Poonam Goyal, a senior retail analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence.
"They have a really unique place in the marketplace, and that's what's driving their growth," Goyal said. "If you look at apparel in general in the U.S., the category has not been growing. But Ascena has, including Maurices."
That shows how much the market they cater to is underserved, she said.
At the company's "mock store" in its corporate offices, a visitor will see a setup that looks nearly identical to the real store at the mall. But it displays clothing that won't be in stores for another couple months, said Erin Stern, the company's chief merchandising officer.
Stern, who splits her time between Duluth and Los Angeles, cut her teeth in the retail industry at The Gap. She said Maurices benefits by being based in Duluth.
"If you're sitting in a place like Manhattan or Los Angeles and there is a lot of noise ... you're constantly surrounded by your competitors," she said. "And you're constantly thinking about the things that you're not doing."
From its base in Duluth, Stern said, Maurices can stay focused on its customers who live in similar towns.
"We're in a community that exactly mirrors the communities our stores are in," she said. "We live the life here that our customer's living."
When the new headquarters opens in April, with giant glass windows overlooking Lake Superior, it could help the company recruit employees to Duluth, which many might consider a frigid northern outpost.
Ann-marie Stojevich, the company's associate vice president of visual, said about half her team is from Minnesota. The rest come from around the country.
"They fall in love with the lake [and] they fall in love with the environment of downtown," said Stojevich, who oversees the layout of Maurices stores. "When they come into the corporate office and start meeting people, that's when we seal the deal."
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