Where your fashion comes from, who made it and how, are all becoming important considerations
Luxury is back and consumers are looking at how brands are highlighting an artisanal craft into their unique garments. Consumers have returned to luxury in a new way, with sustainability at its core. Post the economic crisis we’re not seeing a rebound to the ‘old’ luxury of the early 2000s, with its unashamed opulence at any cost, but rather a move by consumers to find value in new ways – one’s that are equally as rare yet with a depth of understanding as to how, why and where the product was made. The differentiation of products are becoming increasingly important in the fashion market and having a story to tell or an issue to hang your brand around will become a necessary marketing strategy for brands to become more successful.
In a sea of fashion sameness and clothing which is blandly copied by the million, simply for its trend appeal by profit driven manufacturers, illustrating why you are different from the rest is the best survival strategy. Luxury, in particular, is realising the appeal of that rarest of commodities in today’s frantic pace of mass production – the hand crafted. This takes time, embues a personality, and has the aura of an individual passing on their bespoke magic into what you wear.
Luxury had its origins in craftsmanship and artisanship. Not to be confused with arts and craft, luxury has always been about having a master craftsman making your product. Where machines were once developed to replicate this craftsmanship on a mass scale, today we see the return of a talented pair of hands.
This manifests in something which is handcut, the edge painted on a bag or handsewn shoes, but done at the highest level, by the most expert craftsmen.
Companies such as Gucci and Ferragamo are beginning to realise the value of this and are beginning to highlight these aspects in their fashion range.
Customers increasingly want to know the story behind a brand and are seeking a deeper meaning behind what they choose to adorn their bodies with. Transparency is a big trend: wanting to know the supply chain, where it came from and who made it. Does this mean that fashion is moving towards an awareness of broader social issues? Not necessarily. Fashion is still about making you feel pretty if you’re a woman and cool if you’re a guy and the mystery and ideas that many brands have created around their image still hold a major appeal over most people. When you buy a fashion item you’re buying into a lifestyle, something that has been cultivated and packaged especially for you and put on a shelf for instant gratification. Whereas people wanted an experience in the past, they are now asking about the history and story of the brand. What a fashion house stands for has become as important as the lifestyle images they develop.
With the fashion industry in the United States, generating $250 billion worth of yearly spend on clothing and accessories, the influence from a global trading perspective alone, is also worth considering. Fashion does not simply shape looks and trends but economies and livelihoods too. The Fairtrade movement which was started in the 1940s and 1950s (best popularised through more recent initiatives such as Starbucks coffee) now encompasses over 3,000 products. Originally, only signalling that a donation had been made to a developing country, the organisation now influences working conditions and local sustainability as well. Another trade initiative, Product (RED) started by U2 frontman Bono and Bobby Shriver has created large-scale support for AIDS, TB and Malaria through the participation of major brands, including fashion, in developing a (product) RED line of merchandise that creates larger social benefits. Gap, Emporio Armani and Nike are some of the fashion brands who have come onboard.
Maiyet, a label out of New York, believes that fashion can have a conscience. Enlisting artisans from India, Colombia and Africa to produce high-end, quality clothing, accessories and jewelry, Maiyet has created a luxury brand which draws on the craft and design of artisans in emerging economies. Rather than delivering the obviously hand-worked looking garment from the developing world, the label has shown that the roots of luxury can be found in unusual and worthy places. A debut at Paris Fashion Week in October last year has now firmly put this unique and sophisticated range on the fashion map and created a working template for sustainable fashion.
More established companies are starting to take note too. François-Henri Pinault of PPR, the French multinational holding company with a worldwide brand portfolio of luxury, sport and retail brands, has even acknowledged how the increased customer focus on sustainability and social impact has led companies to take these issues seriously and to react accordingly. However, product, brand and an elevated experience are still a priority for most labels.
So who initiates the trends in the fast-paced, competitive world of fashion, the consumer or the fashion house? From a seasonal perspective it’s definitely the designer who comes up with an idea that the editorial community latches onto and interprets. The consumer only see’s this in stores six months later so it looks as if designers are far ahead
of the game, but they have this entire community around them that’s helping to decide what the next big idea will be. The consumer lags behind in this respect but they are definitely starting to dictate how brands communicate. Think social media here, which is completely new within the luxury market. Having a Twitter and Facebook presence has become a challenge which has come entirely from consumer demand. This transparency and open communication has meant that fashion has joined other non- fashion brands on a similar marketing platform.
Of course, without being told about the hidden social stories of a garment or accessory you wouldn’t know about it. Online has become a huge factor in getting these stories out and also offers the best way to illustrate how things are made. Social media fits perfectly into the story re-telling among that all-important peer group, and online video now allows a fashion range to tell it’s story from craftsman to catwalk. Many fashion brands will continue to hide production techniques and their source of materials and labour, either for pricing or trademark reasons, but a growing movement in the opposite direction holds the potential for capturing a large part of the fashion market. Large, established brands have begun dabbling in this approach, putting out one or two products in the market to gauge consumer reaction, but this is simply icing on the cake, not a part of how they run their business. Being as big as Gucci certainly poses challenges in how you redesign your supply chain and still protect your business, so huge opportunities exist for smaller, new fashion brands to develop these sustainable, story-rich brands without this risk. Turning heads with how you approach your product will become a key part of fashion.
Trend forecasting companies certainly help in developing future looks for the industry, but the increase in global travel has allowed influences to appear from almost anywhere. Right now it might be the emerging street style in New York, but it might also be the colour of an exotic fruit on a tree in Asia which sparks a designers imagination. Picking up on a vibe in the world from the increasing exposure to styles in many countries is feeding both the trends and how companies source their raw material. This is a key ingredient in keeping fashion fresh and original. It’s easy to keep looking to competitors for leads, but any fashion brand hoping to create a distinctive style knows that a strict adherence to originality will deliver results. Smaller fashion companies who invest time in working with their suppliers and craftsmen will continue to innovate and create desirable, original fashion. And not copying other brands has the added benefit of giving consumers that coveted prize, arriving at an event in something no-one else is wearing.
Kristy Caylor is co-founder of New York fashion label Maiyet. Caylor developed Gap’s Product (RED) collection before working at Band of Outsiders. www.maiyet.com