“It is not the strongest of the species and not the wisest that survive, but the ones that are most responsive to change.”
A simple quote from Darwin that came up during a Merchandising Management lecture, got me thinking about how established fashion companies are adapting to the major industry change of the last 5 years.
It’s the kind of subject that makes the veterans of the industry groan with agony, harking back to the ‘golden age’, of the industry and regulation. As the New York Times' Cathy Horyn wrote in 2011 'I keep hearing designers with long experience, and perhaps dwindling resources and customers, say, “I don’t understand anything anymore.” ' And although I am by industry standards a young designer, my experience is exclusively in independent luxury- arguably the most at-threat niche today. Most high-end and boutique designers have been worried for some time that the rise of affordable ‘designer’ product (think Zara) would price boutique designers out of the market. Which is precisely why Darwins words are very poignant when considering the industry today; the ability to respond and adapt to todays new market is the difference between life and death.
So what does this mean for the future of high-end designer product? What the hell is going on in the industry where the world’s best designers are being minimized by new retail models and start ups? What is it that fundamentally requires designers to rework their entire strategies to remain competitive? Why aren’t superior clothes, stores and traditional advertising enough anymore?
The fashion industry, like many other industries has had a lot to contend with in the last 5 years. For one, online retailing has affected brick and mortar retail revenues significantly, creating new demands on physical stores become more dynamic and experiential. It has also finally broken down international borders in a real way, with local companies now having to compete with discount clothing and free-delivery from the other side of the world (think Asos).
Secondly, the new mainstream embrace of high/low has propelled the fast-fashion model to dominance, speeding up supply, delivery and demand. The cultural embrace of High St clothing at a fashion level has shifted the perception of these goods from ‘cheap rip-offs’ to ‘affordable luxury’. This no doubt has had an affect on the way we value product, particularly designer product; do we need to wait, pay more and buy the authentic model when other retailers are delivering what we want now? Is appetite and speed overriding quality?
The third main change I believe is the effect social media has had on marketing, forcing the old guard to get on board the more instant, frothy, high- frequency approach the social networks embrace. It all seemed so silly at first with all it’s ‘selfies’ and teenage blogging, but in more recent years has defined the cultural shift of integrating yourself in to your customers world. You can’t simply tell customers about your product anymore, you need to get in to their reality and play alongside them.
With all this in mind, high-fashion companies still need to maintain their assumed value in the marketplace. How this sense of value or luxury is communicated to consumers in todays digital and dynamic market place is the key. There are a few companies out there doing a great job at this.
Burberry’s online store and website is arguably the best online luxury branding experience today. The store is both comprehensive and seductive, with garments viewable in high definition with multiple angles/ zooms of fabrication and detailing- even extending to a short video clip of the product. The consideration and generosity of the photography, videography and value communication is synonymous with that of a luxury brick-and-mortar retail outlet. It’s the kind of attentive service that leaves one smiling and feeling looked after.
Lanvin’s company philosophy over the last critical 5 years has been to take the seriousness and elitism out of luxury by encouraging women to laugh and enjoy high-fashion again. Their pop-culture influenced video campaigns have made whitty viral statements and their embracing of social media has helped them connect to younger audiences. Offbeat products such as the text based ‘help’ and ‘cool’ necklaces from last season showcase this more playful cultural zeitgeist in product form. Lanvin has also successfully designed collections for high-st brand H&M and is one of many designers getting on board the high/low bandwagon.
Stella McCartney cannot be ignored when discussing responsiveness to market change. Stella is aways one step ahead in not only product design, but also in integrating the all-important sustainability issues of today in to high fashion. This is no easy feat and not only makes her business model unique but captures the current mood of conscious consumerism. It’s the kind of win-win benefit that assists today’s luxury shopper to make purchases; luxury and a touch of ethics joining forces.
All three of these high-end, established brands have an ear to the ground and are listening to social change. It’s almost like they took off their old sunglasses from 2005 and saw the new environment for the first time. Responding in various ways, they have managed to transcend market change and develop consumer focused strategies that reinforce their value in the marketplace.
In so many ways it’s not just important to be able to respond to change, but to be ahead and anticipate it before it punches you in the face. For me this seems to be the key to navigating the new industry and new economy.
Printing under his studio roof in Germany, he prints some of the world's most beautiful art, photography and literature books by hand, personally checking off every sheet. Not only does he act as printer and publisher, but as a designer. His exceptional eye, the pursuit of perfection of his craft and commitment to quality has made him a cult figure worldwide, with a client list that includes Karl Lagerfeld, Chanel, Paolo Roversi, Carine Roitfeld, Grace Goddington to name just a few.
He creates some of the most striking work I have ever seen and it was as much surprising as it was pleasing to find that his high-end practice is economically sustainable. With Chanel as their biggest patron (who seemingly keep every independent artisan in Europe afloat), you wonder what will happen when Karl Lagerfeld’s generation retire. Will there actually be any patrons of artisan and luxury left? Even Steidl’s client-list of artists and designers were all predominantly over 70 years old and you got a sense that values of craftsmanship and community were literally going to die with them.
It also got me thinking about how our sense of luxury has changed so much. It has become so attached to brands now, with their monogrammed leather and celebrity endorsements being the measure of refinement. However when I think about luxury, I think of something that has had no corners cut, something laboured and personal, the mark of the artist, designer or artisan alive in the product in some way. It doesn’t have to be glitzy or branded, just authentic.
Immense care needs to be taken in the making of a truly great product. As Steidl shows in the film, this involves some key ingredients; time, skill, patience, a hands-on production model and of course giving a shit. Quite basic elements that are now true luxuries themselves. As we all now know, most independent value-oriented, artisanal businesses are almost completely defunct. I can’t help but feel that there’s an irony to the fact that we can’t even spend the time, money and effort needed to do our jobs properly anymore. Far from being elitist, the ‘luxury’ of being able to assemble something to a high standard seems pretty basic to me.
A few designers I know are currently studying the idea of how solo, small and self-made product companies might be sustainable in the future. It’s an interesting notion to think that after all these years of globalism and tireless capitalism, that we might all consider paring back to one or two staff members, or perhaps just the founding members. Even the concept of just selling to a local market is an interesting one. Why do you need to go global? Can you run and maintain a business with out capital? Can you make it yourself? What about quality? Why do you need to appear big? Is large scale actually more profitable? I have only questions at this point.
I guess it’s a kind of a pared back approach to luxury, which is hot-right-now in branding but remains to be seen in terms of actual business models. And that’s because it’s an extremely difficult conundrum that our generation will have to work out. With the economic numbers not adding up anymore, we’ll be faced with rebalancing the economy for decades. It will be an interesting road to see if we can continue the approach of someone like Steidl in to the future. God knows we need great things to remind us that life is worth living.
Watch the film pretty please, it’s fantastic.