Juicy Couture’s Founders Look Back on the Brand’s 25th Anniversary

They were immortalized in shows like “The Simple Life” and in movies like “Mean Girls.” De rigueur for shopping Kitson and worn by the entire bridal party at Britney Spears’ 2004 wedding to Kevin Federline.

Juicy Couture tracksuits have made an indelible mark on pop culture — a rare case of symbiosis between fashion, celebrity zeitgeist and the socioeconomic climate.

The company was founded by Pamela Skaist-Levy and Gela Nash-Taylor — two Los Angeles women who, in 1995, felt like there was not a brand that serviced their needs for elevated, comfortable clothing. Within five years their initial $200 investment became a phenomenon for tight, pink and brazen sweats that ran contrast to the conservative politics of the George W. Bush era — becoming catnip for Los Angeles paparazzi, who photographed a generation of starlets at their high points and low stumbles in a uniform of Juicy velour and terrycloth. Skaist-Levy and Nash-Taylor initiated a global craze, well before social media and online shopping.

The brand marks its 25th anniversary this year at an oddly poignant moment. While Juicy, as it’s often simply known, had a meteoric ascent it also had as polarizing a decline — becoming an item of derision and symbolic excess in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crash. But its 25th year graces us during a pandemic, when many of us are suddenly wearing sweatpants again. In these fraught times, the brand’s optimistic outlook on loungewear — its sugar-coated aura, soft fabrics, rhinestone detailing and witty puns — offers new escapism.

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Juicy was among a small group of brands that brought covetability to sweats — a pioneering force in the American wardrobe that challenged traditional notions of luxury. With Juicy, athleticwear represented a new lifestyle of aspiration.

Throughout its history, the brand has gone through a roundabout of ownership and concepts. There was mass expansion under Liz Claiborne Inc., which purchased Juicy in 2003 for more than $230 million. The label reached nearly $500 million in annual sales before it was sold to Authentic Brands Group in 2013 for $195 million. ABG now steers the Juicy ship, with the help of global partners, and has orchestrated collaborations with Vetements and Kappa, as well as upcoming projects to mark the label’s anniversary.

Despite the many crazes that Nash-Taylor and Skaist-Levy have kicked off, the duo — now heading a line called Pam & Gela, which is carried by Shopbop, Revolve and Bloomingdale’s — believe they have never quite gotten recognition as shape-shifting fashion designers. All the while, the brand forever holds a soft spot with Millennial consumers, who see Juicy as a formative name in their relationship with fashion and style.

With the brand marking 25 years, Nash-Taylor and Skaist-Levy spoke with WWD about all aspects of Juicy’s stardust.

WWD: Thanks so much for making the time to talk. Funny discussing Juicy while we are all sitting at home in sweatpants, but even before COVID-19 we saw the brand have a bit of a resurgence along with other early-Aughts styles. What do you think of it all?

Gela Nash Taylor: It started coming end of last year, but now it’s in full swing. [Juicy] is having another moment again: maybe it’s the 25-year cycle, maybe it’s lockdown and people wanting comfort. I always said Juicy was a happy brand, and it definitely still is for a lot of people.

WWD: You launched at a time when there was no social media, it was the beginning of celebrity product placements. It costs so much to start a brand now, by contrast. Did you have any hesitations when you first started the brand?

Pamela Skaist-Levy: At the time, it didn’t seem crazy. We loved what we were doing, creating amazing clothes that we wanted to wear. The brand was totally autobiographical, it was fun. Yes, there were challenges but we were creating something with our best friends.

G.N-T.: I think also one of the differences between starting a business now and starting then was that there was no New York Fashion Week, no online shopping. We were in an L.A. bubble — it felt like what we wanted to do, what we wanted to wear; we were the fit models. The thought of the two of us coming up with a business plan to get investment — we had never heard of that, it didn’t exist for us. We were just in L.A., two nice girls who loved stuff — we wouldn’t have even thought about it. I don’t think we would have slept at night if we had borrowed money.

Jennifer Lopez in Juicy Couture in her music video for, “I’m Real” 

WWD: Juicy hit the market at a time when men really ran the fashion design world. Your brand came from a distinctly feminine perspective and had elements of function and wearability that other labels didn’t offer at the time. Was that purposeful?

P. S-L.: It grew organically, it just had so much authenticity because it was a natural progression of what we love.

G.N-T.: I think everyone we speak to has a Juicy story. The reason it resonated was that, as you know, [often] a baby girl’s first color that they love is pink. We took that color and turned it into something every girl and mom could relate to. Our first love affair with the tracksuit came in a color that was so empowering and fun. Just like the tag said: “Made in the glamorous USA, made by girls for girls in Los Angeles.”

People didn’t think of us as designers. They were very dismissive of us even though everyone wanted it. I think women designing for women like Pam and I, it’s different and fun. Being comfortable is key to feeling chic and powerful, color makes you feel powerful. I think women think like that, maybe not men.

WWD: What about the role of sweatpants in our everyday lives? How do you think you had a hand in pioneering that?

P.S-L.: We elevated a very casual phys-ed way of dressing, turning true athleticwear into something that became fashion for American women and girls. If you look at fashion on the runway today, everyone has a tracksuit — Balenciaga, Gucci, they are all doing it. We really feel like we [are responsible] for turning sweats into casual luxury.

WWD: At the time, fashion was very conservative, so tacking the word “couture” onto a line of sweatpants must have been controversial. How did people react?

P. S-L.: It was mostly a controversy because people couldn’t pronounce it. People didn’t know what it was. We wanted to come up with a word that was elevated, it was really during a time of nickel and diming — people wanted cheap products. We said, “No, we want to do elevated, casual clothes for the masses.”

G.N-T.: Adding “Couture” to our name, we thought, was so brilliant and funny. It was aspirational. And then after that it was spun off by everyone there was wallpaper couture, plumbing couture — everything had couture on it.

WWD: In my research looking at the label from its early-Aughts heyday, I see all walks of life wearing Juicy clothing — women of many ages, ethnicities and backgrounds. That kind of inclusivity really predated fashion’s current reckoning with diversity. Did you think about it at all?

P. S-L.: Not at all, it was the everyone brand. We cared more about the fit, that it was flattering for women’s bodies. We knew everyone had body flaws and the tracksuit looked good on everyone.

G.N.-T.: We cared what your stomach looked like, every seam was devised to enhance what you had.

P. S.-L.: We did not think about [diversity] other than knowing this appealed to everybody. We were super-excited about that, it just made us happy when people wore the clothes. There was just an element of fun and humor in Juicy when we built the brand.

Nicole Richie, Paris Hilton, and Betty Cash in season two of “The Simple Life.” 20th Century Fox Licensing/Merchandising / Everett Collection

WWD: Back in the day, you were sold at every major department store in a way that would not be possible today. How did you go about selling your clothes to the big retailers?

G. N.-T.: The clothes were selling themselves, so they had no choice but to pay attention. Because we were in L.A., if we had to interact with them we made them do crazy things. Our first big meeting was with Frank Doroff [former vice chairman and general merchandise manager] from Bloomingdale’s and we took him to the Beverly Hills Hotel to have hot fudge sundaes. It was a fun scene — we didn’t really look at corporate meetings as corporate. We were like, “Come into our fun world.”

P. S.-L.: We did the windows of Barneys [New York] once with Roopal Patel, we made them do ballgown skirts with our logo Ts. We just thought we had won the lottery, we did that high-low thing and everyone loved what we were doing.

WWD: What do you think Juicy would be like if you had launched in this era of online shopping and social media?

G. N.-T.: I think one of the most amazing things about our story is that we started before online shopping. In today’s environment, I think about direct-to-consumer today and I think how I have a few stores I go to because I love it — the people, the music, the way they curate the buy — but for most part, I shop online. I think we would have had to launch it as a d-to-c line.

P. S.-L.: I can’t even imagine what Juicy would be like in the days of social media and Instagram. I think brands can still be a phenomenon if they create product that people want and are obsessed with, it will find a way.

WWD: What was the moment when you guys realized that you had made it?

G. N.-T.: Once I was at the Beverly Hills crosswalk and looked around and every single person was wearing a Juicy tracksuit. I freaked out, it was everywhere and we were excited to see people wearing our clothes.

P. S.-L.: When I went out to the movies I would go up and say “thank you” to people — it was thrilling and I never lost that.

WWD: Talk a little bit about your work with celebrities and how you got your clothes on every big star at the time.

P. S.-L.: I think it was just that their bodies looked great [in the clothes], they were comfortable and the color was fun.

G. N.-T.: We were an L.A. brand, where the TV and film industry is. So the stylists would come and get stuff from us. When we were worn by Madonna, we made a track jacket that said, “Madge” and that exploded overnight. From there it was Paris Hilton, Jennifer Lopez.…When Madonna wore the tracksuit, I couldn’t believe it. I was the biggest Madonna fan and it blew my mind way open. I couldn’t believe she knew who we were, it was such a validation.

P. S.-L.: J.Lo had her own tracksuit line [back then] but chose to wear ours — I can’t name an “It” girl of that day who didn’t wear the clothing.

G. N.-T.: Paris [Hilton] was amazing, she lived in Juicy. Britney [Spears] was a Juicy girl. Every tour we gave Madonna tracksuits for her dancers, we did Britney’s wedding. We had a wall of fame and shame [in our office], shame was people going to prison in Juicy tracksuits and fame was people getting married in Juicy tracksuits.

It was a fluke that our first p.r. stunt was that we took a suite at the Chateau Marmont and decided that every girl wants a manicure-pedicure and a track suit to match so we invited a bunch of celebrities.

P. S.-L.: It was the first celebrity suite. It’s commonplace today but no one did it then, that’s what I meant by marketing and how we did things that people weren’t doing.

WWD: Speaking of Britney Spears, where do you guys stand on the #FreeBritney movement?

G. N.-T.: We wanted to rescue Britney back in the day when she was having that moment. Poor Britney, she can’t breathe [freely]. I definitely thing we should free Britney, we are all behind that here.

P. S.-L.: I haven’t talked to her since then, she was amazing, I loved her. I think she should be free for sure. We are still in touch with Paris, though, we will still send her tracksuits, she has a documentary on YouTube now that I’m dying to watch.

WWD: Your pants were so low-rise that it made it hard to sit down without revealing more than one bargained for. Now that the early-Aughts are coming back, do you see low-rises coming along with them?

G. N.-T.: I was just in England and I have some old stuff there, I found old shorts with a surfer on the butt, they are so low it’s crazy. I think people are used to high-rise today, so I don’t know. I think high-rise is here to stay, but never say never — low-rise could come around.

P. S.-L.: With the right pants it could be very flattering. But ours were so low, some people couldn’t believe it with the butt crack — that was a funny story. We were in Japan in a fitting, and things are so quiet in Japan. They kept saying, “We don’t want to see…” but I didn’t know how to call it the crack to help them, I didn’t know if there was a medical term for it there. Anytime someone bent over — that’s what you saw.

G. N.-T.: The tramp stamps back then, it was a moment. Juicy on the butt was great, I still love it. When “SNL” did the Juicy Couture [tattoo spoof] I was so excited.

Juicy was the opposite of careful, I think we offended Jimmy Iovine [cofounder of Interscope Records and Beats Electronics], who came up to us at a party once to talk about the Juicy in the butt, because his daughter was wearing the pants all the time. We offended people in that way, but in a fun kind of way.

P. S.-L.: When we put Juicy on the butt, there were no icky, sexy connotations. People could read into it what they wanted, but it was a fun, feel-good decision to do that.

WWD: Yeah, that was a pretty iconic moment — how did it even dawn on you to do that?

G. N.-T.: I went to my son’s school and saw “cheer” on the butt of these pants and came back to the office and mocked up “Juicy” so the “I” would go over the butt seam and I thought it was fun. I sent it to the showroom and people just bought it, the whole thing went crazy. I was not thinking too much about it, it was just a moment that worked.

WWD: At some point, Juicy went from widely beloved to derided — a symbol of pre-recession excess and lack of intellect. Why do you think that happened?

G. N.-T.: I feel like that didn’t come until much later. Part of what happened is that we sold our business and we became so big, with so many stores and fragrances. I think what happens is that big is the killer of cool. When a small, super-cool insider thing becomes oversaturated — that’s what happens. That era came to an end, everyone wanted bright colors and Juicy across the butt and crystals and then it changed to that Alexander Wang, New York girl with everything black and minimal.

WWD: Do you think it was the recession that killed that Juicy moment?

G. N.-T.: We did OK during that time in 2008, it was kind of like quarantine with people wanting something they knew and comfortable so they bought a new tracksuit. But after that, heading into 2010 is when the backlash really started.

P. S.-L.: We didn’t own our business at that point. Corporate had an idea of what to do with Juicy Couture. We thought we could turn it around and create new product to change with the times but that’s not what corporate wanted to do.

WWD: What has changed in fashion now, from your perspective?

G. N.-T.: I think the reason that the fashion industry is taking such a big hit right now is that it was spiraling out of control for a long time. It’s a different game now, the Internet changed everything, there is such a glut of everything and you can get anything out there. Scaling a brand like we did with Juicy is not possible, you couldn’t do $50 million in each store — it would take an insane amount of money to pull that off. Brands that have success like that now have a huge board of directors and a big face at the head of the brand. To me, the fashion brands that stick out now are the small ones, they are not mass. Juicy was so mass.

WWD: Now looking back, do you think Juicy gets the recognition that it deserves? And what about you as designers? Do you think you deserve more of a place in fashion history?

G. N.-T.: I don’t think [we get proper recognition]. We haven’t and maybe the recognition is in this 25th anniversary and the fact that we see it coming back in a lot of lines in fashion. People looked at us as an anti-fashion, as killers of fashion — they don’t recognize us as designers that have their garments in the 20-year collection at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Made in America is a big thing now but we did that back in the day.

P. S.-L.: It’s just like, things like that happen. It’s so funny, I read every day in the paper now there is just this crazy thing out there that is so anti-comfort and anti-sweatpants. They will not let it go. But it’s a reality and it’s here to stay, when you are comfortable sitting on Zoom calls all day. If I get dressed up to go to a meeting, the first thing I do when I get home is change into sweats — being comfortable is being chic and happy in life, but for some reason that stigma remains. I’m happy that for some it has flip-flopped now into nostalgia in a cool way.

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