There is a very tangible tension that every fashion designer will quickly encounter if they enter the ready to wear market. The need to sell your designs is paramount to your ability to grow as a designer. Money buys you time, space, and resources to improve. You must sell your clothes and the way the market is now you must do it immediately. The fact that the majority of retail buyers will not buy a designer in their first few seasons, unless an overwhelming PR buzz has been purchased, leaves emerging designers and even some veterans in a precarious place. Contrast that with the truth that creative people need to be in a comfortable place in order to be at their most inspired and productive. Further, younger designers don't have a great handle on any aspect of their own aesthetic or even their creative process. The two opposing forces of creativity and marketability collide intensely and constantly as a designer is making their collection. As I've argued in the past the fashion industry and the media that covers it must shoulder the burden of creating and maintaining the space for it's own future to develop and prosper. In fact to fail to do so is to create a future of endless retrospectively inspired and tired commercially motivated fashion.
Calvin Klein Resort '13
But even if there is the creation of an industry supported attitude or place for how we handle young designers that does not address the thorny issue of how every individual designer deals with the rigid demands of the marketplace and yet still creates unique and wonderful fashion that satisfies themselves. Every designer must solve that on their own, some to a greater degree and some to a much lesser degree. Many designers natural and genuine creativity is more acceptable to the market than others. That just makes the process easier but it doesn't remove it. Over the past eight years I have seen thousands of collections. Born of that experience the conviction has arisen that there is a sweet spot for every designer that can not only be hit but can over time be expanded. Every designer can and must find the space in which the needs of the market are perfectly balanced against the pure artistic vision that the designer was inspired to create. That is the meaning of a successful design; it both pleases the creator and creates a desire to be worn.
The promising Bach Mai from her BFA collection for Parsons
The only way for each individual designer to find that superior space that allows them to function at their best is to constantly create and experiment. Humans only improve by doing, creators only improve by creating. But the current market demands that you sell from collection one. Which means that with the notable exception of their first season every RTW fashion designer has a maximum of 26 weeks to figure it out to the best of their ability, and often on their own. There is no secret to this or brilliant pearl of wisdom I can offer. The fact that experienced designers actually get comfortable with that is kind of a miracle. It must be done, it can be done, and it is done well hundreds of times a year all over the world. Which means, yes you also can and will do it. Just put your head down and let it happen, struggles, triumphs, disasters, and all. Get to it and I and others will keep working to give you time and the space to do it in. If you care about fashion in this city and in this country, that's your job. At least that's how I see it and try to live it.
One of the most interesting impacts of e-commerce in fashion has been the creation of the tantalizing prospect of no longer being bound to the formula of two seasonal collections a year. With the increasing popularity of the micro seasons of Pre-Fall, Holiday, and Resort the industry has been moving in the direction of an almost year round parade of new fashion. However the labels that are partaking in this constant creation have and need a great deal of resources to satiate the appetite that has been created. Producing six collections a year is not something that is possible for most brands.
Jolibe is no longer producing seasonal collections.
That model is not the only way that labels of any size or standing can take advantage of the new constant hunger for fashion. Emerging designers or smaller labels can create two to four new pieces a month for their own online stores for twelve months a year if they choose to. Or they could create three of four capsule collections a year for themselves or for an e-commerce partner. The level of flexibility that has suddenly been dropped in designers laps is staggering. How does a brand decide what specific e-commerce strategy they are going to adopt?
Isabel Toledo stopped producing seasonal collections in 1998.
The first thing that must be decided is if online sales are a primary or simply corollary part of your revenue. If you are going to be pursuing brick & mortar boutiques then you have to create two larger collections a year. That means that your e-commerce strategy is supportive of your main effort of promoting and selling in September & October and February & March and must be created with that in mind. If however you plan to make the web your primary source of income the factors that shape your approach are how much money and help you have to make your clothes. The two approaches discussed in the preceding paragraph are a possibility as are online collaborations with boutiques or accessory producers. Whatever is decided upon the brand must do detailed, conservative mathematical projections of profits. If you overestimate your expenses and underestimate your profits and it still works then it is a viable strategy. The only option that is not an option is to not have any online sales presence. To not take advantage of the internet is foolish and simply unacceptable for every brand. It's the 21st Century, not the 20th act like it.
An Edun dress created exclusively for Net-A-Porter.
I'm going to continue discussing solutions to the problems facing emerging designers that I raised yesterday, http://designmattersmore.blogspot.com/2012/06/problem-identified.html. One of the saviors for emerging designers was supposed to be E-Commerce. Just about the time that the world economy crumbled the investors and venture capitalists of the world began to throw a great deal of money at fashion E-Commerce. Since those early days the market has performed it's usual ruthless executions on flawed models and sites and we're left with the exceptionally well funded mega corps; My Habit, Gilt, Moda Operandi, (which while I deeply respect Aslaug Magnusdottir I don't understand some core aspects of their business model), Yoox, Net-a-Porter, Shop Bop etc... There are also some very interesting smaller to medium sized players such as La Garconne, Ssense, Matches and the like. And finally there are a handful of promising start ups who feature new talent; Not Just A Label, Wondermode, I Like What Your Wearing and a few others, (Full disclosure, I write an unpaid column for ILWYW.) For emerging designers the latter and in a few cases the medium sized sites are the only option.
Phillip Lim Fall '12
I want to focus solely on what the designers must understand about the sites and most critically what the sites must understand about the designers. The only useful way for designers to categorize e-commerce sites is by how they will get paid. Sites that buy outright should be at the top of every emerging designers target list. Designers must realize though because we're realistically talking about small to medium size sites that it will be just the same as being picked up by a small boutique. You will get a small order most likely of three styles or less and in runs of sizes 2-4-6-8. All of the standard rules of retail will apply, you will have a ship date that you must meet flawlessly, you must sell through at likely 85% or higher and you may be asked to be subject to buy backs or penalties for mark down rounds. On the plus side many of theses sites will do a fair amount of PR and co-branding for you. These sites are often major social media broadcasters and can really help amplify your brand. If you receive an offer from one of these sites you should accept it.
Alexander Wang Fall '12
Other than pure wholesale sales opportunities the relative value of other e-commerce models gets a bit murky. It very much depends on the label and their financial status and production capacity. If you have little or no money then a few seasons on a commission based site are worthwhile. Put simply it's couture. You sell a piece, make it and ship it. Then the site takes between 30 & 40% and you keep the rest. This activity can keep a small but steady flow of income coming in. You must be aware though that it can become a challenge if you're trying to create a seasonal collection at the same time, (more about whether an emerging designer should be doing that in tomorrow's post). If you have both a bit of money and means of production the newer variant of online capsule collections might be worth a look. The model works like this; the designer is asked to create an entire capsule collection in size runs for a site to sell. Then when the pieces sell they receive a percentage of each sale. If the site is willing to take a lower percentage and also do a fair amount of co-branding and promotion then this arrangement can work out quite well for the designer. It will operate exactly like a practice run for what it takes to function as a working designer with a successful label. You will also receive a larger amount of money and in a lump sum just as if it was a normal seasonal retail order. You should also be rewarded with a larger reorder the next season.
Nanette Lepore Fall '12
What the E-Commerce sites must understand about the emerging designers are the following critical truths. Many of these designers do not have the money to produce the first few substantial orders they will receive. You should be willing to advance them a percentage of the order to get the clothes made in exchange for a modest discount on your order. If you're not willing to do that go buy Marc by Marc Jacobs. You must pay on time in full. The designer's fabric buy and production of their next season's samples depends on it. If you screw around with payment you will put the designer out of business. If you're okay with that you belong in jail, period. Lastly, your feedback, (notes), are critical to helping these young talents improve and prosper. Take five minutes out of your day to explain to them why you bought one style over another. Long term success is about relationship building Remember Roberto Cavalli and Nanette Lepore where once nobody, but you wouldn't have wanted to had them drop you because you mistreated them, would you?
No one individual runs the fashion industry, here or abroad. Of course there are extremely powerful people who exert enormous influence, but they, to our knowledge, do not act in concert so it can't even be said that there is an oligarchy that controls everything. That said there is a great deal of "following" that goes on. We have become an industry of sycophants. An influential person confers status on a designer or brand and to curry favor people echo in an empty headed chorus. It matters little if the designer is talented or the designs are good. This is what has allowed the triumph of money and marketing to drive us to our current state. I want to stress as I have said in the past that I do not believe that there was some mythical golden age of meritocracy in the fashion industry. I do loudly proclaim however that the industry is as far from success based on quality as it has ever been.
If you've been reading Designer Matters, or been aware of my work on modaCYCLE, or met me then you know how I feel about the fashion media. I will not bash my bloody head into that wall of bricks once more here. The element of the equation that I wish to expose here is what the current role of buyers is in today's fashion industry. There is an enviable purity about the buyers job. A buyer from Saks once told me that her job was to be right 100% twice a year. If a buyer is not that accurate they get fired. A fashion buyer buys what they believe will sell to their client, period. Add to that stricture the current economic situation and you end up with an extremely conservative environment where buyers are not merely unwilling but literally unable to risk buying and unknown designer. The word "unknown" is critical to the point I am making. If being known, having "buzz" is what drives sales then what new designers need is exposure. But exposure requires either a lengthy period of time or a large amount of initial money. Emerging designers unfortunately usually have neither. This is why many of the fastest rising new brands have been started by "designers" who either have or have access to money. This is by itself not new, many famous designers have never been hungry a day in their lives. However it has always been possible for a designer to attain great heights based on the quality of their designs. The designer creates great work and hustles like made putting them self out there to buyers, editors, stylists, and style icons. Given the current climate and the forces arrayed against them for emerging designers this is next to impossible today. What is needed is a way for the best and brightest new American based talent to be presented to buyers.
The CFE in the UK has done an outstanding job of this the CFDA in America has not. The CFDA Incubator was the CFDA's response to the problem at hand. The trouble with it so far is that in order to be eligible a designer already has to, "Be a designer of demonstrable talent, i.e. have garnered substantial editorial coverage, and have support (orders) from top retailers". In my opinion that restriction defeats the purpose. Labels that have been in business for four seasons, have retail accounts and have major editorial coverage don't need help. However there are a great number of exceptionally talented designers in the city who do or they are in danger of going away. That is where we as an industry must focus our efforts. I've been trying to organize a program based in the garment district that would help support designers in every way. From design, through production, into sales. But it's been tough going. But that's what we need and so I will keep going after it. Just FYI all of the designs featured in today's post are from designers and brands who have either failed or are on a hiatus while they plan their next move. They didn't sell and for the life of me I don't know why.
Different Than is where I discuss or display things that I love other than fashion. Today Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. There are those rare designers and artists among us who seem to have no connection to the stream of history. Who's work is so distinct and challenging to the status quo that they elicit passionate responses of adoration and disgust. Rem Koolhaas is such a designer. For the record count me among his deep admirers. Enjoy.
I was looking through the New York Resort 2013 collections this morning and I came across Jen Kao's offering. Now I've been covering or assigning coverage to Jen's work since 2010 so I've seen most of her growth and development as a designer. Below you'll find selected looks from her earliest collections right up through her most recent one. Designers must be given them time and space by the industry to explore and grow. The long term success of any designer is the ultimate goal of not only the designer but the industry in which they work. The buyers will buy what they believe will sell to their customers and that formula will never be altered nor should it. But what should the rest of us be doing in regards to how we interact with our future?
Jen Kao SS 10
It must be recognized by all that it takes a few seasons for a designer to really start to hit their stride. They will slowly find their sweet spot between pure artistic expression and what the market will support. They will begin to understand their own design signature that makes their work recognizable and distinct. And perhaps most importantly they will gain more and more understanding and comfort with their client. Knowing who buys you and why is critical to the explosive success that often occurs in around the seventh through tenth seasons.
Jen Kao SS 11
It is my belief that everyone in this industry who has been around for awhile should adopt the attitude of patient teacher when dealing with young talent. Being positive, but honest and using our experience to explain and instruct where others have gone wrong in the past or how they have sidestepped potential traps.
Jen Kao FW12
To some extent I believe this is happening as I have never heard the word mentor used in the garment district more than I have in the past two years. As well as the recent recognition that their needs to be more post-education instruction for recent graduates. However my lingering concern is, what is being taught? As I've mentioned here recently there is a great deal of delusion and outright dishonesty in the fashion industry in New York City. We absolutely must create an environment that is both positive and 100% honest. We all know that artists improve with age, it's our job to make the space so that they have the time to do that.
Now I want to be VERY CLEAR I respect both designers a great deal and this post is not about them, it's about the events. The Karolina Zmarlak event was held at the incredible new Meatpacking district boutique Owen, ( http://owennyc.com/ ). Owen's owner Phillip Salem has made a major commitment to New York City's emerging fashion designers and carries many other great labels such as Kaelen, Timo Weiland, and Nicholas K. The Karolina Zmarlak event was about promoting Karolina and selling clothes which helps both the designer and the retailer. The Zana Bayne event was at an art gallery in Chelsea and had, very good photography, some interesting art, and a video all of which featured Zana's work. There were also a few of Zana's pieces. But I must admit I'm not sure what it's purpose was.
The Karolina Zmarlak event was full of people who were shopping, the Zana Bayne event was full of people who were...I'm not entirely sure what they were doing. There was drinking, paparazzi style photo posing, and a few limos showed up full of people I didn't recognize. Truth be told I'm generally bad at recognizing "famous fashion people". The very first Fashions Night Out I talked to Siri Tolerad & Constance Jablonski for ten minutes and didn't know who they were. But later when Giuseppe Zanotti showed up I was star struck. That story gets to the heart of this post. I don't understand the fashion industry that is about parties, red carpets, and being seen. It bores me and I find it very hollow and annoying. More seriously I question it's ability to help designers and to drive sales. But I adore the fashion industry that is about cutting tables, pattern paper, and buyer appointments. It feels so much more visceral and important.
There are seemingly hordes of people both young and old who's idea of being in fashion is to go to parties and get in the press. Can we get rid of them somehow? Maybe have a huge party on a floating island and once their all on having a great time just push it out to sea? They'll all be having a great time. Doesn't that make it a victimless crime?
Last night I was very pleased to chat with Richard Chai at his event to help DIFFA: Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS. Mr. Chai partnered with Effen Vodka to create a one of a kind dress that will be auctioned off to benefit the charity.
From Last Night
Richard Chai & Creation...oh and Hillary Rhoda :)
The title of my blog could just as easily be ,"Design, Matters", as that expresses how I judge fashion design. Is what I'm looking compelling or pleasing? Are it's elements balanced, and of course is it well made? Many of the thousands of designs I look at each year spring from a promising concept, some of them are at least generally well executed. But far to many of them fall apart when they get to the finer points of finishing and function. My too brief conversation with Mr.Chai did touch on one very important element that goes into every successful design, details. The word details means to too many people small things that are secondary to the whole of the product. But in fashion design get the details wrong and you wreck the whole design. My favorite example these days is pocket size. Any designer who does not create at least one pocket on their designs that is executed specifically to make storing and reaching a smart phone easy is being very foolish. Sometimes the failure to perfectly execute a detail is due to rushing at the end of a design. Designers must realize that the design is never complete until the details are perfected.
Another Example of perfect detailing- Barbara Bui Resort 2013
This Reem Acra Fall 2012-13 Gown transfixed me at L. Center as I watched it glide by. The nude ribbon effect is trickier than it looks as it's made from toile which is traditionally not that strong. Ms. Acra told me she had this fabric specially made.
When my focus in fashion first began to shift from styling and art directing to fashion journalism in 2007 I was primarily excited for the opportunity to interview the designers. I love having conversations with those that create art and craft designs. For me it goes back to the intense backstage conversations I had with my fellow actors during or after rehearsal when I was in the theater. I was hungry to learn the complex and unique processes that each designer had of creating designs and collections. I was and never have been disappointed by those conversations. When you speak to the best of the best no matter what the field they are de facto interesting. What I never expected and was happily surprised by was how intriguing some of the other people that populate the fashion industry are. Pattern makers, textile reps, heads of PR firms, and a host of other professionals have taught me so much and helped me learn the fundamental truths about fashion today. As well as being a delight to run into whether it's at events or shows. Out of the great number of fashion professionals I deal with everyday there are a few that stand out to me because of their poise, strength, and style. Oddly enough they're all women and they're all heads of wonderful PR firms. They are featured below. Enjoy this snapshot of three of my favorite women in fashion.
Brands- Monique Lhuillier, Araks, Thakoon, Creatures of the Wind, Roland Mouret
Why I'm a fan- Libby's a force. She comes across as no-nonsense and she's done great things for her brands. She's very protective of her clients and can smell B.S a mile away. If you're a designer who needs a kick in the pants she's your rep.
Brands- Vivienne Tam, David Webb, Kaufman Franco, Lyn Devon, Vigoss, William Goldberg
Why I'm a fan- You wouldn't know it from the photo but Elizabeth is a warm and joyful person, her enthusiasm and passion for her brands are contagious and she's a calming and steadily positive presence for her brands with deep connections in the industry and a great reputation. If you need to feel backed up she's perfect for you.
Megan Maguire Steele
Photo by my friend Aeric Meredith Goujon for a piece on modaCYCLE
Brands- Billy Reid, Alejandro Ingelmo, Richard Chai, Florsheim by Duckie Brown, Verlaine, General Idea
Why I'm a fan- Megan's strengths are her vision and instincts. She has an uncanny ability to translate a brand's core positives into a message and then to broadcast them in a way that can make it compelling to press. If you think nobody gets you or your designs than you need Megan Maguire Steele.
In Saturday's post (http://designmattersmore.blogspot.com/2012/06/looking-back-looking-forward-or-just.html) I mentioned that the seriously talented designers of the world lead the fashion industry forward through their innovation, creativity, and skill. The creations they unleash season after season are then copied in lesser fabrics and with lesser construction at lower prices. The styles available at prices that the average person can afford are at there best derivative and at their worst cheap copies. This is the way that fashion had functioned for decades and it was accepted by the designers of luxury fashion and accessories. There are just not that many people in the world who can afford a $7,000 dollar dress and that was fine. A top designer could still fashion themselves a very nice life and be justly known and celebrated. In the 1980s however large amounts of capital investment began to flow into fashion as the capitalists of the world realized that they could take advantage of the culture of debt that began to rule the marketplace. The creation of "Brands" and the subsequent launching of diffusion labels opened up vast new opportunities for billions in profit. The key was to maximize margins by keeping production costs low, capitalist code for cheap labor, and to price the goods at a point that would allow people to rationalize putting it on a credit card. Soon Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Giorgio Armani, and Donna Karan were billionaires who still retained their status as top fashion designers and became immensely wealthy. That combination became the coveted goal for most of the big money investors in fashion. LVMH, PPR, and Richemont became titanic fashion based conglomerates and raked in hundreds of billions of dollars changing the direction of the entire industry. Brilliance and quality nice...money better.
In essence the strategies of the 80s and 90s represented the first modern attempt to make the average consumer feel that they were part of the luxury marketplace. With the purchase of diffusion labels, cosmetics, perfumes, and accessories the working classes could create the impression that they were rich, or at least richer. As the debt culture collapsed in the last decade new tactics sprung up to continue the strategy. Lower priced contemporary labels have done a brilliant job in mimicking the culture of high fashion houses. Brands that create designs that really aren't all that special act just like their higher priced peers and are thus perceived as luxury brands. The more recent trend of superstar fashion designers doing collaborations with mass market retailers has been another incredibly successful tactic in making the average citizen feel a part of the world of the rich and elite. The explosion in vintage is another example. Anything to get that label at that price.
There are two major questions that nobody's asking about all of this that I feel should be being discussed. Is this direction good for serious fashion as a whole? And is it good for luxury brands, is a person making $35,000 a year owning anything YSL good for YSL?
Let me begin my answer by saying that my only area of concern is the most talented of the designers working in the world today and that represents a very small fraction of the fashion industry. However their importance to the fashion industry is disproportional to their size because they are both the face and driving force behind the whole industry. The top talents set the trends and produce the work that generate massive amounts of press. That point established the answer to the first question I would say is no, the devaluation and dilution of the work of the best fashion designers on Earth is leading to some ugly and unintended consequences. The majority of the fashion press and particularly the leading fashion bloggers don't appear to know why Albert Kriemler is special or why Akris is expensive. They tend to speak of and represent all fashion as equal which is ludicrous. In every generation of every culture there will exist people who are capable of producing items that others simply can not create. As Fran Lebowitz pointed out in Public Speaking, "There is too much democracy in our culture and not enough in our government." The truth is that for every generation of fashion designers there will be a select few who are more talented than everybody else. This is just life happening the way that it happens. Fashion is seemingly the only artistic based form of commerce where acknowledging this is a problem. We have no trouble labeling music, TV, or film as poor, good, or brilliant. Nor is it an issue in architecture, books, dance, or food. Only in fashion is there this insane need to say everybody's just as talented as everybody else. The critical media in fashion stopped being critical and started getting excited about EVERYTHING.
The answer to the second question of is the current state of marketing good for the individual brands is both yes and no. The increased revenue is of course a wonderful thing for any business. However the loss of exclusivity and the dilution of brand potency have potentially huge consequences. The instant a luxury goods maker decides to chase cash it begins to decline in status. And when status is your stock in trade losing it is lethal. If you could get for example Chanel at Walmart, (Chanel's decision to decline to participate in the current trend will be a long term net positive for them), then how special can they really be? Exclusivity is a tremendous asset for a luxury brand and anything that compromises it must be viewed with an intensely wary eye.
There are two things that I hope come to pass. First I want the fashion media to return to its role as curator. It is our job to help people understand and appreciate the brilliant artists working in our industry and to point out when somebody is a product of marketing and is not really all that talented. Yes people will get mad at us and we may lose a few party invites; suck it up and deal with it. Second the fashion brands of the world need to understand who their client is and be careful to make sure that their particular client always comes first in their thinking. If you can create revenue increasing opportunities for your brand that are genuine and don't affect your relationship with your core client go for it. But value the person you deeply want wearing your designs over the pile of money you see over there in the swamp. To paraphrase,For what shall it profit a brand, if they shall gain the whole world, and lose their own soul?
It's Sunday and for my blog that means it's the one day of the week that I do not post on fashion. Design yes, but not fashion design. As befits my passion though it will always be somebody who I feel is or has been underexposed. Today it's Giorgetto Giugiaro who is arguably the best automobile designer who's ever lived. The master of sleek and powerful supercars is also the designer behind the Volkswagen's of the 70s & 80s. He's currently designing eco friendly cars that still bear his unmistakable signature. Enjoy some of his work :)