Fast, Furious Fashion

  • By Melissa Wheeler
  • 03 Jan, 2017

How the fashion industry's flexibility will be key in 2017

“Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future”
John F. Kennedy
 
The New Year is a great opportunity for change: personally, professionally and in terms of perspective. Looking to the past 12 months is crucial in order to move forwards and embrace the future with wisdom and increased insight. The fashion industry will have much to learn and consider from 2016, from the impact Brexit is having on the high street through to Black Friday and consumer trends. One of the most noticeable new concepts to which the industry will be adapting in 2017 will be the ‘see now; buy now’ behaviour among consumers and the consequent effect on the traditional seasonal fashion calendar. There are several reasons for this evolution, but some of the most apparent causes will have been the unseasonal weather we’ve been experiencing, the discounting mind-set of consumers and the inappropriate delivery times many retailers experience from some of their brands.
 
So, how has this ‘see now; buy now’ culture been affecting the industry and how does it relate to the state of the high street? The chorus of complaints we have heard from retailers is that the unseasonably warm September contributed to rails of unsold AW16/17 stock piling up in stores – many collections of which were dropped instore from July – and the subsequent prolific discounting of new collections early in the season. No retailer wants to do this. But how do you manage this new retail reality within your own business?
 
When I was in my early teens (1990s), I would attend London Fashion Week (LFW), followed by the trade shows, with my mother (who founded and ran a womenswear boutique for 30 years). I eventually became accustomed to how far in advance the collections were shown and bought by retailers, though it seemed extraordinary to me begin with. Not only was this a very exclusive and privileged experience for a 12 year old, it also provided a fantastic insight into how this extraordinary industry has evolved. Of course, the relevance of fixed seasonal collections has been brought into question for some time now with the emergence of a consumer-driven market (the millennials are leading the charge) which has democratised industry. For the last ten years, digital developments have been influencing not only the way consumers interact with fashion but how brands engage with consumers. A few years ago, the live streaming of international catwalk shows to the public marked the dawn of a new age in the fashion industry calendar.
 
As retailers’ thoughts move from tinsel to trade shows, January is a prime time to consider the insight we’ve gained from 2016 and apply this knowledge to the year ahead. In light of this and in advance of Pure London’s February show – traditionally exclusively an AW event – I decided to investigate the subject of the seasonal calendar a little further. In early December, I spoke three to successful industry figures across retail, wholesale and distribution to gauge the temperature on the issue for PURE TALK readers ahead of the buying season. The experiences are varied….
 
Here is what I discovered:
 
The Retailer: Jeremy Clayton is the owner of Javelin independent fashion retailer in Bury St Edmunds

     How has your buying pattern changed over the past few years and how has this impacted you?
 
"Our buying pattern has definitely changed over the past 5 years. We now have to buy and budget for 4 seasons rather than the traditional 2. We'll be reducing our forward order buy for AW17 significantly, especially in womenswear. While our upstairs floor majors in key, premium brands, for which we place forward orders, the fast fashion department downstairs is now 45%/55% forward/short order and the gap is growing. [....] Closet is particularly popular as a short-order brand and they're great at replenishing stock. It probably helps that they're manufactured in the UK, since it enables them to react fast. [....]”
 
How have your customers’ shopping habits changed over the past few years?
 
“Customers have certainly become far more reactive and no longer plan their spend in advance. As a retailer, we need to be able to react likewise. Being able to replenish stock fast is crucial and allows us to compete more effectively with the online competition. […] For us, menswear is slightly different. Brands such as Hilfiger and Lyle & Scott carry a healthy range of never out of stock and we will have virtually doubled our forward order spend with them by the end of the season”.
 
Why do you think customers have started to buy fashion differently?
 
“I think it's partly as a result of the unseasonable weather and partly the culture of waiting for a discount, which delays the new season shopping. On the subject of discounting, I was surprised to see John Lewis offer 20% off Barbour on Black Friday. It seemed out of character for them, especially since the weather had turned very cold by then - but that's another issue! [...] Outerwear remains a difficult category for us while our knitwear performed particularly strongly in AW16. We will be looking to sustain that for AW17 as we scout Pure looking for collections with a distinct point of difference."
 
The Wholesaler & Retailer: Sophie Bradbury is the brand manager for British modern vintage womenswear brand Fever London
 
When did you notice that buyers were wanting/asking for short-order/in season stock and why do you think this is?
 
“Customers have been wanting in season stock for quite a few years now. It enables them to follow trends more closely and order more accurately, depending on their stock requirements at that time, rather than trying to predict what might sell well in their store at a future date”.
 
You have the benefit of also being a retailer. How has this changed your consumer-facing perspective seasonally?
 
“We do sell online but we find that the forward order process works well for us. Our collections do encompass current trends but we are not slaves to them and our designs are timeless, so never go out of fashion. Despite the fact that our collections are designed 6 - 12 months in advance, they will still be relevant and appealing to our customer base when they go on sale to the public”.
 
How has this change in the traditional seasonal cycle impacted your planning, production as a manufacturer?
 
“Having a mixture of short and forward order clients, does make it harder as a manufacturer to predict what quantities we need to order for each style. However, we carefully analyse our forward orders, which gives us a fairly accurate idea of which styles will be our best sellers. This way we can increase the quantities we order to ensure that we can hold stock for short orders in season”.
 
What percentage of your orders at Pure July '16 were AW16 (short order) vs. SS17 (forward)?
 
“Approximately 1/3 of our orders were AW16 and 2/3 SS17”.
 
  What percentage of short order/in season stock vs AW17 stock will Fever London exhibit at Pure London February 2017?
 
“Approximately 1/3 of our stand space will be allocated to SS17 (short order) and 2/3 will be given to AW17 (forward order)”.
 
How you see this trend/developing evolving and affecting the industry in the future and what are your plans to cater for it?
 
“We know many retailers prefer to short order for the reasons mentioned earlier and this is a trend that we feel is here to stay. However, we will continue to encourage our clients to place forward orders to ensure that we can supply the styles that best suit their individual customer-base.  Many clients who order in season miss out on the benefit of deliveries early in the season, and in addition run the risk of styles being sold out or not available in all the sizes they require”.
 
The Distributor: Michael Shalders is the co-owner of Drapers award winning fashion distribution agency Love Brands Ltd

  Have you observed a shift in season buying patterns in recent years?

 
“As an industry, there’s certainly been a movement away from the traditional fashion calendar. In terms of womenswear, we have yet to notice a trend to buy autumn/winter product only when – for example – it’s cold and it’s wet, as has been more prevalent in menswear. In our experience, if the product in store is strong, it is still selling well early in the season, as and when it’s delivered […]”
 
As a distributor, you must have a unique perspective on this particular industry issue?
 
“Yes, I have a slightly different way of looking at the ‘seasonal calendar issue’, which is to give more consideration to delivery times. The brands that we work with are increasingly mindful to deliver the right product at the right time and our customers really appreciate this. Their attitude seems to be: ‘rather than try to produce short order product, let’s produce smaller forward order collections and deliver them more regularly’. So, they won’t be delivering knitwear in July and August or coats in August and September”.
 
So, more regular delivery must have resulted in more transitional styles?
 
“Yes. Something we’ve noticed with many of our best performing brands is that their product has become more transitional and over a longer period of time. This means that the ‘shoulder season’ (i.e. July/August) – which has always been transitional - has now been extended. From a planning point of view, these subtle shifts do not impact our strategy too much at all. Fortunately, the majority of the brands we work with are already very savvy about what they deliver and when they deliver it. But in some respects, we find that – as distributors - we are delivering more often which means that we are selling more often. For instance, instead of having one big collection delivered at the start of the season, which was the norm 20 years ago, retailers are now buying three collections a season, with each collection being delivered over two months. In effect, these retailers are buying three collections each season with six drops; six collections per year, split into three appointments”.  
.......................................
There are mixed experiences on this subject as we have heard, but being able to give the customer (the consumer or the retailer) what they want and when want it is – and will always be – key. As the industry braces itself for the season ahead and buyers and wholesalers use the past 12 months to inform their decision-making, we know that 2017 will be a  challenging one in many different ways. The one trend and pattern that we can guarantee – in a period of uncertainly and flux - is this: much like in Nature, change is the only constant and those able to adapt to meet those changes will survive and thrive. Today, the UK sits at the top of the fashion map and London continues to draw international attention above other cities. The season ahead offers great opportunity and exciting new prospects for those with an open mind.
 
 
 

Melissa's Musings....

By Melissa Wheeler 03 Nov, 2017

Red is the new black  

From a style point of view, it’s rather fitting that the colour red happens to be ‘The’ colour for AW17, confirming one of my favourite quotes from Audrey Hepburn - “there is a shade of red for every woman” – and adding a stylish edge to the abundance of Remembrance poppies this month. There's absolutely nothing wrong with a display of charitable commemoration being ‘au courant’ sartorially. 

Red is alarming, uncompromising, empowering and fierce. As a society, we’re hard wired to it since it taps into our primal, passionate impulses. It’s the colour of the blood of Christ and also the Devil, with a cocktail of connotations consisting of fireworks, adrenaline, love hearts and red roses. The impact of Margaret Atwood’s haunting Handmaid's Tale has formed the wallpaper of popular TV culture this year, with red dresses and white bonnets even headlining Vera Wang’s fashion shoot in Vogue. 

Red shouts. Revolutions are ignited by it, the camera loves it, Tibetan Buddhist landscapes are peppered by flags the colour of blood red robes. The matt scarlet ‘Givenchy Red’ seen on the AW17 catwalks reminds us that this colour is dangerous, subversive and fiercely feminine all at once, while Julia Roberts’ Pretty Woman red dress confirms why every woman should own a red dress. Simply put, everything is better in red and it’s a God given right that every woman should wear in what makes her feel wonderful. 

There is a shade of red for every woman  

The colour of Buddhism and Communism, Jezebels and a harlot's knickers, when we ‘rouge’ our lips we are embracing our womanhood and making a statement [“I’m gonna’ rouge my knees and pull my stockings down” à la Liza Minelli]. “Let’s paint the town red [….]”. I defy anyone to not feel brighter, more confident and stronger when donning this traffic stopping colour. Bold and yet empowering, it’s even been proven that athletes who compete in red are more likely to win! 

That red is also the colour of the iconic Remembrance poppy lends itself kindly to the thread of activism and identity at the heart of fashion’s raison d’être. The symbol of remembrance and hope, the poppy was first given prominence in Lt. Col. John McCrae’s famous ‘Flanders Fields’ poem – lines from which are featured inside poppies this year - , and then by American Academic Moina Belle Michael. It was Michael who committed to always wearing a poppy in 1918 and who, in 1921, began creating silk poppies to sell to raise money for veterans, wounded soldiers and their families. That they were initially made of silk – one of the most sublime and sentient of natural, luxury fabrics – is a fact which has really struck me this year, with silk emerging as part of our mainstream movement towards New Luxury. Fashion will always have activism in its DNA and self-expression woven into its very fabric and its capacity to make a statement through what we wear is one of its greatest gifts. Following on from Michael’s initiative, the poppy flower has been represented in numerous end products using different fabric and materials since 1921, which have also equally been summarily sold to raise money for the needs of the serving and surviving British Armed Forces members and their families. I do not agree with the grievance – made by some - that a fashionable interpretation of the poppy is to the detriment of its sobering significance. From the Jeans for Genes campaign through to Fashion Targets Breast Cancer clothing, the fashion industry remains one of our greatest social influencers and this season’s lusty affair with red is a gift to Remembrance and its iconic red poppy. 

Rather, the only problem I might have with the iconic Poppy tradition is that it conjures a collective remembrance, with the risk of the individual becoming lost in the constituent mass of lives lost. One of life’s most precious qualities is our identity, our individuality, having our name remembered when we enter a shop, club or pub or having our preferences or idiosyncrasies recalled. Our identity is everything and fashion is a tool with which we can express this. This is why the homogenous fast-fashion, prescriptive trend-obeying mindset is a travesty for individuality and personal growth while employing our clothing and accessories to express ourselves is hugely liberating. And fun! Yes, identity and individuality is freedom. Fashion has no rules. Fashion is freedom. Fashion is mood-enhancing. A flash of this uncompromising hue is equally impactful – as Christian Louboutin knows better than most. I know myself that when I step into my red stilettos, throw my ‘Red Riding Hood’ red coat over my shoulders or apply some femme fatale red lipstick, I’m owning myself, affirming my identity and making no compromises. It feels bold and brilliant and shamelessly indulgent. 

“To me, clothing is a form of self-expression; there are hints about who you are in what you wear” – Marc Jacobs  

The right to personal identity is recognised in international law through a range of declarations and conventions. From as early as birth, an individual’s identity is formed and preserved by registration or being bestowed with a name. 

To have an identity; to express-oneself freely and to be valued as an individual are values which sustain our self-esteem and give meaning to our sense of self. These are fundamental human rights in a free society, which those soldiers fought for in the fields of Flanders. Few sectors of culture can support the protection of identity better than fashion and independent designers will always have the edge in responsiveness, flexibility and individuality. 

This occurred to me other day when I discovered the most beautiful story, reminding me why fashion matters and why cultivating our identity is at the very heart of this. 

In support of the irreplaceable work done by the Royal British Legion charity, an independent London designer donated a luxury ‘Poppy’ handbag (worth £888), designed and produced specifically for the cause, to a Royal British Legion branch in Bristol. Eyato London , a brand founded on the principles of distinction, individuality and self-expression, launched a small sub-collection dedicated to Remembrance, called the Ronti collection, a percentage of sales of which will be donated to the Poppy Appeal. Named after phonetic pronunciation of the Yoruba word for 'remember’, the luxury collection is designed by Atiti Izogie around the iconic symbol of hope and liberty represented by the poppy. 

Handmade in London using luxury soft leather and designed to encompass the design of a three petal poppy, this Ronti handbag is bold, beautiful, and distinct and will be auctioned off at the Bristol Poppy Ball on the 18th November. From the handmade leather slip-on mules with detachable poppies on the vamp to the shamelessly indulgent evening clutch, the entire edit is a tribute to fashion’s ability to express, remember and be fun. The London designer says, “This collection is all about remembering, acknowledging and cherishing those individuals, just as we respect individuality every day. As a designer, I have always wanted to produce a design around those three petals”. Aside from the symbolism of the red poppy this month, this cheerfully luxurious capsule collection reminds us that fashion is fun, free and rule-defying. 

No soldier should be remembered as a nameless collective, and each of us can use our wardrobe as a toolbox for self-expression, selecting what we want to say. Identity, independence and freedom are what each of those soldiers fought for on the fields and what their memory deserves. Identity is our most valuable possession and, together with freedom, will always be at the heart of fashion. Protect it. Wear it. Wear it with pride. 

The full Ronti collection will be available www.eyato.com from Monday the 13th of November 2017.

 

By Melissa Wheeler 25 Sep, 2017

Unless you’re a cave-dwelling ascetic or a self-denying Spartan, chances are you like nice things. Most of us appreciate quality when we experience it and know how to identify it on a rail. The price tag is usually a giveaway and few of us expect luxury without having to give something in return. But our preparedness to cough up cash is balanced by expectation too. A high price tag is (should be) justified by true magnificence, which few of us can afford. We pay with the assumption that we know what we’re buying and where it was made. This explains why some of us (those who can) shell out four figure sums of money for a pair of stilettos or a handbag, with the premise that the price tag is justified by solid brand values, heritage, skilled craftspeople and superior materials. We like to imagine that an Italian luxury accessories brand or a British ‘heritage’ brand will each be ‘made in’ their respective homelands.

But luxury brands are all over the place when it comes to disclosing where their products are made. All recognise the potential advantages of full disclosure but few — even those boasting a manufacturing heritage — exploit it. The majority go for partial disclosure.

Earlier this year, The Guardian  exposed Louis Vuitton for producing the majority of its shoes in Romania, not Italy (according to EU law, if shoes are “finished” in France or Italy, the company can still qualify for the sought-after ‘made in’ tags). Further, most of the world’s leading designer luxury brands rank poorly in Fashion Revolution’s 2017 Fashion Transparency Index . In the 2017 report , all of the "luxury" brands score less than 30 out of a possible 100, and the majority achieve a dismal rating of less than 10.

As I recently commented in Why Slow Fashion is picking the pace , more and more fashion consumers are demanding transparency - in materials, production location/social impact, and even profit margins. They’re willing to pay high prices for high-quality items, especially if they have an understanding of the history and impact of the product they’re purchasing. We like a story. It’s a shift, to a purchase being driven less by brand and more by information.

What’s in my Wardrobe?

Echoing the #whomademyclothes social-media backlash to the Rana Plaza disaster, what do we really know about the history of those items in our wardrobe? Is there a dark story confusing price, perception and product lurking in our closet? If we pay 10, 20 or even a hundred times more than an item cost to produce, does the price tag correlate with the magnificent , luxury ‘story’?

According to marketing professor, and luxury industry specialist, Vincent Bastien , it doesn't matter if the products are actually made in China or Transylvania. As long as the image of " heritage, country and craftsmanship " is continuously reaffirmed and nurtured, the prices can stay high. " The more [the product] is perceived by the client to be a luxury, the higher the price should be ."

That price bears almost no relation to manufacturing costs and that fashion remains the 2nd largest polluter globally, after oil, really doesn’t have much hanger appeal. It's the result of very deliberate effort, says Dana Thomas , author of the bestselling book 'Deluxe: How Luxury Lost its Lustre' . She’s in no two minds about what drives the industry :

"[Their] sole motivating factor is profits. The designers can dream up beautiful designs, but the number crunchers will cut costs wherever they can to raise the profit margin." How else to fund those prestigious flagship stores and indulgent advertising campaigns?

Scaling up Sustainability

A direct relationship with cotton farmers, supporting Mongolian goatherds – it’s all well and good, but conscious consumerism needs to be commercial. An industry founded upon consumption needs to cut its cloth carefully. Diana Verde Nieto of Positive Luxury , an online trust-mark scheme that rewards fashion houses and jewellers making a positive impact on society and the environment says “the objective of sustainability in fashion is not just creating a lot niche brands”. “If sustainability is to take root, it must be adopted by corporations and embedded into their very structures”.

As consumer behaviour shifts from excess to ‘Buy Less; Buy Better’, many brands are successfully bridging the gulf between image and value. It’s certainly the case with several high street retailers now embracing sustainability as part of their business model. To namecheck a couple that are completely transparent in production, sharing all manufacturing and production details, let’s mention – Thought Clothing and Gandys . And, to give credit where it’s due, two corporations at the opposite ends of the luxury barometer are beginning to change the way fashion is produced on the scale that Nieto is talking about: Kering , the French luxury-goods giant that owns 16 brands including Stella McCartney, Gucci and Alexander McQueen; and H&M with its Conscious Collection together with its Global Change Award . And, in fairness, LVMH, which owns Louis Vuitton, has partnered with a Belgian tannery, marrying sustainability with its quest for the best materials and shifting some of the culture of secrecy.

Making the Grade

While exploring sustainable fashion, I’ve worked with some progressive and innovative brands, speaking to buyers and retailers, and monitoring the shift of consumer behaviour. The subject has introduced me to companies such as Waremakers , representing independent producers of high quality goods and providing in-depth information about each  of their partners. Ironically, many of the European producers they work with use the same materials and manufacturing process as the big designer brands in France and Italy, but have a fraction of the mark-up.  

It’s a fact echoed in the cases of many Private Label British manufacturers who, not only supply premium High Street retailers but, produce their own superior collections. These will have a higher price tag than the top end retailers they supply, while coming in at a fraction of the price of those luxury ‘designer’ brands. In one case – a leather handbag manufacturer who supplies premium High Street retailers - they will use AA Grade leather for their own label, while using Grade A for the Private Label products. This enables the retailer to maximise margins and cut costs. The growing number of sub-brands within ‘luxury’ fashion houses will be cutting costs and catering to demand by downgrading their materials this way.

To cite Oscar Wilde, too many of us know the price of everything, but the value of nothing. Thankfully, transparency is now determining price tags much more than before and consumers will vote with their purses.  Economics of scale state that it’s the global companies who have the most capacity to foster systemic change, so let’s hope that ‘luxury’ leads the way.

Consumers care about the origin of their products. The Chinese — the largest nation of luxury consumers in the world — want their watches to be Swiss, their perfumes and cosmetics to be French, their cars to be German and their bags and shoes to be either Italian or French. As a fashionphile and avid supporter of the industry, I want the Fairy-tale as much as the next woman; I want my heritage British brand to have Britishness in its DNA and my Italian heels to be made in the country of amore . We expect the quality of a ‘luxury’ item to be truly magnificent . This is, after all, one of the meanings carried by the Latin word " luxus " and how we can justify the extravagant purchase. The other Latin interpretation is “excess”, which too has proven dismally accurate. Interestingly, the English meaning of ‘luxury’, in Elizabethan times, was “lust” or “lechery”. But that’s for another blog….

 

By Melissa Wheeler 01 Sep, 2017

I like nice things as much as the next gal’. More specifically, I‘ve been told have expensive taste (eeeek)! This is fine when the price-tag is attainable, but most often it’s a sartorial case of my eyes are bigger than my tummy. Said another way, I often can’t afford the stuff I ‘want’ and therefore ‘need’. Ladies – can you relate?

So, as a means of survival I’ve become adept at hunting for the perfect investment piece while avoiding the horror of rifling through Sale rails. Some women thrive on the buzz of the Sale rail; while others – including myself – would rather go without than see beautiful product tossed around like the reduced shelf at Waitrose. When it comes to savvy shopping, I get my dopamine hit from knowing that I’ve just found a unique, beautiful addition to my wardrobe and a timeless investment item. It’s a case of searching off-piste and knowing what quality and eternal style look like amid the abundance of trend-led tat’ (sometimes no other word will suffice!). To be able to decipher between a bargain purchase - in terms of original RRP and selling price - and a bargain investment in the long-term sense is a finely honed skill. A savvy style steal is only a ‘bargain’if the purchase promises longevity and staying power. In other words, if it’s not a whimsical, short-lived sugar-rush fix followed by a ‘why did I buy this?’ mental crash. We’re talking low-GI, sustainable shopping here. I remember one stunning black stretch bodycon dress I bought from Karen Millen a few years ago, just as Spring was springing and the LBD season was effectively over. It’s classic, classy, flattering and effortlessly chic and – at less than 50% it’s RRP – I knew I’d scored a shopping success which felt like a smug secret.

The location of my latest coup was Not on the High Street (NOTHS) – a retail mecca for expertly curated, premium product with personality, provenance and panache – and involved a high value purchase in terms of its problem-solving capability, practicality and effortless class.

Looking for something transitional to update my look in the dying days of Summer and the advent of Autumn - as the prospect of revisiting my autumn wardrobe gives me that annual frisson - I knew I’d scored when I found the Pimlico clutch from London designer Nadia Minkoff . In black and beige, 100% genuine leather, large enough to carry my essential clutter and featuring an intelligent interior design plus the signature tassel, it’s also sufficiently simple to deliver a clean, classy transition to September. Bearing in mind my wardrobe, it was a no-brainer to get my hands on this beauty, which was also reduced to £79 from £108 on the brand’s own site!

For Gin 'O' Clock at the Papermakers Arms - a swanky gastro pub in Sevenoaks, I decided to team it with my ever reliable failsafe Whistles smock dress from SS16, together with some black wedge sandals from Cara London . Planning a bank holiday weekend away, versatility would be key to choosing what to bring, so being able to also pair the clutch with an Aztec print stretch Lycra dress from Oui was very helpful for she who does not travel light. 

I love nothing better than sharing a shopping secret when I find one and, as such, my style muse mother is also now the proud owner of the Pimlico Clutch in cognac and beige which, is currently being acquainted with the South East coast and yachting life in West Mersea, Essex.

As shopping victories go, the Pimlico clutch on NOTHS scores big time. This cheeky purchase is a great example of spotting quality when you see it and compromising on absolutely nothing.

By Melissa Wheeler 09 Aug, 2017

How do you get a slice of a global industry valued at £23 trillion? From designers through to savvy entrepreneurs, it’s not only the charismatic appeal of the fashion industry that continues to draw people to make riches from rags. 

That London is widely recognised as the capital of fashion – valued at £28 billion – having produced the likes of Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood, and is also home to Savile Row no doubt helps the grassroots energy on our island. 

The 3 trillion dollar question is, of course, how do you design fashion that sells? What’s the formula for success? How do you produce a bestseller? How can you consistently make clothes that people want to buy? And how do you shape future trends? Surely there’s a formula for success; a common denominator? 

I was recently fortunate enough to listen to two highly respected and – more importantly – successful fashion designers at Pure London , one of the UK’s leading fashion trade shows. They each displayed a strong sense of individuality, firm conviction in their method and solid principles - while also following unorthodox routes to their success - no doubt key ingredients to bottling their respective brand’s DNA. 

Dr Pam Hogg , legendary fashion designer, DJ, rockstar and artist was a keynote speaker at the event, where her unorthodox approach and rule-breaking path to cult status – she designed for the Brit Awards in 2016 – was shared with crowds of students, buyers and fashion press hanging on her every word. 

Self-taught, unorthodox and famously hands-on, Hogg not only designed all her collections but made the majority of them too, while recruiting students to her studio. Initially wanting to be a painter, she harnessed challenges in dressmaking – fastenings, sleeves etc - in order to shape her designs, which emerged from free-hand sketches. Creativity doesn’t get much more hands-on than this! Given the scale of production and resources - no more than 10 units of each style were made in spite of demand - Pam’s brand retained kudos and prestige rarely seen in mass-produced fashion, her strategy of quality over quantity never compromising revenue. A fabulous raconteur, I was especially taken by a few chosen words she shared in her Expect the Unexpected delivery:

Make something new that customers didn’t know they want […] give the unexpected. […] How do we know what our customers want until we offer it to them?”

In her view, a successful fashion brand must “encourage customers to push boundaries, be excited and adventurous” . Indeed, she reiterated how fashion changes how we feel and can alter moods: fashion is “life-changing”.  

And, when it comes to one of the most saturated markets in the world, how do you retain identity and stand out from competitors? “ If you stay true to yourself the essence of your identity becomes apparent”, was the advice of the designer behind the trademark catsuit and one -leg-garter, seen on the likes of Rihanna and Kylie. 

After she left the stage, what continued to resonate with me was her bravery and fearlessness; her preparedness to be disliked before being adored: 

The greatest gift we have is our individuality. I cannot understand why anyone would want to look the same.” Sage advice in the design studio, as much as in life itself. 

Similarly refreshing was the contribution made by Henry Holland, who followed on the same platform the very next day. 

Preferring the title of creative director of House of Holland , rather than designer, the muse behind the slogan t-shirt studied journalism and worked at Bliss magazine, before finding fame in fashion. As he said himself, there’s no conventional path to success, “ the rule book was ripped up long ago ”. 

Following his 10th anniversary, a successful second collection with Habitat, and on the cusp of launching his own concept store in China, Holland is an ambassador for British fashion and is a product of Fashion East, a group that nurtures fledgling talent. Exploring topics such as the art of effective collaboration and the topical See Now/Buy culture, which he admitted is a “ challenge ”, it was Holland’s words on authenticity which really stayed with me. In a notoriously competitive market continually fending off saturation, his insights on challenging imitation and homogeneity were refreshing pearls of wisdom. 

“My journey has been based on authenticity”, said the somewhat accidental designer. His journey to critical acclaim on the shopfloor of stores such as Browns Focus and Matches began with irreverent printed t-shirts for his ‘fashion groupie’ friends (namely Gareth Pugh and Giles Deacon). “Continuity is important for a brand”, he said. “Don’t try to please everyone or copy – stay true to your DNA, USP and identity. […] Personality and tone are important. I always go to great lengths to preserve the playfulness in my brand and that translates to the product”.  

“Some traditional designers consider me an upstart, but I don’t waste energy tackling objectivity. The playful sense of humour and tone of voice is integral to my brand’s DNA”.  

How do you create a winning fashion brand with both individuality and commerciality? “Challenges are opportunities. The rule book has been ripped up. […] There’s no formulaic path or single route to market”.  

Addressing retailers, Holland’s advice was that “to engage the customer and really develop that shopping experience. It’s about theatre, environment and experience. There’s been a radical evolution in consumer behaviour […] there are a lot of unknowns out there right now and uncertainty affects how consumers behave”.  

Following these unorthodox viewpoints and unconventional routes to success, I was then amused by an article profiling Europe’s richest man, Amancio Ortega, founder of Inditex (the fashion empire behind high street brands such as Zara , Pull & Bear, Massimo Dutti and Bershka). The humble octogenarian is estimated to be worth £63.2 billion. As business profiles go, the article was noteworthy not only for the founder’s signature low profile but also for the fact that Ortega made his billions from the rag trade.

So, in answer to the initial question ‘How to be a fashion designer’, his approach remains the same as when he set out his principles in 1975. Today, J P Morgan considers Inditex a “ structural winner ” due to its combined store and online services, its “ pull model ” — the way it draws ideas from customers — and its “ nimble supply chain ”. 

Why was I amused? Because while an icon such as Dr Pam Hogg, who clearly knows a thing or two about designing clothes, advises delivering the unexpected – “ How do we know what our customers want until we offer it to them?”  - the founder of Inditex set out with the simple aim of asking women what they wanted and then making clothes based on their requests. Inditex asks shoppers what they want and then designs products accordingly. 

As Holland says, the rule book has indeed been ripped up. And long may the route to fashion success remain gloriously random, unpredictable and subversive.  

By Melissa Wheeler 25 Jun, 2017

The Shift in Gear

Fast food; Slow food. Fast fashion; Slow fashion. It can be hard to stay in sync with the pace of life. High gear has been substituted with high standards, with the speed of production proving to be a major signifier of consumer attitudes, values and behaviour. There is no question that this shift in gear from fast to slow reflects a new age in conscious consumerism, in stark contrast to our ever growing demand for instant gratification. Nowhere is this more apparent than in fashion, where the philosophy of ‘buy less, buy better’ has acquired a popular kudos; a far cry from the elitist sub-set to which ethical choices have previously been confined. We've accepted the prioritisation of Wellbeing in our lifestyle choices - you only need consider active-wear with its green juice accessory - , so it's only natural that other sectors follow. Fashion has always had activism in its DNA, so it was only a matter of time before the industry made steps towards coming clean, especially following the Rana Plaza disaster and similar events. We want Slow Fashion. And we want it Fast. 

And, for the socially self-conscious cynics out there – unsure whether embracing virtuous options might compromise their cool-rankings or, heaven-forbid, their Instagram followers – get this: that High priests of hedonism Liam Gallagher and Harry Styles – and popular icons from two culturally powerful generations – profess to ‘being good’, we know that good has become cool. The 1D heartthrob recently told BBC Radio 2 that “I don’t drink much”, while the Mancunian music legend – following his session at Glastonbury this year – told Jo Whiley that “I’m taking care of myself nowadays […] and I’m feeling good”. 

Anyway, back to fashion. The fastest growing conscious consumer sector, which grew by 72% in 2010, ethical fashion only continues to pick up pace. “A fabulous beautifully made jacket is not going to disappear out of fashion next year” , says the premium British designer Amanda Wakely. Meanwhile, Safia Minney MBE, founder of People Tree , a far more accessible clothing brand, and a leading campaigner on changing trade policies, is also the author of ‘Slow Fashion: Aesthetics meets Ethics’, now considered a bible for the Slow Fashion movement.

The Fashion Revolution

If fashion buyers were to ask for tip-offs on SS18 trends, they may well be surprised. “Sustainability or responsible innovation is by far the biggest trend in the industry right now,” says Eva Kruse, chief executive of Global Fashion Agenda, which organises the Copenhagen Fashion Summit.It was Sir Martin Sorrell who coined the phrase “doing good is good business” back in 2010, a prophetic statement from a man who understands the consumer.That London ethical based brand Gandys – founded by the Forkan brothers under their ‘Orphans for Orphans’ initiative - recently launched its first womenswear collection, to sit alongside menswear and its signature flip flops, is also revealing.

All of this will be good news for stockists of Braintree Clothing – recently rebranded to Thought Clothing , The Drapers Independents Award-winning sustainable fashion brand Braintree’s founded by CEO John Snare.

“Our new name is built on our celebrated ‘thoughtful clothing’ message and we feel gives us a fresh confidence while reflecting our philosophy about ethics and sustainability”.

The new name builds on Braintree’s existing strapline, “thoughtful clothing”, and is designed to better communicate the brand’s ethical values, which it does.

“In recent years we’ve really evolved our collections and we believe a new name will allow us to edge further into the contemporary fashion space and build on what we have already established.”

It also coincides with the brand’s move upmarket. Over the past 18 months, Braintree has been repositioning with the aim of sitting alongside more contemporary brands such as Toast and Mint Velvet, another indication of the shift of ethical fashion from niche to mainstream.

Total ethical spending in the UK is now worth £54 billion (2017) and represents around 7% of all UK consumer spending, which is more than we spend on cigarettes and alcohol, combined. The value of overall ethical sales grew by 8 %to £38 billion in 2015, during a period when inflation barely rose above 0.5 %, according to the new Ethical Consumer Markets report.

Sustainable Style

Looking at fashion specifically is fascinating. The industry, which contributed £28 billion to the UK economy in 2016 – a figure predicted to rise to £32 billion by 2020 – is one to watch. Even if this figure is only vaguely accurate, given current Brexit uncertainty and Westminster shenanigans, the British Fashion Council’s positive stance is crucial. Throughout 2017 the British Fashion Council has been celebrating Positive Fashion best practice, creating a dialogue and providing a platform to tell good news stories that help facilitate change. Oh yes, Pantone colour of 2018 will surely be a shade of green.

The militant ethical activism of figures such as Vivienne Westwood and Zandra Rhodes has filtered down to the ever-demanding Gen Z, now buying into H&M’s ‘Conscious Collection’ , albeit sometimes unwittingly, which arguably is just the point. As a language and mindset, sustainability is one in which the next generation is becoming fluent.

For a long time, the conscious consumer has felt frustrated by the lack of choice on the high street thwarting their efforts to buy fewer, but better clothes. ‘Why must ethical, affordable and fashion be mutually exclusive?’ seems to sum up the widespread grievance. The raw reality for well-intentioned retailers is this: shoppers buy on design and style first. Sustainable fashion needed to catch up and the demand needed to be there.

Now it seems that the needs of the conscious fashion-set are being met. There are signs that people are buying less but buying better – Mintel found this was true for 69% of women aged 25-44 – but even so, saving up for a piece from, say, Stella McCartney – however beautiful and ethically-made – is beyond the budgets of most people, which is why the democratisation of ethical fashion is such a fabulous thing.

The Green Generation 

Of the large online fashion retailers, ASOS has demonstrated some great leadership. Partnering with SOKO Kenya to produce the ASOS Made in Kenya collection , and maintaining the partnership since 2010, is pretty ground-breaking for a major retailer.

So, who among us is buying into the ethical market in terms of demographic? Well, apparently it’s the Millennials and a good fistful of folks either side.

A report on the shopping habits of Millennials says 70% indicate a willingness to spend more with brands that support ethical causes or operate using business models that align and resonate with their own values. In his book Who Cares Wins: Why Good Business is Better Business , David Jones, former advertising CEO for Havas and founder of non-profit One Young World, argues that the Millennial demographic "the most socially responsible generation that ever existed" and dubs this influential, marketing savvy set as "pro-sumers".

What I find especially interesting here is two things. Firstly, how going green has gone mainstream and cloaked itself in coolness. It’s quite likely that a blazer or dress that catches your eye in store, for its on-trend appeal, will be made from organic cotton, hemp or recycled leather using a zero-waste design. Moreover, the organic, ethical fair-trade whimsical purchase you make is less likely to be a shapeless, over-sized tunic dress (the standard a few years ago) or hand-dyed t-shirt than it is an off-the-shoulder blouse or tailored blazer. This has certainly been the case for contemporary womenswear brand Skunkfunk , family owned and designed in Bilbao and distributed to UK retailers by Love Brands Ltd . Their collections, 50% ethically sourced and 100% directional fashion, bring technical outerwear and innovative fabrics to womenswear, even involving regional artists to design original prints. Besides tracing their supply chain back to the source, this GTOS certified Fairtrade fashion brand uses a unique pattern cutting processing which aims for Zero Waste. The fashion fascist no longer needs to compromise on aesthetics to be virtuous.

But the real point here really is that we want to do this. We want to be ‘good’. Being ‘good’ has become something of a status symbol. Importantly, it’s also become an affordable desire to satisfy. We no longer need to drive a Prius or own a Canada Goose parka. What we are seeing here is a far cry from the cynical greenwashing of fuel companies. It’s an authentic and commercial decision made by retailers who are responding to consumer demand. How exciting is that?

This leads me to the second striking detail. Not only has ethical become affordable but the availability, supply and choice is fuelling the increased demand. Keith Weed, Unilever’s chief marketing officer, says: “Our research shows that 54% of consumers are on the tipping point of purchasing sustainably. There is a huge economic opportunity for businesses that are able to build brands with real purpose which consumers care about”. It’s a point reiterated from the marketing perspective too, as Kevin Chesters, chief strategy officer at Ogilvy & Mather London says that ethical retail is “driven more by the purse strings than the heart strings. The shift has definitely come from consumers demanding more transparency and more responsibility from retailers”.

Of course, pace is only one quality of the ethical movement, which has shed its hippy status, been endorsed by celebrities ranging from Leonardo di Caprio to Emma Watson and is now manifesting itself in directional fashion. There was a time when only the premium brands were singing this tune, but now we’re all humming along and conscious clothing has become very catchy. Given time, it may just become a No1.

By Melissa Wheeler 01 Jun, 2017

Ever since the ‘boyfriend jean’ and the ‘boyfriend blazer’ entered fashion’s lexicon, menswear has been flexing its muscles. Right Said Fred should really re-release their 80’s triumph. If it’s not the soaring sales of traditional menswear retailers such as Moss Bros (like-for-like sales for Q2 up by 5.5%), the increased profile of London Collections Men (LCM) or the fact that  GQ  covers have rarely featured more tailoring and less torso (insert optional sad face emoji), then it’s gender neutral collections. which are revolutionising the industry’s traditional female bias.

To top it all, last year saw the coronation of menswear within the industry’s royal court - a man at the helm of  British Vogue . Edward Enninful, a 45-year-old Ghanaian-born  “super stylist”  will take the fashion bible’s throne in August which, while unrelated to menswear’s growth, is somewhat fitting with the growth of menswear.

London remains the home of menswear - from the bowler-hatted civil servant, spiky-haired punk in bondage trousers and dandy in his blazer, boater and spats, to the pinstriped stockbroker and today’s Mods. It always has been and always will be. The tailored suit was born and bred in Savile Row, a street that remains the envy of designers, brand custodians and retailers the world over. As  Dylan Jones, editor of  GQ  says:  “London continues to confirm its place as the home of menswear, a hub of creativity showing the very best designers to a global audience. The menswear market showing in London incorporates not only internationally acclaimed brands but also luxury tailoring and emerging talent” . Today, London is home to a whole host of young, energetic designers and also some of the biggest menswear brands in the world, including Paul Smith , Alexander McQueen , Ted Baker and Burberry .

Following the advent of LCM in 2012 and the £40 million the event brings to the capital, London now sits firmly at the top of the pecking order of fashion capitals and this is something which all buyers and brands should draw upon.

Retailers have gotten wise to a growing demand for menswear, having identified a gap in a market set to grow by 30% to £15bn by 2021.

One of the advantages for retailers is that men, while often buying less than women in terms of volume, are typically less price-resistant and will repeat buy the pair perfect of trousers (or a t-shirt in seven different colours, as I have seen myself), thus offering retailers a high degree of loyalty and a customer worth courting.

According the Verdict Retail, the UK value clothing market will grow by £3.2 billion by 2021, equating to 23.6 % growth on 2016, with menswear expected to  “spearhead”  the growth and outperform womenswear.

Michael Shalders, co-founder of fashion distribution agency Love Brands Ltd , whose business strategy is very opportunity-driven, says:  “All the market indicators show that menswear sector growth will outperform womenswear in the next 5 years. We’ve spoken to several industry figures who suggest this will be the case and then there’s the market research which backs this up “. For Love Brands Ltd, which has traditionally represented womenswear, menswear will be an entirely new project.

Verdict Retail’s UK Value Clothing Market 2016-2021 report reveals that menswear will be the main driver, outpacing womenswear with its forecast growth of 29.2 % by 2021. They state that male interest in fashion and personal appearance has increased and retailers have starting to respond to male consumers’ growing demands. To the soundtrack of Carly Simon’s  ‘You’re so vain’  , designers and retailers have had to up their game after years of neglecting ‘Him’ in favour of ‘Her’. Indeed, our Bond-esque style icon Tom Hiddleston even says that Ilaria Urbinati (his stylist), is  “one of the best things ever to happen to me” . Imagine!

Studying the high street's evolution is fundamental for retailers. At last year’s Drapers Fashion Forum , delegates learned from New Look menswear director Christopher Englinde that tapping into modern tribes and having a clear brand message are key factors in accessing the booming menswear market, which is set to reach almost £15bn by 2021 - a growth of 30%. Englinde described how the tastes of the evolving male consumer is based in  “modern tribes”  that fashion companies and retailers can tap into.

“In 1998, if you wanted to target men, you could start a suit company and that would be it,”  said Englinde.  “Today you have to look into the market a little bit more. There is far more potential than just suits - millennials want to be unique, but they still want to belong to a group or ‘tribe’ that share their values.”

Kate Ormrod, senior analyst at Verdict Retail, said:  “Over the past decade, menswear has taken a back seat as value retailers have been focusing on enhancing womenswear offers. However, as male interest in fashion and personal appearance builds, retailers are starting to respond to male consumers’ growing demands for more choice, style, and newness.[....] The likes of H&M and New Look have an opportunity to make significant share gains, but they must drive destination appeal and loyalty among shoppers.”

So, what do male customers want? What’s driving these preening peacocks? We know that shopping in itself is not the attraction, so it’s down the clothes. As buyers prepare to open their order books, they might reflect on the words of the talent that was Alexander McQueen:

“Menswear is about subtlety. It’s about good style and good taste”.

By Melissa Wheeler 08 May, 2017

It’s a recognised truth that trying to please too many people is rarely a good strategy. This applies to retail as much as it does to life.

Many household names in the fashion industry – brands such as Jaeger, M&S and even the high street totem Next, whose total sales at Next dipped by 2.5% for the 13 weeks to 29 April 2017 - have suffered partly as a result of neglecting their core customer. By trying to widen the appeal of their brand, often courting the younger customer, they alienated their most loyal shoppers, who naturally shopped elsewhere. Those customers who do continue to shop with them feel confused, often compelled to wear ‘inappropriate’ styles and hemlines to remain ‘in fashion’. Sartorial ‘dad dancing’, if you like.

So, who is this customer? Well, she happens to be a woman with more disposable income than her younger sisters. The over 50’s segment of the UK population is one of the fastest growing customer groups in the retail market. Cash cows for fashion retailers - omitting the unfortunate colloquial connotations. Women in this category are increasingly shopping online, where competition is famously fierce. Women over 40 years are equally precious customers; far more likely to invest in quality items than they are throwaway fashion. The trade-off here, from the retailer’s position, is that they can be demanding and must have their needs met. They need to feel understood.

These women need somewhere to find fashionable, inspiring and ‘interesting’ clothes. “They want a warm, uplifting and inspiring shopping environment […] to see their lifestyle reflected in the merchandising right down to the hangers” , says Michael Shalders, co-founder of Love Brands Ltd , an agency that distributes the chic, understated Italian knitwear brand Stefanel , a favourite with the 38 – 60s. “John Lewis has this customer nailed, they changed with times”, he adds. This customer neither wants a hemline much above the knee, nor a transient trend. She wants sleeves, subtlety, timeless style and quality. Make this woman feel and look fabulous and she’ll be putty in your hands, in a retail sense. What the modern middle-aged woman does not want is to walk into her favourite go-to fashion store (note the possessive pronoun) and be confronted with sub-brands pitched at the younger customer, nor trends suggesting she wishes to ‘get down wiv’ da’ kidz’ from Primark and New Look. Neither will she appreciate frumpy, unimaginative designs implying she’s had her day; that she should be sartorially put out to pasture.

I’ve witnessed this evolution myself, while working in my mother’s boutique several years ago. A customer, whose daughter was getting married, exemplified this perfectly with her plea: “I don’t want to look like a Mother of the Bride” . James Lakeland , of the eponymous womenswear brand popular with the 35 + woman, has told me that the frequent request he hears is: “I don't want to be frumpy […] I do want some coverage on my arms [and] I want to look effortless, feel great and look younger”.  

He adds, “This is the most challenging and complex market […] women who grew up with Wham, Boy George and the original Supermodels are now getting ready to go to the weddings of their sons and daughters and they don't want the matching dress, coat and co-ordinated shoes and bags”. As Michael Shalders also explains, “that customer still exists; she just doesn’t want to dress as her mother did when she was 45”.  

So, what went wrong for these iconic British brands?

Synonymous with understated confidence, Jaeger formed part of the British fashion Establishment with a clear identity of producing effortless, good quality collections, as summed up by the tagline “We don’t sell clothes, we dress women”.

Essentially, it was the definitive brand for the modern middle aged woman. The go-to brand for the demographic often referenced as the ‘silver shopper’, but which in truth begins at 40 years and extends to 70. It’s the one demographic that retail analysts say is well-equipped for sustained spending. Only a fool – or an age fascist - would neglect them.

In an attempt to attract a younger shopper, the introduction of sub-brands merely alienated this customer and, when former chief executive Colin Henry left Jaeger in September 2015, it was suggested that it was in part because he disagreed with this change in strategy. Fortunately, we’ve just learned that Harold Tillman, the former owner of Jaeger, believes the brand “can become a world leader again”.

Similarly, when Marks and Spencer boss Steve Rowe said he was determined to revive the High Street giant, by getting back in touch with their core female customer – rather patronisingly labelled "Mrs M&S" -, he was talking about a “loyal” customer in her 50s who shops with them around 18 times a year.

According to Mr Rowe this apparently married woman wants "stylish contemporary clothing". He adds: "We need to cherish and celebrate her and make sure we're giving her exactly what she needs at the right time", not try to dress her in a skater skirt. Indeed, Next’s drop in sales has been attributed to styles which were too ‘racy’ and insufficient core items such as blouses.

These are by no means the only retailers to be erroneously seduced by the sirens of youth and ‘trends’, but their ignominious fall from grace provides a blunt education in branding and knowing your customer.

It’s a cruel example of How to Lose Sales and Alienate your Customer, which many other brands would be wise to take note of.

By Melissa Wheeler 24 Apr, 2017

It’s a recognised truth that trying to please too many people is rarely a good strategy. This applies to retail as much as it does to life. Alongside soaring inflation, Brexit uncertainty and changing consumer habits, this appears to have been the case for one of Britain’s most cherished luxury fashion houses, who has stolen the headlines these past few weeks, for all the wrong reasons.

On the 11th April, it was disclosed that Jaeger, the fashion retailer whose clothes were once worn by stars including Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn, had collapsed into administration, placing nearly 700 jobs at risk.

Directors at the 133-year-old chain confirmed that AlixPartners had been appointed as administrator after its owner, Better Capital, failed to sell the business.  Peter Saville, Ryan Grant, and Catherine Williamson of AlixPartners were appointed joint administrators and the industry watched in horror as this sad story unfolded.

By 18th April, Jaeger had announced the closure of 20 stores and 209 redundancies across its head office, distribution centre and store network, just one week after having fallen into administration.

The closures are said to affect 165 members of staff, who will be paid for the duration of the process. As for the head office, there have been 32 redundancies, and 12 job losses have been incurred at the retailer’s distribution centre.

About 680 staff in 46 shops and 63 concessions as well as Jaeger’s head office and logistics centre are also said to have lost their jobs.

Retailers of this scale and calibre don’t collapse very often, but when the first fractures begin to appear, they tend to crumble and fall fast. As Warren Buffet has famously said , “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it”. In this sad British story, it took 133 years versus 1 week.

So, what went wrong for the iconic British brand?

Known for its classic British styles and for a distinguished history, dating as far back as supplying clothing for Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition, Jaeger enjoyed an eminent status in the industry. Synonymous with understated confidence, the brand formed part of the British fashion Establishment with a clear identity of producing effortless, good quality collections and aspirational style, as summed up by the tagline “We don’t sell clothes, we dress women”.

As we know too well, brand identity and strategy are the bed rock of any brand, and when a business reacts to competition and change by compromising that identity and those values, the foundations begin to shake.

Glen Tooke, consumer insight director at Kantar Worldpanel, said Jaeger had “struggled for years to truly understand its core clientele” trying to appeal to younger shoppers when women over 45 accounted for a fifth of its sales. He said discounting accounted for three quarters of sales. This discouraged shoppers from paying the full price and lessened their trust in Jaeger’s quality. Even a name as eminent as Jaeger was not immune to the discounting drug. Another source described the fashion house as “well and truly broken” while a supplier, despite being directly affected by Jaeger’s demise, confessed that “It was a brand I grew up with, my grandmother just loved it […] I feel very ‘connected’ to it, so I feel I have personally lost something and it saddens me”.

Brand Identity

Agreed, these are tough times for all retailers. It's no picnic out there. “The ingredients are coming together for a very consumer-unfriendly environment over the course of this year,” has said Martin Beck of Oxford Economics.

Retail sales were down 1.8% in March across the board and estimated at a 1.1% drop for the quarter, largely blamed on inflation and flat wage growth. So, why – and importantly how - are brands such as Ted Baker and JD Sports managing to report such impressive figures?

By the 28th January, Ted Baker sales had soared 16.4% in constant currency to £531m, as profits before tax were up 4.4% to £61.3m. Retail sales were up 15% year on year to £400.7m with sales across UK and Europe increasing 10.7%. Online sales were up 35.1%. As many have noted, Ted Baker has identified precisely who its customer is and invests all its energy and attention in pleasing them and them alone.

Meanwhile, JD Sports Fashion posted another record year as profits before tax soared 81% year on year to £238.4m, largely attributed to the popularity of its core product, sports fashion, otherwise known as ‘athleisure’.

The sad reality is that Jaeger seemed to lose its focus, trying to be too many things to too many customer groups. Known in its heyday as the place to buy smart, well-designed and well-made product – with a few more directional pieces dotted in each collection – the handwriting of the brand became diluted and faintly unrecognisable. Surely, one of the pillars of any brand is to be recognisable by design and silhouette? Indeed, as former director Shailina Parti of Jaeger, who worked at the brand for over 25 years, has said:

“Jaeger understood the importance of a logo well ahead of most luxury brands, developing its “straw” lettering in 1935. There was a point when this unique label appealed internationally and I would say even to this day many would aspire to own a Jaeger coat”.

This is very true. Critically, although Jaeger still has a following from customers looking for classic, high-quality clothing, that group has become much smaller and competition in the market has clearly caused it to lose its way and question its identity.

In an attempt to attract a younger shopper, the introduction of sub-brands merely alienated the core customer and, when former chief executive Colin Henry left Jaeger in September 2015, it was suggested that it was in part because he disagreed with this change in strategy.

With this identity crisis in freefall, the confidence to sell in the best locations, from Selfridges – where it was the first retailer ever to have space in the store in 1930 – to its iconic store on Regent Street, was no longer sustainable. Although Jaeger did work on its store fit – highlighted by the Marylebone shop opening last October – relaunch its website last July and attempt to improve its product selection, unfortunately, it seems it was too little, too late. Without huge investment, Jaeger was always going to struggle to regain its position in the market. It’s a cruel example of How to Lose Sales and Alienate your Customer, which many other brands would be wise to take note of.

The Precariousness of the Private Label

Much has been said and screeds more will be written on the wounded employees and redundant head office personnel and distributors. This tragic tale leaves many victims in its wake. The high-risk nature of retailing will never change, but there are many voices suggesting that the supplier-retailer system must.

Jaeger suppliers stand to lose significant sums of money and many have called for a change in the law.

One supplier, who did not wish to be named, said: “It is all very predictable. It’s time someone started looking at the rules and regulations that allow this to happen. The owner didn’t have the appetite to invest the money required and didn’t engage with the industry to take any advice.” Another source added, “It’s so upsetting”.

So, how does the supplier system work?

I spoke to one private label supplier, who explained that “financially, from the minute I delivered the goods to the warehouse, until I got paid, the risk was always mine”. This is why those suppliers – often, small, independent British businesses, - are left so vulnerable. Having fallen into administration, the retailer thus has no obligation to pay them for their merchandise and this – alarmingly - is standard practice. As a supplier, it’s possible to take out ‘payment protection’ from various brokers, but it’s a costly policy and one which small, independent manufacturers are unlikely to be able to afford. As my source reflected, “I guess that in real terms it would have cost me more to have insured every delivery we made to them, in comparison to what we have lost”.

The resultant impact is a precarious cash flow situation, whereby the maker still has to pay for all the manufacturing/shipping/ testing/delivery, whilst not getting paid, which is why situations like this will always unfortunately end in bankruptcies. For many of Britain’s domestic manufacturers – the sector we should be nurturing, supporting and promoting ahead of Brexit - if they have too much owing by any one customer, who proceeds to crash, they can easily find their business to be insolvent.

There is always the chance that these suppliers may have their claims met by the administrators but in the meantime, what we have is a British fashion story that is at once terribly sad and pertinent, speaking to an industry that must review the way the system works.

As the industry mourns yet another British fashion stalwart, we take a harsh lesson on the importance of brand identity and pleasing your core customer. Equally, the collateral that comes from Jaeger’s demise marks a tragic tale, which calls for a systemic review of supplier-retailer relations if we are to prevent similar scenarios.

In the words of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, a very different retailer, “your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room”. Ultimately, it would seem the public no longer knew quite what Jaeger stood for. Let’s hope that this changes.

 

 

By Melissa Wheeler 08 Apr, 2017

One semantic stretch too far? You’d be surprised at how retail reality reflects emerging memes.

More specifically, are we spending more on the way we live rather than the way we might want to live? It’s a case in point as far as consumer spending in the fashion sector is concerned. Yes, it seems that we’ve finally hit on the value of experience rather than ‘stuff’ and, naturally, the market has found a way in which to monetise this.

As the Debenhams Chairman Sir Ian Cheshire said at the World Retail Congress in Dubai earlier this month, “the next generation is behaving differently, spending differently and interacting differently,” he said. “To them it is experience, not stuff that matters”.

A prime example of this is pattern ‘athleisure’, a term first used in 1976 in an advert for trainers. Over the past 7 years, the sector has grown by over 42% and is now estimated to be worth over £7 billion to the UK market. Suzanne Calvert, Debenhams trading director said at last year’s Drapers Fashion Forum “ Athleisure is a trend which is not going away ”, citing that the retailer’s sales of trainers were up 15% in the womenswear department.

As a society, the winner here is wellbeing and our willingness to invest in it. I’ve written before about fashion’s direct relation to feelings – it isn’t just about frocks - and nowhere is this more apparent than the unstoppable march of athleisure. Just as we resort to checking our Instagram feed to boost our dopamine levels, so too do are we rediscovering the mood-altering impact of feeling good and looking good simultaneously. “This idea of being healthy and sporty and fit has become the new sexy,” says Bernadette Kissane, apparel and footwear analyst at Euromonitor. From beauty-enhancing supplements to the rapid growth of athleisure, there has never been a better time for fashion companies to tap into the health and wellness sector.

Let’s take ASOS as example, who revealed that its sales soared by 37% year on year to £911.5m in the six months to 28 February. George Mensah, an analyst at Shore Capital, had predicted 18% sales growth in Britain, where he said Asos had continued “to build up its presence in the activewear market” . The pureplay etailer, who will produce its own activewear label later this year, launched an activewear collection in January, featuring brands including Nike, Adidas, Puma and Reebok, alongside the sportswear collections of some better known womenswear brands such as Ted Baker, New Look, Free People and Missguided.

As women, what we are seeing is the direct correlation between feeling good and feminism. Yes, there’s a strong argument that ‘Girl Power’ has fuelled what is now estimated to be an $1.7trn global industry, neatly coinciding with a sharp increase in the number of women participating in sport, rather than just looking the part.

From Nike’s Better for It through to Sport England’s phenomenal success with the This Girl Can campaign, the internal dialogue of athleisure is very much one of female empowerment. The semiotics of the category contains more than a few threads of a feisty feminism. Who would have thought supermodels such as Gigi would become kick boxing pin ups and that office-to-gym wear would enter our daily lexicon?

There’s no question that flattering fitness clothing incentivises the prospect of a heady HiiT session and the ability to extend this feel-good factor by (sometimes smugly) wearing our gym gear to the shops afterwards is an added bonus. Activewear (which encompasses leggings) has become the new denim – an essential for any self-respecting womenswear retailer. Indeed, 15 years ago passengers might have been barred from boarding a First Class flights on account of their jeans, which evolved into jeggings, which, morphed into, yes, leggings. Activewear is clearly a trend with legs and we are seeing feminism take some sartorial strides forward as a result.

There’s an implication here – echoed by the protests concerning compulsory heels in the workplace – that women are making a stand, substituting self-consciousness and objectification with self-investment and self-improvement. This is borne out by sales figures in lifestyle purchases. PWC has modelled the growth of the premium lifestyle sector at 6.6% between 2014 and 2020 and – in respect of technical performance wear - many athleisure brands sit in this category. It follows that at a time of biting inflation with soaring living costs, our attention is most likely to focus on frequent benefits rather than occasional ones.  

While many brands not commonly associated with sports clothing are now cashing in on athleisure, some of those first off the starting blocks continue to hold their ground on these new upstarts.The off-duty look sported by supermodels from Karlie Kloss to Gigi Hadid - as they casually run errands in the city with a green juice in hand – has boosted the appeal and relevance of the sector’s pioneers, such as ELLESPORT and Sweaty Betty , whose names both allude to their heroines. Confirming their girl power ethos is the latter’s mission statement: “to inspire women to find empowerment through fitness” and ELLESPORT will always be synonymous with ELLE, one of the world’s highest selling women’s fashion magazines. Neither is footwear missing out on the action, with Fit Flops branching out into trainers fit for fashion.

Tamara and Simon Hill-Norton launched the Sweaty Betty brand in 1998. During the early years their customers were American expats in Notting Hill and the first wave of affluent yoga fanatics. Ten years later, the business burst into the mainstream on the back of a surge in people seeking active lifestyles, and a raft of shops opened across the country.

“It was around 2012 and the London Olympics that this way of dressing progressed beyond the yoga studio became a new way of dressing in the UK,” said Mr Hill-Norton. “Since early 2015 activewear has definitely moved from the studio to the street, and if the US is anything to go by, we are only at the very beginning of a big change in the way women dress”.

A fashion distributor who is always on the lookout for the ‘next big thing’ is Love Brands Ltd, UK distributors of ELLESPORT and Drapers Award Winner 2015.

Love Brands Co-founder Michael Shalders confirms the seamless adjacency that activewear now has with mainstream fashion: “The brand has enormous credibility as a forerunner in a very relevant sector which is enjoying a ‘moment’. It gives retailers an entry into that sector while blending fluently with womenswear collections and seems to deliver that niche and specialism which buyers are looking for.”  

This fashion marks a shift away from objectification towards feminine functionality. You know a fashion category has earned its place in our wardrobe when it pushes boundaries. Just as loungewear saw the onesie reach mainstream, so too do we have athleisure brands embracing the jumpsuit.   Onepiece UK , a brand built around the art of slacking, conceptualised the carefree Sunday-style with what must be the natural evolution of activewear. Producing re-engineered jumpsuits, the entry of the onesie into athleisure is surely the sartorial license to lounge and what better sisterly statement is that? As the brand says itself, ‘comfort brings confidence’ and no woman knows this better than she who’s hiked home in a pair of 6 inch heels.

By Melissa Wheeler 03 Apr, 2017

There are many factors which determine a brand or retailer’s rate of sales or success as business and one of those often overlooked is brand identity. Many retailers, and designers, will recall those moments of puzzlement at the failure of a beautifully made, high quality item to capture the interest of consumers over and above a vastly inferior product.

“I just can’t understand why it didn’t sell?” is a common lament from designers and retailers when faced with an abundance of end-of-season stock.

Although it’s natural to believe that the design and manufacturing of the product or collection is of utmost importance, young designers and new businesses must place as much, if not more, emphasis on developing the right brand values and strategy for their company from the very beginning.

45% of a brand’s image can be attributed to what it says and how it says it (Content Marketing Institute)

In fashion, as in other creative industries, people tend to think you just need a great idea. Sadly, for those immensely proud of their product and inspired by their idea, this isn’t the case. In order to sell, you need a brand story. Too many businesses focus on the what rather the why . Brands need to give customers a reason to believe what they are doing, especially in such a saturated market as the fashion industry. If your brand doesn’t have story, a rival brand will.

Developing a brand story, plus the core values, positioning, takes time. This is the case even if a designer or businessperson is clear about where their gap in the market lies and how the product will look. If there’s one thing which small business owners and new designers are often short of it is time. Running a small business can involve a spider’s web of time-sapping procedures from PAYE, Business Rates, Tax Returns, HR, Accounts through to myriad crippling red-tape processes. Furthermore, creating effective and targeted marketing editorial is very difficult to do oneself. On so many occasions, after producing a client’s home page, brochure editorial or magazine interview, they have said to me: “Wow. Is that me? I could never have captured the essence of the business like that”. It’s very hard to take an objective view of your business and convey that in such a way as to capture the interest of your target customer.

I advise my clients to ask themselves the why before starting on developing a strong identity platform. Condensing your core values and the reason for doing what you do can be the crucial factor in determining your point of difference from competitors. Sum up what you do in a few words. When sales are slow or competitors unsettle your confidence, those words and core values will serve as a branding buoyancy aid. Equipped with that knowledge and understanding, I am able to bottle your brand with words which resonate with your customer and convey the intangible. This is what shapes your brand identity.

Consistency is key

In the social media age, it’s essential to have a presence on platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and twitter, besides a solid website and intelligent LinkedIn profile. And, as the content marketing world knows all too well, consistency is the key to establishing strong, long-term relationships with a customer base.

It’s notoriously hard to build a brand on a budget. Investment is essential, which is why so many start-ups and small businesses fail within the first 3 years. While 91% of start-ups service one year of trading, this figures falls to 4 in 10 after 5 years, according the www.smallbusiness.co.uk , and this is rarely due to poor product.

Dedication, passion, perseverance, trust in your instinct and the ability to take knock-backs are the qualities that are mentioned again and again when you ask what it takes to launch a successful brand. Only with those ingredients will a brand grow both organically and with a sense of authenticity and 80% of consumers said “authenticity of content” is the most influential factor in their decision to become a follower of a brand.

What small businesses do not need and what few can afford is an agency or full service marketing group to foster their image. Furthermore, many businesses may have a single project that needs achieving rather than a long-term service. As a freelance writer, I can tailor a package to suit your needs and take delight in using words to build a brand.

If any of the above resonates with you or stokes your interest, please do Like this post, comment to contact me and/or share this with any entrepreneur who might want to get in touch.

 

 

 

 

 

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Melissa's Musings....

By Melissa Wheeler 03 Nov, 2017

Red is the new black  

From a style point of view, it’s rather fitting that the colour red happens to be ‘The’ colour for AW17, confirming one of my favourite quotes from Audrey Hepburn - “there is a shade of red for every woman” – and adding a stylish edge to the abundance of Remembrance poppies this month. There's absolutely nothing wrong with a display of charitable commemoration being ‘au courant’ sartorially. 

Red is alarming, uncompromising, empowering and fierce. As a society, we’re hard wired to it since it taps into our primal, passionate impulses. It’s the colour of the blood of Christ and also the Devil, with a cocktail of connotations consisting of fireworks, adrenaline, love hearts and red roses. The impact of Margaret Atwood’s haunting Handmaid's Tale has formed the wallpaper of popular TV culture this year, with red dresses and white bonnets even headlining Vera Wang’s fashion shoot in Vogue. 

Red shouts. Revolutions are ignited by it, the camera loves it, Tibetan Buddhist landscapes are peppered by flags the colour of blood red robes. The matt scarlet ‘Givenchy Red’ seen on the AW17 catwalks reminds us that this colour is dangerous, subversive and fiercely feminine all at once, while Julia Roberts’ Pretty Woman red dress confirms why every woman should own a red dress. Simply put, everything is better in red and it’s a God given right that every woman should wear in what makes her feel wonderful. 

There is a shade of red for every woman  

The colour of Buddhism and Communism, Jezebels and a harlot's knickers, when we ‘rouge’ our lips we are embracing our womanhood and making a statement [“I’m gonna’ rouge my knees and pull my stockings down” à la Liza Minelli]. “Let’s paint the town red [….]”. I defy anyone to not feel brighter, more confident and stronger when donning this traffic stopping colour. Bold and yet empowering, it’s even been proven that athletes who compete in red are more likely to win! 

That red is also the colour of the iconic Remembrance poppy lends itself kindly to the thread of activism and identity at the heart of fashion’s raison d’être. The symbol of remembrance and hope, the poppy was first given prominence in Lt. Col. John McCrae’s famous ‘Flanders Fields’ poem – lines from which are featured inside poppies this year - , and then by American Academic Moina Belle Michael. It was Michael who committed to always wearing a poppy in 1918 and who, in 1921, began creating silk poppies to sell to raise money for veterans, wounded soldiers and their families. That they were initially made of silk – one of the most sublime and sentient of natural, luxury fabrics – is a fact which has really struck me this year, with silk emerging as part of our mainstream movement towards New Luxury. Fashion will always have activism in its DNA and self-expression woven into its very fabric and its capacity to make a statement through what we wear is one of its greatest gifts. Following on from Michael’s initiative, the poppy flower has been represented in numerous end products using different fabric and materials since 1921, which have also equally been summarily sold to raise money for the needs of the serving and surviving British Armed Forces members and their families. I do not agree with the grievance – made by some - that a fashionable interpretation of the poppy is to the detriment of its sobering significance. From the Jeans for Genes campaign through to Fashion Targets Breast Cancer clothing, the fashion industry remains one of our greatest social influencers and this season’s lusty affair with red is a gift to Remembrance and its iconic red poppy. 

Rather, the only problem I might have with the iconic Poppy tradition is that it conjures a collective remembrance, with the risk of the individual becoming lost in the constituent mass of lives lost. One of life’s most precious qualities is our identity, our individuality, having our name remembered when we enter a shop, club or pub or having our preferences or idiosyncrasies recalled. Our identity is everything and fashion is a tool with which we can express this. This is why the homogenous fast-fashion, prescriptive trend-obeying mindset is a travesty for individuality and personal growth while employing our clothing and accessories to express ourselves is hugely liberating. And fun! Yes, identity and individuality is freedom. Fashion has no rules. Fashion is freedom. Fashion is mood-enhancing. A flash of this uncompromising hue is equally impactful – as Christian Louboutin knows better than most. I know myself that when I step into my red stilettos, throw my ‘Red Riding Hood’ red coat over my shoulders or apply some femme fatale red lipstick, I’m owning myself, affirming my identity and making no compromises. It feels bold and brilliant and shamelessly indulgent. 

“To me, clothing is a form of self-expression; there are hints about who you are in what you wear” – Marc Jacobs  

The right to personal identity is recognised in international law through a range of declarations and conventions. From as early as birth, an individual’s identity is formed and preserved by registration or being bestowed with a name. 

To have an identity; to express-oneself freely and to be valued as an individual are values which sustain our self-esteem and give meaning to our sense of self. These are fundamental human rights in a free society, which those soldiers fought for in the fields of Flanders. Few sectors of culture can support the protection of identity better than fashion and independent designers will always have the edge in responsiveness, flexibility and individuality. 

This occurred to me other day when I discovered the most beautiful story, reminding me why fashion matters and why cultivating our identity is at the very heart of this. 

In support of the irreplaceable work done by the Royal British Legion charity, an independent London designer donated a luxury ‘Poppy’ handbag (worth £888), designed and produced specifically for the cause, to a Royal British Legion branch in Bristol. Eyato London , a brand founded on the principles of distinction, individuality and self-expression, launched a small sub-collection dedicated to Remembrance, called the Ronti collection, a percentage of sales of which will be donated to the Poppy Appeal. Named after phonetic pronunciation of the Yoruba word for 'remember’, the luxury collection is designed by Atiti Izogie around the iconic symbol of hope and liberty represented by the poppy. 

Handmade in London using luxury soft leather and designed to encompass the design of a three petal poppy, this Ronti handbag is bold, beautiful, and distinct and will be auctioned off at the Bristol Poppy Ball on the 18th November. From the handmade leather slip-on mules with detachable poppies on the vamp to the shamelessly indulgent evening clutch, the entire edit is a tribute to fashion’s ability to express, remember and be fun. The London designer says, “This collection is all about remembering, acknowledging and cherishing those individuals, just as we respect individuality every day. As a designer, I have always wanted to produce a design around those three petals”. Aside from the symbolism of the red poppy this month, this cheerfully luxurious capsule collection reminds us that fashion is fun, free and rule-defying. 

No soldier should be remembered as a nameless collective, and each of us can use our wardrobe as a toolbox for self-expression, selecting what we want to say. Identity, independence and freedom are what each of those soldiers fought for on the fields and what their memory deserves. Identity is our most valuable possession and, together with freedom, will always be at the heart of fashion. Protect it. Wear it. Wear it with pride. 

The full Ronti collection will be available www.eyato.com from Monday the 13th of November 2017.

 

By Melissa Wheeler 25 Sep, 2017

Unless you’re a cave-dwelling ascetic or a self-denying Spartan, chances are you like nice things. Most of us appreciate quality when we experience it and know how to identify it on a rail. The price tag is usually a giveaway and few of us expect luxury without having to give something in return. But our preparedness to cough up cash is balanced by expectation too. A high price tag is (should be) justified by true magnificence, which few of us can afford. We pay with the assumption that we know what we’re buying and where it was made. This explains why some of us (those who can) shell out four figure sums of money for a pair of stilettos or a handbag, with the premise that the price tag is justified by solid brand values, heritage, skilled craftspeople and superior materials. We like to imagine that an Italian luxury accessories brand or a British ‘heritage’ brand will each be ‘made in’ their respective homelands.

But luxury brands are all over the place when it comes to disclosing where their products are made. All recognise the potential advantages of full disclosure but few — even those boasting a manufacturing heritage — exploit it. The majority go for partial disclosure.

Earlier this year, The Guardian  exposed Louis Vuitton for producing the majority of its shoes in Romania, not Italy (according to EU law, if shoes are “finished” in France or Italy, the company can still qualify for the sought-after ‘made in’ tags). Further, most of the world’s leading designer luxury brands rank poorly in Fashion Revolution’s 2017 Fashion Transparency Index . In the 2017 report , all of the "luxury" brands score less than 30 out of a possible 100, and the majority achieve a dismal rating of less than 10.

As I recently commented in Why Slow Fashion is picking the pace , more and more fashion consumers are demanding transparency - in materials, production location/social impact, and even profit margins. They’re willing to pay high prices for high-quality items, especially if they have an understanding of the history and impact of the product they’re purchasing. We like a story. It’s a shift, to a purchase being driven less by brand and more by information.

What’s in my Wardrobe?

Echoing the #whomademyclothes social-media backlash to the Rana Plaza disaster, what do we really know about the history of those items in our wardrobe? Is there a dark story confusing price, perception and product lurking in our closet? If we pay 10, 20 or even a hundred times more than an item cost to produce, does the price tag correlate with the magnificent , luxury ‘story’?

According to marketing professor, and luxury industry specialist, Vincent Bastien , it doesn't matter if the products are actually made in China or Transylvania. As long as the image of " heritage, country and craftsmanship " is continuously reaffirmed and nurtured, the prices can stay high. " The more [the product] is perceived by the client to be a luxury, the higher the price should be ."

That price bears almost no relation to manufacturing costs and that fashion remains the 2nd largest polluter globally, after oil, really doesn’t have much hanger appeal. It's the result of very deliberate effort, says Dana Thomas , author of the bestselling book 'Deluxe: How Luxury Lost its Lustre' . She’s in no two minds about what drives the industry :

"[Their] sole motivating factor is profits. The designers can dream up beautiful designs, but the number crunchers will cut costs wherever they can to raise the profit margin." How else to fund those prestigious flagship stores and indulgent advertising campaigns?

Scaling up Sustainability

A direct relationship with cotton farmers, supporting Mongolian goatherds – it’s all well and good, but conscious consumerism needs to be commercial. An industry founded upon consumption needs to cut its cloth carefully. Diana Verde Nieto of Positive Luxury , an online trust-mark scheme that rewards fashion houses and jewellers making a positive impact on society and the environment says “the objective of sustainability in fashion is not just creating a lot niche brands”. “If sustainability is to take root, it must be adopted by corporations and embedded into their very structures”.

As consumer behaviour shifts from excess to ‘Buy Less; Buy Better’, many brands are successfully bridging the gulf between image and value. It’s certainly the case with several high street retailers now embracing sustainability as part of their business model. To namecheck a couple that are completely transparent in production, sharing all manufacturing and production details, let’s mention – Thought Clothing and Gandys . And, to give credit where it’s due, two corporations at the opposite ends of the luxury barometer are beginning to change the way fashion is produced on the scale that Nieto is talking about: Kering , the French luxury-goods giant that owns 16 brands including Stella McCartney, Gucci and Alexander McQueen; and H&M with its Conscious Collection together with its Global Change Award . And, in fairness, LVMH, which owns Louis Vuitton, has partnered with a Belgian tannery, marrying sustainability with its quest for the best materials and shifting some of the culture of secrecy.

Making the Grade

While exploring sustainable fashion, I’ve worked with some progressive and innovative brands, speaking to buyers and retailers, and monitoring the shift of consumer behaviour. The subject has introduced me to companies such as Waremakers , representing independent producers of high quality goods and providing in-depth information about each  of their partners. Ironically, many of the European producers they work with use the same materials and manufacturing process as the big designer brands in France and Italy, but have a fraction of the mark-up.  

It’s a fact echoed in the cases of many Private Label British manufacturers who, not only supply premium High Street retailers but, produce their own superior collections. These will have a higher price tag than the top end retailers they supply, while coming in at a fraction of the price of those luxury ‘designer’ brands. In one case – a leather handbag manufacturer who supplies premium High Street retailers - they will use AA Grade leather for their own label, while using Grade A for the Private Label products. This enables the retailer to maximise margins and cut costs. The growing number of sub-brands within ‘luxury’ fashion houses will be cutting costs and catering to demand by downgrading their materials this way.

To cite Oscar Wilde, too many of us know the price of everything, but the value of nothing. Thankfully, transparency is now determining price tags much more than before and consumers will vote with their purses.  Economics of scale state that it’s the global companies who have the most capacity to foster systemic change, so let’s hope that ‘luxury’ leads the way.

Consumers care about the origin of their products. The Chinese — the largest nation of luxury consumers in the world — want their watches to be Swiss, their perfumes and cosmetics to be French, their cars to be German and their bags and shoes to be either Italian or French. As a fashionphile and avid supporter of the industry, I want the Fairy-tale as much as the next woman; I want my heritage British brand to have Britishness in its DNA and my Italian heels to be made in the country of amore . We expect the quality of a ‘luxury’ item to be truly magnificent . This is, after all, one of the meanings carried by the Latin word " luxus " and how we can justify the extravagant purchase. The other Latin interpretation is “excess”, which too has proven dismally accurate. Interestingly, the English meaning of ‘luxury’, in Elizabethan times, was “lust” or “lechery”. But that’s for another blog….

 

By Melissa Wheeler 01 Sep, 2017

I like nice things as much as the next gal’. More specifically, I‘ve been told have expensive taste (eeeek)! This is fine when the price-tag is attainable, but most often it’s a sartorial case of my eyes are bigger than my tummy. Said another way, I often can’t afford the stuff I ‘want’ and therefore ‘need’. Ladies – can you relate?

So, as a means of survival I’ve become adept at hunting for the perfect investment piece while avoiding the horror of rifling through Sale rails. Some women thrive on the buzz of the Sale rail; while others – including myself – would rather go without than see beautiful product tossed around like the reduced shelf at Waitrose. When it comes to savvy shopping, I get my dopamine hit from knowing that I’ve just found a unique, beautiful addition to my wardrobe and a timeless investment item. It’s a case of searching off-piste and knowing what quality and eternal style look like amid the abundance of trend-led tat’ (sometimes no other word will suffice!). To be able to decipher between a bargain purchase - in terms of original RRP and selling price - and a bargain investment in the long-term sense is a finely honed skill. A savvy style steal is only a ‘bargain’if the purchase promises longevity and staying power. In other words, if it’s not a whimsical, short-lived sugar-rush fix followed by a ‘why did I buy this?’ mental crash. We’re talking low-GI, sustainable shopping here. I remember one stunning black stretch bodycon dress I bought from Karen Millen a few years ago, just as Spring was springing and the LBD season was effectively over. It’s classic, classy, flattering and effortlessly chic and – at less than 50% it’s RRP – I knew I’d scored a shopping success which felt like a smug secret.

The location of my latest coup was Not on the High Street (NOTHS) – a retail mecca for expertly curated, premium product with personality, provenance and panache – and involved a high value purchase in terms of its problem-solving capability, practicality and effortless class.

Looking for something transitional to update my look in the dying days of Summer and the advent of Autumn - as the prospect of revisiting my autumn wardrobe gives me that annual frisson - I knew I’d scored when I found the Pimlico clutch from London designer Nadia Minkoff . In black and beige, 100% genuine leather, large enough to carry my essential clutter and featuring an intelligent interior design plus the signature tassel, it’s also sufficiently simple to deliver a clean, classy transition to September. Bearing in mind my wardrobe, it was a no-brainer to get my hands on this beauty, which was also reduced to £79 from £108 on the brand’s own site!

For Gin 'O' Clock at the Papermakers Arms - a swanky gastro pub in Sevenoaks, I decided to team it with my ever reliable failsafe Whistles smock dress from SS16, together with some black wedge sandals from Cara London . Planning a bank holiday weekend away, versatility would be key to choosing what to bring, so being able to also pair the clutch with an Aztec print stretch Lycra dress from Oui was very helpful for she who does not travel light. 

I love nothing better than sharing a shopping secret when I find one and, as such, my style muse mother is also now the proud owner of the Pimlico Clutch in cognac and beige which, is currently being acquainted with the South East coast and yachting life in West Mersea, Essex.

As shopping victories go, the Pimlico clutch on NOTHS scores big time. This cheeky purchase is a great example of spotting quality when you see it and compromising on absolutely nothing.

By Melissa Wheeler 09 Aug, 2017

How do you get a slice of a global industry valued at £23 trillion? From designers through to savvy entrepreneurs, it’s not only the charismatic appeal of the fashion industry that continues to draw people to make riches from rags. 

That London is widely recognised as the capital of fashion – valued at £28 billion – having produced the likes of Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood, and is also home to Savile Row no doubt helps the grassroots energy on our island. 

The 3 trillion dollar question is, of course, how do you design fashion that sells? What’s the formula for success? How do you produce a bestseller? How can you consistently make clothes that people want to buy? And how do you shape future trends? Surely there’s a formula for success; a common denominator? 

I was recently fortunate enough to listen to two highly respected and – more importantly – successful fashion designers at Pure London , one of the UK’s leading fashion trade shows. They each displayed a strong sense of individuality, firm conviction in their method and solid principles - while also following unorthodox routes to their success - no doubt key ingredients to bottling their respective brand’s DNA. 

Dr Pam Hogg , legendary fashion designer, DJ, rockstar and artist was a keynote speaker at the event, where her unorthodox approach and rule-breaking path to cult status – she designed for the Brit Awards in 2016 – was shared with crowds of students, buyers and fashion press hanging on her every word. 

Self-taught, unorthodox and famously hands-on, Hogg not only designed all her collections but made the majority of them too, while recruiting students to her studio. Initially wanting to be a painter, she harnessed challenges in dressmaking – fastenings, sleeves etc - in order to shape her designs, which emerged from free-hand sketches. Creativity doesn’t get much more hands-on than this! Given the scale of production and resources - no more than 10 units of each style were made in spite of demand - Pam’s brand retained kudos and prestige rarely seen in mass-produced fashion, her strategy of quality over quantity never compromising revenue. A fabulous raconteur, I was especially taken by a few chosen words she shared in her Expect the Unexpected delivery:

Make something new that customers didn’t know they want […] give the unexpected. […] How do we know what our customers want until we offer it to them?”

In her view, a successful fashion brand must “encourage customers to push boundaries, be excited and adventurous” . Indeed, she reiterated how fashion changes how we feel and can alter moods: fashion is “life-changing”.  

And, when it comes to one of the most saturated markets in the world, how do you retain identity and stand out from competitors? “ If you stay true to yourself the essence of your identity becomes apparent”, was the advice of the designer behind the trademark catsuit and one -leg-garter, seen on the likes of Rihanna and Kylie. 

After she left the stage, what continued to resonate with me was her bravery and fearlessness; her preparedness to be disliked before being adored: 

The greatest gift we have is our individuality. I cannot understand why anyone would want to look the same.” Sage advice in the design studio, as much as in life itself. 

Similarly refreshing was the contribution made by Henry Holland, who followed on the same platform the very next day. 

Preferring the title of creative director of House of Holland , rather than designer, the muse behind the slogan t-shirt studied journalism and worked at Bliss magazine, before finding fame in fashion. As he said himself, there’s no conventional path to success, “ the rule book was ripped up long ago ”. 

Following his 10th anniversary, a successful second collection with Habitat, and on the cusp of launching his own concept store in China, Holland is an ambassador for British fashion and is a product of Fashion East, a group that nurtures fledgling talent. Exploring topics such as the art of effective collaboration and the topical See Now/Buy culture, which he admitted is a “ challenge ”, it was Holland’s words on authenticity which really stayed with me. In a notoriously competitive market continually fending off saturation, his insights on challenging imitation and homogeneity were refreshing pearls of wisdom. 

“My journey has been based on authenticity”, said the somewhat accidental designer. His journey to critical acclaim on the shopfloor of stores such as Browns Focus and Matches began with irreverent printed t-shirts for his ‘fashion groupie’ friends (namely Gareth Pugh and Giles Deacon). “Continuity is important for a brand”, he said. “Don’t try to please everyone or copy – stay true to your DNA, USP and identity. […] Personality and tone are important. I always go to great lengths to preserve the playfulness in my brand and that translates to the product”.  

“Some traditional designers consider me an upstart, but I don’t waste energy tackling objectivity. The playful sense of humour and tone of voice is integral to my brand’s DNA”.  

How do you create a winning fashion brand with both individuality and commerciality? “Challenges are opportunities. The rule book has been ripped up. […] There’s no formulaic path or single route to market”.  

Addressing retailers, Holland’s advice was that “to engage the customer and really develop that shopping experience. It’s about theatre, environment and experience. There’s been a radical evolution in consumer behaviour […] there are a lot of unknowns out there right now and uncertainty affects how consumers behave”.  

Following these unorthodox viewpoints and unconventional routes to success, I was then amused by an article profiling Europe’s richest man, Amancio Ortega, founder of Inditex (the fashion empire behind high street brands such as Zara , Pull & Bear, Massimo Dutti and Bershka). The humble octogenarian is estimated to be worth £63.2 billion. As business profiles go, the article was noteworthy not only for the founder’s signature low profile but also for the fact that Ortega made his billions from the rag trade.

So, in answer to the initial question ‘How to be a fashion designer’, his approach remains the same as when he set out his principles in 1975. Today, J P Morgan considers Inditex a “ structural winner ” due to its combined store and online services, its “ pull model ” — the way it draws ideas from customers — and its “ nimble supply chain ”. 

Why was I amused? Because while an icon such as Dr Pam Hogg, who clearly knows a thing or two about designing clothes, advises delivering the unexpected – “ How do we know what our customers want until we offer it to them?”  - the founder of Inditex set out with the simple aim of asking women what they wanted and then making clothes based on their requests. Inditex asks shoppers what they want and then designs products accordingly. 

As Holland says, the rule book has indeed been ripped up. And long may the route to fashion success remain gloriously random, unpredictable and subversive.  

By Melissa Wheeler 25 Jun, 2017

The Shift in Gear

Fast food; Slow food. Fast fashion; Slow fashion. It can be hard to stay in sync with the pace of life. High gear has been substituted with high standards, with the speed of production proving to be a major signifier of consumer attitudes, values and behaviour. There is no question that this shift in gear from fast to slow reflects a new age in conscious consumerism, in stark contrast to our ever growing demand for instant gratification. Nowhere is this more apparent than in fashion, where the philosophy of ‘buy less, buy better’ has acquired a popular kudos; a far cry from the elitist sub-set to which ethical choices have previously been confined. We've accepted the prioritisation of Wellbeing in our lifestyle choices - you only need consider active-wear with its green juice accessory - , so it's only natural that other sectors follow. Fashion has always had activism in its DNA, so it was only a matter of time before the industry made steps towards coming clean, especially following the Rana Plaza disaster and similar events. We want Slow Fashion. And we want it Fast. 

And, for the socially self-conscious cynics out there – unsure whether embracing virtuous options might compromise their cool-rankings or, heaven-forbid, their Instagram followers – get this: that High priests of hedonism Liam Gallagher and Harry Styles – and popular icons from two culturally powerful generations – profess to ‘being good’, we know that good has become cool. The 1D heartthrob recently told BBC Radio 2 that “I don’t drink much”, while the Mancunian music legend – following his session at Glastonbury this year – told Jo Whiley that “I’m taking care of myself nowadays […] and I’m feeling good”. 

Anyway, back to fashion. The fastest growing conscious consumer sector, which grew by 72% in 2010, ethical fashion only continues to pick up pace. “A fabulous beautifully made jacket is not going to disappear out of fashion next year” , says the premium British designer Amanda Wakely. Meanwhile, Safia Minney MBE, founder of People Tree , a far more accessible clothing brand, and a leading campaigner on changing trade policies, is also the author of ‘Slow Fashion: Aesthetics meets Ethics’, now considered a bible for the Slow Fashion movement.

The Fashion Revolution

If fashion buyers were to ask for tip-offs on SS18 trends, they may well be surprised. “Sustainability or responsible innovation is by far the biggest trend in the industry right now,” says Eva Kruse, chief executive of Global Fashion Agenda, which organises the Copenhagen Fashion Summit.It was Sir Martin Sorrell who coined the phrase “doing good is good business” back in 2010, a prophetic statement from a man who understands the consumer.That London ethical based brand Gandys – founded by the Forkan brothers under their ‘Orphans for Orphans’ initiative - recently launched its first womenswear collection, to sit alongside menswear and its signature flip flops, is also revealing.

All of this will be good news for stockists of Braintree Clothing – recently rebranded to Thought Clothing , The Drapers Independents Award-winning sustainable fashion brand Braintree’s founded by CEO John Snare.

“Our new name is built on our celebrated ‘thoughtful clothing’ message and we feel gives us a fresh confidence while reflecting our philosophy about ethics and sustainability”.

The new name builds on Braintree’s existing strapline, “thoughtful clothing”, and is designed to better communicate the brand’s ethical values, which it does.

“In recent years we’ve really evolved our collections and we believe a new name will allow us to edge further into the contemporary fashion space and build on what we have already established.”

It also coincides with the brand’s move upmarket. Over the past 18 months, Braintree has been repositioning with the aim of sitting alongside more contemporary brands such as Toast and Mint Velvet, another indication of the shift of ethical fashion from niche to mainstream.

Total ethical spending in the UK is now worth £54 billion (2017) and represents around 7% of all UK consumer spending, which is more than we spend on cigarettes and alcohol, combined. The value of overall ethical sales grew by 8 %to £38 billion in 2015, during a period when inflation barely rose above 0.5 %, according to the new Ethical Consumer Markets report.

Sustainable Style

Looking at fashion specifically is fascinating. The industry, which contributed £28 billion to the UK economy in 2016 – a figure predicted to rise to £32 billion by 2020 – is one to watch. Even if this figure is only vaguely accurate, given current Brexit uncertainty and Westminster shenanigans, the British Fashion Council’s positive stance is crucial. Throughout 2017 the British Fashion Council has been celebrating Positive Fashion best practice, creating a dialogue and providing a platform to tell good news stories that help facilitate change. Oh yes, Pantone colour of 2018 will surely be a shade of green.

The militant ethical activism of figures such as Vivienne Westwood and Zandra Rhodes has filtered down to the ever-demanding Gen Z, now buying into H&M’s ‘Conscious Collection’ , albeit sometimes unwittingly, which arguably is just the point. As a language and mindset, sustainability is one in which the next generation is becoming fluent.

For a long time, the conscious consumer has felt frustrated by the lack of choice on the high street thwarting their efforts to buy fewer, but better clothes. ‘Why must ethical, affordable and fashion be mutually exclusive?’ seems to sum up the widespread grievance. The raw reality for well-intentioned retailers is this: shoppers buy on design and style first. Sustainable fashion needed to catch up and the demand needed to be there.

Now it seems that the needs of the conscious fashion-set are being met. There are signs that people are buying less but buying better – Mintel found this was true for 69% of women aged 25-44 – but even so, saving up for a piece from, say, Stella McCartney – however beautiful and ethically-made – is beyond the budgets of most people, which is why the democratisation of ethical fashion is such a fabulous thing.

The Green Generation 

Of the large online fashion retailers, ASOS has demonstrated some great leadership. Partnering with SOKO Kenya to produce the ASOS Made in Kenya collection , and maintaining the partnership since 2010, is pretty ground-breaking for a major retailer.

So, who among us is buying into the ethical market in terms of demographic? Well, apparently it’s the Millennials and a good fistful of folks either side.

A report on the shopping habits of Millennials says 70% indicate a willingness to spend more with brands that support ethical causes or operate using business models that align and resonate with their own values. In his book Who Cares Wins: Why Good Business is Better Business , David Jones, former advertising CEO for Havas and founder of non-profit One Young World, argues that the Millennial demographic "the most socially responsible generation that ever existed" and dubs this influential, marketing savvy set as "pro-sumers".

What I find especially interesting here is two things. Firstly, how going green has gone mainstream and cloaked itself in coolness. It’s quite likely that a blazer or dress that catches your eye in store, for its on-trend appeal, will be made from organic cotton, hemp or recycled leather using a zero-waste design. Moreover, the organic, ethical fair-trade whimsical purchase you make is less likely to be a shapeless, over-sized tunic dress (the standard a few years ago) or hand-dyed t-shirt than it is an off-the-shoulder blouse or tailored blazer. This has certainly been the case for contemporary womenswear brand Skunkfunk , family owned and designed in Bilbao and distributed to UK retailers by Love Brands Ltd . Their collections, 50% ethically sourced and 100% directional fashion, bring technical outerwear and innovative fabrics to womenswear, even involving regional artists to design original prints. Besides tracing their supply chain back to the source, this GTOS certified Fairtrade fashion brand uses a unique pattern cutting processing which aims for Zero Waste. The fashion fascist no longer needs to compromise on aesthetics to be virtuous.

But the real point here really is that we want to do this. We want to be ‘good’. Being ‘good’ has become something of a status symbol. Importantly, it’s also become an affordable desire to satisfy. We no longer need to drive a Prius or own a Canada Goose parka. What we are seeing here is a far cry from the cynical greenwashing of fuel companies. It’s an authentic and commercial decision made by retailers who are responding to consumer demand. How exciting is that?

This leads me to the second striking detail. Not only has ethical become affordable but the availability, supply and choice is fuelling the increased demand. Keith Weed, Unilever’s chief marketing officer, says: “Our research shows that 54% of consumers are on the tipping point of purchasing sustainably. There is a huge economic opportunity for businesses that are able to build brands with real purpose which consumers care about”. It’s a point reiterated from the marketing perspective too, as Kevin Chesters, chief strategy officer at Ogilvy & Mather London says that ethical retail is “driven more by the purse strings than the heart strings. The shift has definitely come from consumers demanding more transparency and more responsibility from retailers”.

Of course, pace is only one quality of the ethical movement, which has shed its hippy status, been endorsed by celebrities ranging from Leonardo di Caprio to Emma Watson and is now manifesting itself in directional fashion. There was a time when only the premium brands were singing this tune, but now we’re all humming along and conscious clothing has become very catchy. Given time, it may just become a No1.

By Melissa Wheeler 01 Jun, 2017

Ever since the ‘boyfriend jean’ and the ‘boyfriend blazer’ entered fashion’s lexicon, menswear has been flexing its muscles. Right Said Fred should really re-release their 80’s triumph. If it’s not the soaring sales of traditional menswear retailers such as Moss Bros (like-for-like sales for Q2 up by 5.5%), the increased profile of London Collections Men (LCM) or the fact that  GQ  covers have rarely featured more tailoring and less torso (insert optional sad face emoji), then it’s gender neutral collections. which are revolutionising the industry’s traditional female bias.

To top it all, last year saw the coronation of menswear within the industry’s royal court - a man at the helm of  British Vogue . Edward Enninful, a 45-year-old Ghanaian-born  “super stylist”  will take the fashion bible’s throne in August which, while unrelated to menswear’s growth, is somewhat fitting with the growth of menswear.

London remains the home of menswear - from the bowler-hatted civil servant, spiky-haired punk in bondage trousers and dandy in his blazer, boater and spats, to the pinstriped stockbroker and today’s Mods. It always has been and always will be. The tailored suit was born and bred in Savile Row, a street that remains the envy of designers, brand custodians and retailers the world over. As  Dylan Jones, editor of  GQ  says:  “London continues to confirm its place as the home of menswear, a hub of creativity showing the very best designers to a global audience. The menswear market showing in London incorporates not only internationally acclaimed brands but also luxury tailoring and emerging talent” . Today, London is home to a whole host of young, energetic designers and also some of the biggest menswear brands in the world, including Paul Smith , Alexander McQueen , Ted Baker and Burberry .

Following the advent of LCM in 2012 and the £40 million the event brings to the capital, London now sits firmly at the top of the pecking order of fashion capitals and this is something which all buyers and brands should draw upon.

Retailers have gotten wise to a growing demand for menswear, having identified a gap in a market set to grow by 30% to £15bn by 2021.

One of the advantages for retailers is that men, while often buying less than women in terms of volume, are typically less price-resistant and will repeat buy the pair perfect of trousers (or a t-shirt in seven different colours, as I have seen myself), thus offering retailers a high degree of loyalty and a customer worth courting.

According the Verdict Retail, the UK value clothing market will grow by £3.2 billion by 2021, equating to 23.6 % growth on 2016, with menswear expected to  “spearhead”  the growth and outperform womenswear.

Michael Shalders, co-founder of fashion distribution agency Love Brands Ltd , whose business strategy is very opportunity-driven, says:  “All the market indicators show that menswear sector growth will outperform womenswear in the next 5 years. We’ve spoken to several industry figures who suggest this will be the case and then there’s the market research which backs this up “. For Love Brands Ltd, which has traditionally represented womenswear, menswear will be an entirely new project.

Verdict Retail’s UK Value Clothing Market 2016-2021 report reveals that menswear will be the main driver, outpacing womenswear with its forecast growth of 29.2 % by 2021. They state that male interest in fashion and personal appearance has increased and retailers have starting to respond to male consumers’ growing demands. To the soundtrack of Carly Simon’s  ‘You’re so vain’  , designers and retailers have had to up their game after years of neglecting ‘Him’ in favour of ‘Her’. Indeed, our Bond-esque style icon Tom Hiddleston even says that Ilaria Urbinati (his stylist), is  “one of the best things ever to happen to me” . Imagine!

Studying the high street's evolution is fundamental for retailers. At last year’s Drapers Fashion Forum , delegates learned from New Look menswear director Christopher Englinde that tapping into modern tribes and having a clear brand message are key factors in accessing the booming menswear market, which is set to reach almost £15bn by 2021 - a growth of 30%. Englinde described how the tastes of the evolving male consumer is based in  “modern tribes”  that fashion companies and retailers can tap into.

“In 1998, if you wanted to target men, you could start a suit company and that would be it,”  said Englinde.  “Today you have to look into the market a little bit more. There is far more potential than just suits - millennials want to be unique, but they still want to belong to a group or ‘tribe’ that share their values.”

Kate Ormrod, senior analyst at Verdict Retail, said:  “Over the past decade, menswear has taken a back seat as value retailers have been focusing on enhancing womenswear offers. However, as male interest in fashion and personal appearance builds, retailers are starting to respond to male consumers’ growing demands for more choice, style, and newness.[....] The likes of H&M and New Look have an opportunity to make significant share gains, but they must drive destination appeal and loyalty among shoppers.”

So, what do male customers want? What’s driving these preening peacocks? We know that shopping in itself is not the attraction, so it’s down the clothes. As buyers prepare to open their order books, they might reflect on the words of the talent that was Alexander McQueen:

“Menswear is about subtlety. It’s about good style and good taste”.

By Melissa Wheeler 08 May, 2017

It’s a recognised truth that trying to please too many people is rarely a good strategy. This applies to retail as much as it does to life.

Many household names in the fashion industry – brands such as Jaeger, M&S and even the high street totem Next, whose total sales at Next dipped by 2.5% for the 13 weeks to 29 April 2017 - have suffered partly as a result of neglecting their core customer. By trying to widen the appeal of their brand, often courting the younger customer, they alienated their most loyal shoppers, who naturally shopped elsewhere. Those customers who do continue to shop with them feel confused, often compelled to wear ‘inappropriate’ styles and hemlines to remain ‘in fashion’. Sartorial ‘dad dancing’, if you like.

So, who is this customer? Well, she happens to be a woman with more disposable income than her younger sisters. The over 50’s segment of the UK population is one of the fastest growing customer groups in the retail market. Cash cows for fashion retailers - omitting the unfortunate colloquial connotations. Women in this category are increasingly shopping online, where competition is famously fierce. Women over 40 years are equally precious customers; far more likely to invest in quality items than they are throwaway fashion. The trade-off here, from the retailer’s position, is that they can be demanding and must have their needs met. They need to feel understood.

These women need somewhere to find fashionable, inspiring and ‘interesting’ clothes. “They want a warm, uplifting and inspiring shopping environment […] to see their lifestyle reflected in the merchandising right down to the hangers” , says Michael Shalders, co-founder of Love Brands Ltd , an agency that distributes the chic, understated Italian knitwear brand Stefanel , a favourite with the 38 – 60s. “John Lewis has this customer nailed, they changed with times”, he adds. This customer neither wants a hemline much above the knee, nor a transient trend. She wants sleeves, subtlety, timeless style and quality. Make this woman feel and look fabulous and she’ll be putty in your hands, in a retail sense. What the modern middle-aged woman does not want is to walk into her favourite go-to fashion store (note the possessive pronoun) and be confronted with sub-brands pitched at the younger customer, nor trends suggesting she wishes to ‘get down wiv’ da’ kidz’ from Primark and New Look. Neither will she appreciate frumpy, unimaginative designs implying she’s had her day; that she should be sartorially put out to pasture.

I’ve witnessed this evolution myself, while working in my mother’s boutique several years ago. A customer, whose daughter was getting married, exemplified this perfectly with her plea: “I don’t want to look like a Mother of the Bride” . James Lakeland , of the eponymous womenswear brand popular with the 35 + woman, has told me that the frequent request he hears is: “I don't want to be frumpy […] I do want some coverage on my arms [and] I want to look effortless, feel great and look younger”.  

He adds, “This is the most challenging and complex market […] women who grew up with Wham, Boy George and the original Supermodels are now getting ready to go to the weddings of their sons and daughters and they don't want the matching dress, coat and co-ordinated shoes and bags”. As Michael Shalders also explains, “that customer still exists; she just doesn’t want to dress as her mother did when she was 45”.  

So, what went wrong for these iconic British brands?

Synonymous with understated confidence, Jaeger formed part of the British fashion Establishment with a clear identity of producing effortless, good quality collections, as summed up by the tagline “We don’t sell clothes, we dress women”.

Essentially, it was the definitive brand for the modern middle aged woman. The go-to brand for the demographic often referenced as the ‘silver shopper’, but which in truth begins at 40 years and extends to 70. It’s the one demographic that retail analysts say is well-equipped for sustained spending. Only a fool – or an age fascist - would neglect them.

In an attempt to attract a younger shopper, the introduction of sub-brands merely alienated this customer and, when former chief executive Colin Henry left Jaeger in September 2015, it was suggested that it was in part because he disagreed with this change in strategy. Fortunately, we’ve just learned that Harold Tillman, the former owner of Jaeger, believes the brand “can become a world leader again”.

Similarly, when Marks and Spencer boss Steve Rowe said he was determined to revive the High Street giant, by getting back in touch with their core female customer – rather patronisingly labelled "Mrs M&S" -, he was talking about a “loyal” customer in her 50s who shops with them around 18 times a year.

According to Mr Rowe this apparently married woman wants "stylish contemporary clothing". He adds: "We need to cherish and celebrate her and make sure we're giving her exactly what she needs at the right time", not try to dress her in a skater skirt. Indeed, Next’s drop in sales has been attributed to styles which were too ‘racy’ and insufficient core items such as blouses.

These are by no means the only retailers to be erroneously seduced by the sirens of youth and ‘trends’, but their ignominious fall from grace provides a blunt education in branding and knowing your customer.

It’s a cruel example of How to Lose Sales and Alienate your Customer, which many other brands would be wise to take note of.

By Melissa Wheeler 24 Apr, 2017

It’s a recognised truth that trying to please too many people is rarely a good strategy. This applies to retail as much as it does to life. Alongside soaring inflation, Brexit uncertainty and changing consumer habits, this appears to have been the case for one of Britain’s most cherished luxury fashion houses, who has stolen the headlines these past few weeks, for all the wrong reasons.

On the 11th April, it was disclosed that Jaeger, the fashion retailer whose clothes were once worn by stars including Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn, had collapsed into administration, placing nearly 700 jobs at risk.

Directors at the 133-year-old chain confirmed that AlixPartners had been appointed as administrator after its owner, Better Capital, failed to sell the business.  Peter Saville, Ryan Grant, and Catherine Williamson of AlixPartners were appointed joint administrators and the industry watched in horror as this sad story unfolded.

By 18th April, Jaeger had announced the closure of 20 stores and 209 redundancies across its head office, distribution centre and store network, just one week after having fallen into administration.

The closures are said to affect 165 members of staff, who will be paid for the duration of the process. As for the head office, there have been 32 redundancies, and 12 job losses have been incurred at the retailer’s distribution centre.

About 680 staff in 46 shops and 63 concessions as well as Jaeger’s head office and logistics centre are also said to have lost their jobs.

Retailers of this scale and calibre don’t collapse very often, but when the first fractures begin to appear, they tend to crumble and fall fast. As Warren Buffet has famously said , “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it”. In this sad British story, it took 133 years versus 1 week.

So, what went wrong for the iconic British brand?

Known for its classic British styles and for a distinguished history, dating as far back as supplying clothing for Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition, Jaeger enjoyed an eminent status in the industry. Synonymous with understated confidence, the brand formed part of the British fashion Establishment with a clear identity of producing effortless, good quality collections and aspirational style, as summed up by the tagline “We don’t sell clothes, we dress women”.

As we know too well, brand identity and strategy are the bed rock of any brand, and when a business reacts to competition and change by compromising that identity and those values, the foundations begin to shake.

Glen Tooke, consumer insight director at Kantar Worldpanel, said Jaeger had “struggled for years to truly understand its core clientele” trying to appeal to younger shoppers when women over 45 accounted for a fifth of its sales. He said discounting accounted for three quarters of sales. This discouraged shoppers from paying the full price and lessened their trust in Jaeger’s quality. Even a name as eminent as Jaeger was not immune to the discounting drug. Another source described the fashion house as “well and truly broken” while a supplier, despite being directly affected by Jaeger’s demise, confessed that “It was a brand I grew up with, my grandmother just loved it […] I feel very ‘connected’ to it, so I feel I have personally lost something and it saddens me”.

Brand Identity

Agreed, these are tough times for all retailers. It's no picnic out there. “The ingredients are coming together for a very consumer-unfriendly environment over the course of this year,” has said Martin Beck of Oxford Economics.

Retail sales were down 1.8% in March across the board and estimated at a 1.1% drop for the quarter, largely blamed on inflation and flat wage growth. So, why – and importantly how - are brands such as Ted Baker and JD Sports managing to report such impressive figures?

By the 28th January, Ted Baker sales had soared 16.4% in constant currency to £531m, as profits before tax were up 4.4% to £61.3m. Retail sales were up 15% year on year to £400.7m with sales across UK and Europe increasing 10.7%. Online sales were up 35.1%. As many have noted, Ted Baker has identified precisely who its customer is and invests all its energy and attention in pleasing them and them alone.

Meanwhile, JD Sports Fashion posted another record year as profits before tax soared 81% year on year to £238.4m, largely attributed to the popularity of its core product, sports fashion, otherwise known as ‘athleisure’.

The sad reality is that Jaeger seemed to lose its focus, trying to be too many things to too many customer groups. Known in its heyday as the place to buy smart, well-designed and well-made product – with a few more directional pieces dotted in each collection – the handwriting of the brand became diluted and faintly unrecognisable. Surely, one of the pillars of any brand is to be recognisable by design and silhouette? Indeed, as former director Shailina Parti of Jaeger, who worked at the brand for over 25 years, has said:

“Jaeger understood the importance of a logo well ahead of most luxury brands, developing its “straw” lettering in 1935. There was a point when this unique label appealed internationally and I would say even to this day many would aspire to own a Jaeger coat”.

This is very true. Critically, although Jaeger still has a following from customers looking for classic, high-quality clothing, that group has become much smaller and competition in the market has clearly caused it to lose its way and question its identity.

In an attempt to attract a younger shopper, the introduction of sub-brands merely alienated the core customer and, when former chief executive Colin Henry left Jaeger in September 2015, it was suggested that it was in part because he disagreed with this change in strategy.

With this identity crisis in freefall, the confidence to sell in the best locations, from Selfridges – where it was the first retailer ever to have space in the store in 1930 – to its iconic store on Regent Street, was no longer sustainable. Although Jaeger did work on its store fit – highlighted by the Marylebone shop opening last October – relaunch its website last July and attempt to improve its product selection, unfortunately, it seems it was too little, too late. Without huge investment, Jaeger was always going to struggle to regain its position in the market. It’s a cruel example of How to Lose Sales and Alienate your Customer, which many other brands would be wise to take note of.

The Precariousness of the Private Label

Much has been said and screeds more will be written on the wounded employees and redundant head office personnel and distributors. This tragic tale leaves many victims in its wake. The high-risk nature of retailing will never change, but there are many voices suggesting that the supplier-retailer system must.

Jaeger suppliers stand to lose significant sums of money and many have called for a change in the law.

One supplier, who did not wish to be named, said: “It is all very predictable. It’s time someone started looking at the rules and regulations that allow this to happen. The owner didn’t have the appetite to invest the money required and didn’t engage with the industry to take any advice.” Another source added, “It’s so upsetting”.

So, how does the supplier system work?

I spoke to one private label supplier, who explained that “financially, from the minute I delivered the goods to the warehouse, until I got paid, the risk was always mine”. This is why those suppliers – often, small, independent British businesses, - are left so vulnerable. Having fallen into administration, the retailer thus has no obligation to pay them for their merchandise and this – alarmingly - is standard practice. As a supplier, it’s possible to take out ‘payment protection’ from various brokers, but it’s a costly policy and one which small, independent manufacturers are unlikely to be able to afford. As my source reflected, “I guess that in real terms it would have cost me more to have insured every delivery we made to them, in comparison to what we have lost”.

The resultant impact is a precarious cash flow situation, whereby the maker still has to pay for all the manufacturing/shipping/ testing/delivery, whilst not getting paid, which is why situations like this will always unfortunately end in bankruptcies. For many of Britain’s domestic manufacturers – the sector we should be nurturing, supporting and promoting ahead of Brexit - if they have too much owing by any one customer, who proceeds to crash, they can easily find their business to be insolvent.

There is always the chance that these suppliers may have their claims met by the administrators but in the meantime, what we have is a British fashion story that is at once terribly sad and pertinent, speaking to an industry that must review the way the system works.

As the industry mourns yet another British fashion stalwart, we take a harsh lesson on the importance of brand identity and pleasing your core customer. Equally, the collateral that comes from Jaeger’s demise marks a tragic tale, which calls for a systemic review of supplier-retailer relations if we are to prevent similar scenarios.

In the words of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, a very different retailer, “your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room”. Ultimately, it would seem the public no longer knew quite what Jaeger stood for. Let’s hope that this changes.

 

 

By Melissa Wheeler 08 Apr, 2017

One semantic stretch too far? You’d be surprised at how retail reality reflects emerging memes.

More specifically, are we spending more on the way we live rather than the way we might want to live? It’s a case in point as far as consumer spending in the fashion sector is concerned. Yes, it seems that we’ve finally hit on the value of experience rather than ‘stuff’ and, naturally, the market has found a way in which to monetise this.

As the Debenhams Chairman Sir Ian Cheshire said at the World Retail Congress in Dubai earlier this month, “the next generation is behaving differently, spending differently and interacting differently,” he said. “To them it is experience, not stuff that matters”.

A prime example of this is pattern ‘athleisure’, a term first used in 1976 in an advert for trainers. Over the past 7 years, the sector has grown by over 42% and is now estimated to be worth over £7 billion to the UK market. Suzanne Calvert, Debenhams trading director said at last year’s Drapers Fashion Forum “ Athleisure is a trend which is not going away ”, citing that the retailer’s sales of trainers were up 15% in the womenswear department.

As a society, the winner here is wellbeing and our willingness to invest in it. I’ve written before about fashion’s direct relation to feelings – it isn’t just about frocks - and nowhere is this more apparent than the unstoppable march of athleisure. Just as we resort to checking our Instagram feed to boost our dopamine levels, so too do are we rediscovering the mood-altering impact of feeling good and looking good simultaneously. “This idea of being healthy and sporty and fit has become the new sexy,” says Bernadette Kissane, apparel and footwear analyst at Euromonitor. From beauty-enhancing supplements to the rapid growth of athleisure, there has never been a better time for fashion companies to tap into the health and wellness sector.

Let’s take ASOS as example, who revealed that its sales soared by 37% year on year to £911.5m in the six months to 28 February. George Mensah, an analyst at Shore Capital, had predicted 18% sales growth in Britain, where he said Asos had continued “to build up its presence in the activewear market” . The pureplay etailer, who will produce its own activewear label later this year, launched an activewear collection in January, featuring brands including Nike, Adidas, Puma and Reebok, alongside the sportswear collections of some better known womenswear brands such as Ted Baker, New Look, Free People and Missguided.

As women, what we are seeing is the direct correlation between feeling good and feminism. Yes, there’s a strong argument that ‘Girl Power’ has fuelled what is now estimated to be an $1.7trn global industry, neatly coinciding with a sharp increase in the number of women participating in sport, rather than just looking the part.

From Nike’s Better for It through to Sport England’s phenomenal success with the This Girl Can campaign, the internal dialogue of athleisure is very much one of female empowerment. The semiotics of the category contains more than a few threads of a feisty feminism. Who would have thought supermodels such as Gigi would become kick boxing pin ups and that office-to-gym wear would enter our daily lexicon?

There’s no question that flattering fitness clothing incentivises the prospect of a heady HiiT session and the ability to extend this feel-good factor by (sometimes smugly) wearing our gym gear to the shops afterwards is an added bonus. Activewear (which encompasses leggings) has become the new denim – an essential for any self-respecting womenswear retailer. Indeed, 15 years ago passengers might have been barred from boarding a First Class flights on account of their jeans, which evolved into jeggings, which, morphed into, yes, leggings. Activewear is clearly a trend with legs and we are seeing feminism take some sartorial strides forward as a result.

There’s an implication here – echoed by the protests concerning compulsory heels in the workplace – that women are making a stand, substituting self-consciousness and objectification with self-investment and self-improvement. This is borne out by sales figures in lifestyle purchases. PWC has modelled the growth of the premium lifestyle sector at 6.6% between 2014 and 2020 and – in respect of technical performance wear - many athleisure brands sit in this category. It follows that at a time of biting inflation with soaring living costs, our attention is most likely to focus on frequent benefits rather than occasional ones.  

While many brands not commonly associated with sports clothing are now cashing in on athleisure, some of those first off the starting blocks continue to hold their ground on these new upstarts.The off-duty look sported by supermodels from Karlie Kloss to Gigi Hadid - as they casually run errands in the city with a green juice in hand – has boosted the appeal and relevance of the sector’s pioneers, such as ELLESPORT and Sweaty Betty , whose names both allude to their heroines. Confirming their girl power ethos is the latter’s mission statement: “to inspire women to find empowerment through fitness” and ELLESPORT will always be synonymous with ELLE, one of the world’s highest selling women’s fashion magazines. Neither is footwear missing out on the action, with Fit Flops branching out into trainers fit for fashion.

Tamara and Simon Hill-Norton launched the Sweaty Betty brand in 1998. During the early years their customers were American expats in Notting Hill and the first wave of affluent yoga fanatics. Ten years later, the business burst into the mainstream on the back of a surge in people seeking active lifestyles, and a raft of shops opened across the country.

“It was around 2012 and the London Olympics that this way of dressing progressed beyond the yoga studio became a new way of dressing in the UK,” said Mr Hill-Norton. “Since early 2015 activewear has definitely moved from the studio to the street, and if the US is anything to go by, we are only at the very beginning of a big change in the way women dress”.

A fashion distributor who is always on the lookout for the ‘next big thing’ is Love Brands Ltd, UK distributors of ELLESPORT and Drapers Award Winner 2015.

Love Brands Co-founder Michael Shalders confirms the seamless adjacency that activewear now has with mainstream fashion: “The brand has enormous credibility as a forerunner in a very relevant sector which is enjoying a ‘moment’. It gives retailers an entry into that sector while blending fluently with womenswear collections and seems to deliver that niche and specialism which buyers are looking for.”  

This fashion marks a shift away from objectification towards feminine functionality. You know a fashion category has earned its place in our wardrobe when it pushes boundaries. Just as loungewear saw the onesie reach mainstream, so too do we have athleisure brands embracing the jumpsuit.   Onepiece UK , a brand built around the art of slacking, conceptualised the carefree Sunday-style with what must be the natural evolution of activewear. Producing re-engineered jumpsuits, the entry of the onesie into athleisure is surely the sartorial license to lounge and what better sisterly statement is that? As the brand says itself, ‘comfort brings confidence’ and no woman knows this better than she who’s hiked home in a pair of 6 inch heels.

By Melissa Wheeler 03 Apr, 2017

There are many factors which determine a brand or retailer’s rate of sales or success as business and one of those often overlooked is brand identity. Many retailers, and designers, will recall those moments of puzzlement at the failure of a beautifully made, high quality item to capture the interest of consumers over and above a vastly inferior product.

“I just can’t understand why it didn’t sell?” is a common lament from designers and retailers when faced with an abundance of end-of-season stock.

Although it’s natural to believe that the design and manufacturing of the product or collection is of utmost importance, young designers and new businesses must place as much, if not more, emphasis on developing the right brand values and strategy for their company from the very beginning.

45% of a brand’s image can be attributed to what it says and how it says it (Content Marketing Institute)

In fashion, as in other creative industries, people tend to think you just need a great idea. Sadly, for those immensely proud of their product and inspired by their idea, this isn’t the case. In order to sell, you need a brand story. Too many businesses focus on the what rather the why . Brands need to give customers a reason to believe what they are doing, especially in such a saturated market as the fashion industry. If your brand doesn’t have story, a rival brand will.

Developing a brand story, plus the core values, positioning, takes time. This is the case even if a designer or businessperson is clear about where their gap in the market lies and how the product will look. If there’s one thing which small business owners and new designers are often short of it is time. Running a small business can involve a spider’s web of time-sapping procedures from PAYE, Business Rates, Tax Returns, HR, Accounts through to myriad crippling red-tape processes. Furthermore, creating effective and targeted marketing editorial is very difficult to do oneself. On so many occasions, after producing a client’s home page, brochure editorial or magazine interview, they have said to me: “Wow. Is that me? I could never have captured the essence of the business like that”. It’s very hard to take an objective view of your business and convey that in such a way as to capture the interest of your target customer.

I advise my clients to ask themselves the why before starting on developing a strong identity platform. Condensing your core values and the reason for doing what you do can be the crucial factor in determining your point of difference from competitors. Sum up what you do in a few words. When sales are slow or competitors unsettle your confidence, those words and core values will serve as a branding buoyancy aid. Equipped with that knowledge and understanding, I am able to bottle your brand with words which resonate with your customer and convey the intangible. This is what shapes your brand identity.

Consistency is key

In the social media age, it’s essential to have a presence on platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and twitter, besides a solid website and intelligent LinkedIn profile. And, as the content marketing world knows all too well, consistency is the key to establishing strong, long-term relationships with a customer base.

It’s notoriously hard to build a brand on a budget. Investment is essential, which is why so many start-ups and small businesses fail within the first 3 years. While 91% of start-ups service one year of trading, this figures falls to 4 in 10 after 5 years, according the www.smallbusiness.co.uk , and this is rarely due to poor product.

Dedication, passion, perseverance, trust in your instinct and the ability to take knock-backs are the qualities that are mentioned again and again when you ask what it takes to launch a successful brand. Only with those ingredients will a brand grow both organically and with a sense of authenticity and 80% of consumers said “authenticity of content” is the most influential factor in their decision to become a follower of a brand.

What small businesses do not need and what few can afford is an agency or full service marketing group to foster their image. Furthermore, many businesses may have a single project that needs achieving rather than a long-term service. As a freelance writer, I can tailor a package to suit your needs and take delight in using words to build a brand.

If any of the above resonates with you or stokes your interest, please do Like this post, comment to contact me and/or share this with any entrepreneur who might want to get in touch.

 

 

 

 

 

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