A recent wrap on the Evening Standard’s ES Magazine by fashion portal, Lyst, got me thinking about how fashion is currently being bought and marketed. Armed with streams of data on sales and searches, the company fine tunes its offering to predict what you want before you even know it yourself selling from different retailers and sites in one place.
Left - Recent advert for Lyst
The advert says things like - “This week on Lyst: New York men spending 25% more on rubber-soled sneakers than New York women on high heels”.
Is this kind of information really useful? While any additional information empowers buyers and retailers to think about what is selling and what to buy again, it has be remembered that fashion isn’t a logical beast.
You can’t solely predict and buy fashion on previous sales and best-sellers. It’s a bit like trying to please a search engine, how can people search for something they don’t even know they want yet or actually exists? It’s the digital equivalent of the chicken and the egg.
Right - Can algorithms predict fashion?
Annoyingly, as fashion becomes more saturated and speeds up, the number of major changes and ideas seems to be slowing. Is it these types of buying patterns and data information that is stalling fashion? Are retailers being too cautious in order to maintain sales and offer more guaranteed return on sales?
Algorithms will never be able to replace instinct. Fashion is about instinct, a gut feeling. It’s about influential people - be they celebrities, designers, best friends - asking themselves “what do I want now?” or “I want that!”.
This starts the wave of influence along the chain across brands, designers and people which then results in the trends and then, hopefully, end sales for the retailers.
As fashion becomes more competitive and saturated it will be those with the instinct to go in their own direction who will really standout.
Knightsbridge based department store, Harvey Nichols, has been busy excavating their basement. Long the home of their menswear offering, this cavernous yet claustrophobic space is, we are told, being completely made over ready for its unveiling in spring 2016.
Left - Harvey Nichols' new store in Birmingham which gives us the direction stylistically of the Knightsbridge store's new men's basement.
So, what’s new? I recently attended a presentation of theirs describing how the new spaces are going to look. Bye, bye shop-in-shops and branded concessions: long the bastion of mega-brands, physically claiming prime spots in-store to be replaced by easily changeable spaces and the mixing of brands.
I'd like to think of it as a more democratic form of shopping: allowing labels to speak to people solely on product alone without the pre-judgement of walking over to a branded section or the muscling out of smaller brands by placing them in the parts of the store these mega-brands don’t want.
The big brands won’t like this. They will sell less. There will now be an equal playing field between them and whichever new brands Harvey Nichols decide to stock. It also allows Harvey Nichols to drop brands faster, regardless of size, to keep pace with the speed of fashion and allowing new brands to bring excitement and interest into their physical store.
People are tired of seeing the same brands everywhere regardless of how expensive they are. It also allows a form of curation rather than simply a mini-mall of the same designer names which you can find the world over.
Harvey Nichols know they can’t compete with the likes of Harrods and Selfridges on menswear floor space, so, they are making theirs more flexible and less static. This is a very clever idea.
Right - More interiors from Harvey Nichols Birmingham. Let's hope London looks this good
In order to survive shops need to become destinations. They need to offer something you can’t find anywhere else: something new, fresh and inspiring. They also have to flow, both visibly and physically, and, ultimately, part time-poor people with their cash.
One of the more interesting ideas they have is putting all the same things together. So, white T-shirts, tuxedos etc., all at different price points, selected by Harvey Nichols, are together with the sales assistants explaining the differences between them all.
Fashion’s big names have long earnt their corners of the big stores, but they sell more and remain powerful because they have the best positions and are, therefore, stuck in a positive cycle which is very hard to break, making retail spaces look the same every time and everywhere. It all becomes quite predictable and menswear buyers and the retailers want something different and exciting while still retaining the spend.
Harvey Nichols is seeing this refresh as an opportunity to try something new. No doubt they’ll be some difficult discussions with brands, but I hope they hold their ground and give these ideas a chance to prove that the customer, now, buys into good product rather than brands. Menswear just got a level playing field!
Opening April 2016
So, news just in, the global market for luxury goods is heading for its weakest year since 2009. Sales will rise by as little as 1 percent to 253 billion euros ($280 billion) in 2015, according to Bain & Co., which in May forecast growth of 2 percent to 4 percent. The projection, on a basis that excludes currency swings, would be the weakest gain since sales fell 11 percent in the year after Lehman Brothers’ collapse.
Left - All the gear and no idea - The 'luxury' customer, Footballer Balotelli
What does this really mean? Is it the wobbles in China or are people becoming bored of ‘luxury’? Whatever 'luxury' means today. The type of products these companies have been producing plus the never ending escalation in prices has taken its customer for granted. The higher the price, the shorter the shelf life, it seems, for product which just continues to get more and more expensive. Some of the entry prices for these brands are frankly ridiculous.
Brands think they can make more money by producing more product, but in fact it just puts people off. (See ChicGeek Comment - Exclusive Not Excluding)
It has also produced a customer, which while a high-spender, isn’t necessarily the look others aspire to. In other words fashion victims.
So, where is style now? The term ‘style’ is as subjective and has as many incarnations as people. But it does shift. While luxury brands have been busy peddling their wares to the international tourist, the style set has been discovering the high-street: the low-cost disposable side of fashion.
It is simplistic, but the only way I can describe style, now, is the best item from the worst shop.
It’s about being clever: the opposite to obvious. Labels and logos have become less important and it’s about how the individual looks in the clothes. The silly prices has just speeded up this process and because the designers aren’t coming up with anything really new, people are happy to get their things from lower priced retailers.
Look at it as the stylish show off by buying and finding great things in less obvious places. The high-street and lower priced retailers have mastered the fit and who really cares that much about the quality of the material when it will be gone before that becomes an issue.
I predict these luxury retailers to start producing lower entry priced product and become less reliant on these few, higher-spending shoppers. The Russians have disappeared, the Chinese aren’t being as frivolous and those oil rich nations in Africa aren’t making as much from every barrel. It's time for luxury brands to get real.
It should be remembered that the term exclusive, long touted by fashion brands in the positive sense of the word, is the opposite of inclusive. The opposite, to exclude, becomes a negative: a pushing away and a physical wall between the them and us.
Left - The LV Series 3 Sticker Wall - Take home a sticker of an item you probably can't afford
Luxury brands tread a fine line between wanting the masses to buy en masse - they have to in order to sustain these giant businesses - while keeping this positive form of exclusivity.
As brands find it increasingly difficult to differentiate themselves in a crowded market, both in physicality and ideas, some are using that muscle to ‘educate’ the consumer and let them into this ‘exclusive’ world.
French brand, Louis Vuitton just opened a new, month long exhibition, opposite Australia House on The Strand, entitled LV Series 3, to showcase the thought processes their womenswear designer, Nicholas Ghesquière, had behind their current AW15 collection.
Like many of these things, it is a risk. You either leave with the brand going up higher or lower in your expectations. Obviously, the brand, spending huge sums of money, wants the former.
Rather than a wow, it wasn’t quite clear what you were looking at and then, unfortunately, you ask yourself, do I really care?
Brands have to be careful not to believe in their own myth and hype. They have to remember who put them there. Some of these things can have a touch of the Marie Antoinettes: the great unwashed allowed in, on their terms, to look, but not touch.
People are giving up their precious free time and making a journey to see these things featuring perspex boxes housing £5000 bags with the pretention that you should feel privileged that they are even allowing you in to see something you’ll never be able to afford.
I understand brands want and need to put their product on a pedestal in order to make it feel special, but it also needs to feel inclusive. If people are taking time out of their busy lives to frequent these things it needs to be on par or better than a museum show or don’t bother at all. These things are beautifully made and while there are two artisans demonstrating and making product inside the exhibit, you leave feeling like you don't know anymore than when you first went in.
It could be that I'm not a fan of Ghesquière's, but I went in wanting to be wowed and educated on why he's been given the top job at the world's biggest luxury goods company. It fell flat on that front. I left feeling that luxury brands need to remember that it’s important not to patronise if they want us to carry on patronising.
Let’s stop and reflect at the new Gucci for just one second. From what is a complete 180 degree u-turn of the brand their current customer is used to, they are doing exactly the right thing by distancing themselves from the tacky, status driven brand it had become.
Left & Below - Gucci Cruise SS16
In fashion we love a reinvention especially when you have the one person - whom you trust - take over all aspects of the business from design to stores to advertising to branding.
As ‘designer’ fashion becomes more unaffordable and high-street fashion gets better and cheaper, the chasm between the two keeps getting wider.
Consumers, the world over, are waking up and many can no longer justify the price of designer goods when it is so far from something they are reasonably happy with particularly when it comes to clothing.
Designer brands need to give us something we would find nowhere else. These need to be the ultimate new ‘vintage’ finds that make them feel like a discovery rather than something seen from Shanghai to Bond Street on every gormless tourist.
Gucci’s new Creative Director, Alessandro Michele said recently, “I think in the imagination of each of us, there is the idea of having a beautiful wardrobe of unique pieces.”
Okay, we’re not that naive to think Gucci are making only one of each item, but it certainly feels that way and that’s the clever thing.
Lots of international designer brands have been too busy chasing the volume and forgetting about the special. There is certainly the margins on these products to add something different and while Gucci will lose a lot of customers, they will certainly gain a select, influential and niche few.
Whether this can sustain the world’s second biggest luxury brand will have to be seen, but they are certainly making some beautiful and interesting things, again.