Wednesday, 24 October 2018 09:56

ChicGeek Comment Only Billion Dollar Brands

Christopher Kane divesting from KeringIt was while watching the Alexander McQueen documentary at the beginning of the summer - Read TheChicGeek Review here -  when I wondered where the subsequent crop of young designer brands were. 

The British based designers who were the generation after McQueen and showed so much promise - Christopher Kane, Jonathan Saunders, Mary Katranzhou, J.W. Anderson etc. - and despite some investment, just haven’t been able to scale up their brands in the same way McQueen and Stella McCartney were able to.

Left - Christopher Kane's only permanent store on London's Mount Street

I realised that this was a signifier of how the luxury market has changed and the days of nurturing fledgling brands into ‘Mega Brands’ are over. It illustrates the saturation in the market and it’s all about making big brands even bigger, today. “If you’re not going to be a billion dollar brand, then it’s probably not worth our time", is the new attitude. It probably explains the reason why Michael Kors recently bought Versace. Read more ChicGeek Comment here

David Watts, Founder, Watts What Magazine, says, “I suspect that this is more to do with the parent company realising that these businesses are not scaleable - or to the extent of other portfolio brands and cutting their losses.”

“In the current very challenging retail market and designer wholesale model not being as robust as it used to be, brands need to shore up cash and also give themselves a buffer,” says Watts.

J W Anderson divesting from Kering

“For the larger groups though, bigger really is better,” says Sandra Halliday, Editor-in-chief (UK), Fashionnetwork.com. “When they take on a brand, they want it to have billion dollar potential, or at least to occupy a strong niche that will guarantee high profit margins. The stakes these days are too high to do anything else,” she says.

When the Gucci Group invested in McQueen, Stella McCartney, Bottega Veneta and Balenciaga in 2001, it signalled the moment the luxury fashion industry was in full expansion mode and opening stores all over the globe. Following that, there was a raft of investment in the generation after, with Kering - formally Gucci Group  -  investing in Christopher Kane in 2013 and LVMH investing in Nicholas Kirkwood and J.W. Anderson in the same year.  Everybody was billed “as the next…” but it just hasn’t materialised. Well, not in consumers’ heads anyway.

Now, brands are going into reverse; fashion’s answer to “Conscious Uncoupling”. Stella McCartney just bought back the 50 per cent she didn’t own from Kering and rumour has it, Christopher Kane, is in talks to buy back the 51 percent stake from the French group after a 5-year partnership.

Right - J.W. Anderson single store in East London

Halliday says, “I think in Stella McCartney’s case there was a genuine desire to run her own show and given the strength of her brand, that’s understandable.”

“For Christopher Kane it’s probably more about Kering focusing its resources and its time on its big winners, and that makes sense with Gucci, Saint Laurent and Balenciaga doing so well and Bottega Veneta needing lots of TLC,” she says.

“It give them a certain freedom and with the knowledge and experience learned (hopefully) as being part of a large group that they know how to be more careful with finances and astute with merchandising and keeping overheads down,” says Watts.

“Staying small, focussed and niche with a direct to consumer model could work for some brands, but it’s also very tough to make serious money at that scale,” says Watts.  “Of course, there are possibly different and extenuating circumstances for why these brands find themselves in their current predicament. What does it tell you that LVMH and Kering cannot make Stella McCartney, Christopher Kane, Edun and Tomas Maier work…..gonna be tough for them as independents however the chips may fall,” he says.

Announced this year, LVMH has severed ties with Edun, Bono’s ethical fashion brand, and Kering has closed Tomas Maier, previously the Creative Director at their other brand, Bottega Veneta. These brands will have to regress back to start-up mode and think small again if they are to survive.

“In many ways, the future prospects of small designers hoping to break into the big time are quite depressing as the barriers to doing that are very high.” says Halliday. “But, on another level, the internet offers opportunities that didn’t exist just 20 years ago. The combination of a well-run e-store and a physical flagship can actually be a very cost-effective way of reaching the maximum number of consumers.” she says.

“Even if smaller labels can build profitable businesses, the chances are that the end result will be a hoped-for takeover by a bigger group, or by private equity investors, as that’s the kind of investment that’s really needed to make the transition into bona fide big-name brand,” says Halliday. “And all of that doesn’t even factor in what might happen if the luxury boom runs out of steam at any point,” she says.

Those brands fitting somewhere between these smaller designers and the giant groups are making their play for their futures too. Versace has already taken shelter in a bigger American group and other Italian family brands are sensing this shift and deciding on which side of the billion dollar divide they aspire to be on. Missoni opened its ownership up to Italian state-backed investment fund FSI for a cash injection of €70 million, in exchange for a 41.5 percent stake and rumours continually circle around Ferragamo suggesting they are looking for investment or a new owner.

Belgian designer, Dries Van Noten, recently sold a majority stake in his eponymous fashion brand to Spanish cosmetics group Puig.

“Dries Van Noten is 60 and after 30 years if he keeps creative control and remains chairman of his brand, then cashing in a huge stake gives him financial security, and also Puig brings cosmetics, beauty and fragrance know-how,” says Watts. “It could be huge for a brand such as Dries Van Noten - it’s a win win for him on paper.”

“Most people who are outside of the fashion (production) industry really have no idea both how complicated it as and how hard it is to make money,” says Watts.  “Fashion wholesale is broken and fashion retail is in freefall,” he says.

Disappointingly, the focus has moved away from talent to bankability. Young designers who were previously given a leg-up with investment look too high a risk and expensive for today’s investors. It seems that only those brands breaking that billon dollar turnover ceiling are worth focussing on. You can increase profit margins by making less, but in larger volumes and become a more dominant force. It is more of a risk having fewer brands, but you can win bigger and Kering is clearly taking pole position right now.

Read more ChicGeek Comments - here

Published in Fashion
Friday, 28 September 2018 10:50

ChicGeek Comment Life After Brexit

Life after Brexit Chanel moves global headquarters to LondonRemainers cover your ears. One of the world’s strongest fashion brands is moving its headquarters to London despite Brexit. Yes, Brexit hasn’t put them off. Chanel has decided to close its global headquarters in New York and move it to London.

Until now, Chanel did not have a single holding company for its operations and functions were located in a number of cities. In a statement from the French company, they said, “We wanted to simplify the structure of the business and London is the appropriate place to do that for an international company. London is the most central location to our markets, uses the English language and has strong corporate governance standards with its regulatory and legal requirements.”

Left - Even London's lampposts are Chanel!

‘Chanel Limited’ became the holding company of most Chanel entities in the summer of 2017 and this is why the majority of the global functions are now located in London.

“Brexit's economic and geopolitical impacts remains a challenge for the London economy. London is still dealing with a hangover from Brexit.” says Brandon Rael, Operations Strategy & Innovations Leader & Retail Digital Strategist. “We should expect that London will experience an upswing when the economy stabilises. Moving the Chanel HQ to London is very much a long-term strategy.” he says.

Chanel could have chosen Paris, but instead chose London, and this goes against the anti-Brexit rhetoric of companies leaving in their droves. In July, Chanel revealed its financials for the first time in its 108 history. It generated nearly $10 billion in global sales in 2017, making it one of the world’s biggest luxury fashion brands. This new openness is Chanel positioning itself and facing up to the dominance of the likes of Kering and LVMH. This is for the next, digital chapter in Chanel’s history. 

Brexit is so close, now, it is time to start looking beyond it and, Chanel’s decision would have been a long term decision from this globally revered company. While one company moving its headquarters to London doesn’t prove anything. In the same vein, one company moving out, doesn’t either. The major reasons companies move or stay in London won’t change post Brexit. They move to London because of geography, language, law and talent pool. This is about London competing with New York or Hong Kong and it is the only truly world city within Europe.

“London remains the world‘s most promising city for luxury retail growth, despite troubles faced by the Brexit vote,” says Rael. “A new report conducted by CBRE and Walpole has found that compared to other major luxury destinations across the globe, London still holds the greatest long-term potential,” he says.

The newly christened Capri Holdings - formerly Michael Kors -  has its principal executive office in London and Condé Nast International recently choose London to cope with the new demands of its digital future. Everything catwalk related: photography, video, social media and features will be lead by Vogue International, an editorial hub established last year to lead content for the 25 editions of the magazine.

Life after Brexit Conde Nast International moves global headquarters to LondonIn an interview in the New York Times with Wolfgang Blau, Chief Digital Officer of Condé Nast International, he said two-hundred editorial and engineering staff members had been hired, and next year, he wants to have a Vogue presence at about 900 runway shows all feeding back to London. This is Condé Nast cutting costs and becoming more efficient while focussing its global fashion content in London. This will only get bigger. Its travel magazine, Condé Nast Traveler has moved onto a new single platform, and it too would be overseen not from its birthplace of New York, but from London.

Right - London, not New York, is the global centre for all digital content

We were told that "Brexit would make us poorer”, but since the vote, and with a background of caution and underinvestment, Britain has a joint record high employment rate of 75.6% with 32.39 million people now in work according to the latest official statistics. (June 2018). There were 488,000 unemployed people aged from 16 to 24 for May to July 2018, the lowest figure since records began for youth unemployment in 1992. Overall, unemployment fell by another 55,000 between May and July to 1.36 million. Wages saw faster than expected growth in the three months to July. Excluding bonuses, wages grew by 2.9%, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), well above the inflation rate.

Business is doing well. UK Trade benefitted from a goods export boom in July. Official figures showed the deficit in goods dropped to £10 billion in July from £10.7 billion the previous month. Including service, the overall trade gap fell to just £111 million, one of the best monthly results in the past 20 years. In the three months to July overall goods exports grew by £4.3 billion while imports rose by £3.7 billion. This came largely from trading with countries outside the EU.

“It looks like Brexit is going to be a good thing for luxury fashion as people in the US and China take advantage on preferential tariffs coming from the UK.” says Fleur Hicks, Managing Director of onefourzero, a data analytics and digital research agency.

Eurotunnel recorded its best ever August for freight traffic and the number of passengers passing through Heathrow’s terminals jumped to 7.5 million last month, boosted by new services to China. Europe’s biggest airport, said August customer numbers were up 2.6% from a year earlier and cargo volumes were up 1.2%. Asia saw the biggest increase in passenger numbers, up 6.3%, with new services from Hainan Airlines, Tianjin Airlines and Beijing Capital. Gatwick also saw a 0.4% rise in passenger numbers to 4.9 million and its cargo traffic soared a whopping 22.3%.

Irina Bragin, from Made of Carpet, who specialises is making luxury carpet bags, says “I think I have one advantage of Brexit in mind. Today selling to the EU as retailer (to the end buyer) we pay VAT, same as we sell in UK. After Brexit, it will be the same as selling to US, or Canada, or Australia - no VAT to pay.”

I know it’s fashionable not to be positive about Brexit, but, it’s 6 months away and it’s time to turn the negativity into optimism. Global businesses are looking past Brexit, for the longer term, and what makes London great to do business in hasn’t really changed. Brexit is something new and unknown, but, in Britain’s true entrepreneurial spirit, we can do this!

Published in Fashion
Tuesday, 25 September 2018 13:41

ChicGeek Comment Versace to Kors

Versace bought by Michael KorsVersace is a trophy brand and I can imagine many a green eye coming from the offices of LVMH, Kering and other fashion conglomerates asking why they hadn’t claimed this prize themselves. While the price isn’t a snip - approximately US$2.12 billion - and nobody knows the details of Donatella’s contract - it would have be something special in order to entice her to sell the family’s 80% stake - it is one of the few brands which resonates on to the lips and minds of everyday consumers. This happens for very few brands and is very hard to achieve.

Left - In Donatella's image? Versace advertising

Versace has a strong identity and tropes which are continually referenced - you only have to look at the continual ‘baroque’ collections from ASOS, Boohoo and River Island to see that - yet it never seems to fully capitalise on them itself. It can’t turn that into money. The profits are small - 15 million euro in 2017 - and it was always a brand which seemed to play musical chairs with its store portfolio; continually opening and closing stores.

On the other hand, Michael Kors is a well run accessorises company. The minute they knew their mid-market brand had peaked, and their market was saturated, they started closing stores -  between 100 and 125 over two years. They knew the landscape changed, the brand was fatigued, and you need to make hay while the sun shines, which they’ve done. It’s knowing when to start putting your money into new areas and elevating. Everything is about ‘elevating’ ATM!

The confidence of buying Jimmy Choo, and that seems to be doing well, has maintained the momentum of this spending spree. While not likely partners, many groups have disparate brands and, if Michael Kors knows one thing, it’s how to grow.

John D. Idol, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Michael Kors Holdings Limited, said, “With the full resources of our group, we believe that Versace will grow to over US$2.0 billion in revenues (from 668 million euro currently). We believe that the strength of the Michael Kors and Jimmy Choo brands, and the acquisition of Versace, position us to deliver multiple years of revenue and earnings growth.”

“Donatella’s iconic style is at the heart of the design aesthetic of Versace. She will continue to lead the company’s creative vision.” he says.

Versace bought by Michael Kors

It’s interesting to remember LVMH used to own a third of Michael Kors before he went for the masstige market and the company blew up and he was also the Creative Director of the LVMH owned Celine in the late 1990s.

The new group will be called ‘Capri Holdings Limited’. (Didn’t Michael Kors once do a mink beach towel with ‘CAPRI’ on it?) The new group says there is an opportunity to grow the group’s revenues to US$8.0 billion in the long-term, which would make it one of the largest fashion companies.

Right - Vintage Versace advertising - Gianni Versace is forever associated with the Supermodels

Donatella Versace says, “Santo (brother), Allegra (daughter) and I will become shareholders in Capri Holdings Limited. This demonstrates our belief in the long-term success of Versace and commitment to this new global fashion luxury group.”

Michael Kors’ expertise is accessorises. They say they want to expand Versace men’s and women’s accessories and footwear from 35% to 60% of revenues. Versace has never really resonated in these areas, often looking more tacky than desirable. Jimmy Choo will also offer synergies in luxury footwear and bags.

There’s also going to be a filip back to dressing up at some point and Versace is well placed, particularly in a sexually charged, Italian way.

As for more affordable products, they could expand underwear, home, sunglasses and perfume. The perfumes, since the very beginning, have never matched the quality and branding of the rest of the brand. Versace needs to choose areas and do them well, rather than the light licensing it has often achieved since its inception in 1978. Versace was one of those brands that had such disparate product - from cheap looking tins of perfume to the most luxurious Italian printed silk.

Capri Holdings say they want to “build on Versace’s luxury runway momentum”, - *books Supermodels* - and want to be less reliant on its home market of the US, grow in Asia and become more global.

Versace must have had numerous takeover offers through the years and it would be interesting to know the reasons of, why now? Why Michael Kors? The brand is 40 this year, so maybe the family want to fully maximise its potential, maybe it was pressure from the private equity investors to get out, or maybe it’s the realisation that you have to turn into a billion dollar brand to survive. Grow or die.

Below - The Versace ladies by Steven Meisel 

Versace bought by Michael Kors

Published in Fashion

Selfridges Eyewear DepartmentWalk into Selfridges’ new eyewear department and you’ll see a noticeable change in the eyewear market. Amongst the acres of grey terrazzo and perfectly lit vanity mirrors, you’ll discover 2,200 eyewear styles from 50 brands, some costing nearly £8000.

This is eyewear placed in equal importance to the other accessories in Selfridges’ refreshed accessory department - the largest in the world at 60,000 sq ft and costing in excess of £300m. Sitting alongside the luxury handbags and designer boutiques, it illustrates the new focus from luxury goods companies on their eyewear product. It is no longer the rather side-lined licensing cash-cow it once was and as such, is no longer taken for granted.

Left - Selfridges' new eyewear department on the ground floor

Much like the perfume business, niche players have entered the eyewear market, offering difference and quality. The designer brands are sitting up and taking notice and while Selfridges’ new eyewear department is run by the Luxottica, owner of Ray-Ban and many other designer licenses, it hasn’t completely monopolised it with its own brands.

Gucci Kering Eyewear DepartmentNew brands to Selfridges include Fak by Fak and Project Produkt, while others, such as Grey Ant, Retrosuperfuture and Thiery Lasry, have created exclusive styles for the space.

The eyewear market is actually experiencing the reverse of what is happening in other categories. Luxury brands are putting more focus and input into their product and increasing the quality and workmanship in order to compete. At the same time, thanks to brands like Gucci, eyewear has become an integral part of a look or outfit and it’s the bolder, the better ethos, right now, that is making eyewear sales rocket.

“The industry's certainly going through a time of flux. At one end you've got the old guard consolidating - Luxottica and Essilor being the obvious, gargantuan example. Then at the other, you've got a whole bunch of new own-branded entrants. And then in the middle, you've got the high street multiples (who still collectively control over 70% of the market in the UK).” says Tom Broughton, Founder of Cubitts.

It wasn’t long ago the branded eyewear market was a duopoly dominated by the Italian giants of Safilo and Luxottica. In 2014, the luxury conglomerate, Kering, eyeing the potential of cutting out of the middle man in their eyewear business, terminated the licenses with Safilo for brands including Gucci, Alexander McQueen and Saint Laurent. 

Right - Gucci has really lead the way in pushing mainstream experimental styles

“To maximise the development of its brand portfolio, Kering decided to internalise the value chain for its eyewear activities, from product creation and development to supply chain management, sales and marketing.” says its press release.

“Through this project, Kering is putting in place an innovative way of managing its eyewear operations, which will lead to significant value-creation opportunities and enable the group to fully capture the sheer growth potential of its houses in this category, in a global market which is sizeable and in which the high-end segment is enjoying substantial growth.” it says.

Today, ‘Kering Eyewear’ designs, develops and distributes eyewear for Gucci, Bottega Veneta, Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, McQ, Boucheron, Pomellato, Brioni, Christopher Kane and Puma.

Kering understand the profits and growth to be seen in eyewear and by taking it in-house, it cuts out a cost plus adds control. The results have seen more distinctive styles imbued with the individual brands’ DNAs. It is lead by Roberto Vedovotto who was previously CEO of the Safilo Group.

“For the last couple of decades, 'designer' eyewear has really meant branded eyewear. And so those who controlled access to those brands - big players like Luxottica and Safilo - controlled much of the market. But I think there's a general change in consumer appetite for more independent brands, particularly those mono-brands who just try do thing one thing exceptionally well. Our old friend the internet has meant that it's also possible for small start up brands to sell directly to end consumers, rather than be encumbered by the traditional wholesale model.” says Broughton.

Eyewear market expert opinion The Chic GeekAlistair Benson, Managing Director Eyesite Opticians, says “The big fashion houses are, now, more concerned with producing distinctive eyewear with better quality that adds to the success of their other product lines. We saw Céline remodel their already best selling ‘Shadow’ piece, introducing new and improved hinges and additional colours. An example of an already proven and successful formula being upgraded just to ensure it stays at the front of the pack.

“As competition grows, fashion houses inevitably need to ensure they are producing more innovative products to stand out. Another reason for this is the rise of niche/cult brands and start-ups; take the jazz inspired Black Eyewear for example. All-in-all, it makes for a much more stimulating market that benefits today’s highly engaged consumer, who now have more choice than ever before. From our own perspective, as a retailer, we have had to adapt to this change, responding quickly to shifts in certain trends and the overnight rise of new cult brands to ensure our own customers have everything they need and more.”

Left - One of the most famous eyewear wearers - Elton John inspiring the Gucci catwalk

Gordon Ritchie, MD of Kirk Originals, says “Recent years has seen the emergence of smaller niche eyewear labels appearing that offer handmade, up to bespoke quality, eyewear collections and a number of people like ourselves are making in England.

“It is driven by smaller niche players and I think this is a reaction against the handful of huge corporations that now dominate the global eyewear business and between them actually produce pretty much everything with a "big" brand name on it.” he says.

Niche brands are offering more artisan and limited product, but the big boys have recognised this and are moving into this area. The margins on eyewear are large and there’s everything to play for. Luxottica, reported a 2 percent rise in 2017’s sales to 9.16 billion euros and Safilo had full-year sales totalling 1.05 billion euros.

Designer fashion brands have made eyewear an integral part of their fashion collections. These flamboyant styles have resonated with consumers especially with its entry price points. But, smaller, niche players are offering individuality which attracts many consumers to well designed and made eyewear.

“I think this is a result of people growing in confidence in expressing themselves, probably helped along by them being exposed to so many images on a daily basis on Instagram. Instagram can be inspiring but also allows you to feel you’re not the only one pushing the boundaries a little bit by being bold in your choices in colours and styles.” says Ritchie.

“I think people will increasing see a pair of spectacles or sunglasses as a defining piece of their wardrobe, rather than merely a medical accoutrement to help them see.” says Broughton.

People are buying many more pairs to suit different outfits and moods. Add in the recent fashion of coloured lenses and it broadens the scope of choice. “We believe that people will continue to look for more individuality in their eyewear, too. Much like other countries in Europe, we expect increasing numbers of customers to buy 3–5 sets of frames each year in order to mix it up and achieve a different look whenever they want.” says Mary-Frances Kelly, Marketing Manager at Optical Express.

“Fashion in general has become more experimental, and people are realising that they can achieve a different look with a certain style or colour of frame. And it’s not just the under-30’s who are fashion conscious – across the generations, we’re more style-aware about everything, including glasses, than ever before.” says Kelly.

This is something really positive. It reflects a thriving market. The big brands have recognised the threat and, wanting to hold onto the many hundreds of million of dollars involved, are focussing on directional styles and quality. This leads to better product and choice for everybody. They have, thankfully, realised that simply putting different names on the same glasses just isn’t enough anymore. Add the maximalist mood in fashion and everybody wanting to be an Elton John or Iris Apfel, then you have a very bold, experimental and receptive market. Let’s hope this type of thinking enters other sectors of the luxury business. 

Published in Fashion

Can fashion ever be sustainable? linen flax celc

Fashion, in its nature, isn’t logical. Before things are broken or unusable we move onto consuming the next item all under the umbrella of ‘fashion’. It’s a huge, global business which basically comes down to us buying more things than we need and, also, new things before our existing things are redundant or can no longer fulfil their purpose. 

It’s also very creative and what makes us human beings.

Left - Northern European fields full of flax

It’s therefore not in the fashion business’ interest to get us, as consumers, to buy or use less. So, what we’ve seen over the latest few years is many retailers using the term ‘sustainable’ to give our consumption the gloss of being better or even good for the environment while continuing to encourage us to buy even larger amounts.

It’s difficult for retailers and brands to tell us to buy less or not at all. They want us to feel good while we are shopping, but can ‘fashion’ ever be sustainable and what does ‘sustainable’ even mean?

Bruce Montgomery, Course leader BA hons Fashion UCA Epsom/Menswear Consultant, says, “While it’s a mammoth task, fashion needs to become sustainable. The industry is over producing, this is leading to excessive consumption with 300,000 tons of clothing being dumped on landfill either by both retailers and consumers rather than recycled. Patagonia’s don’t buy this jacket campaign and Stella McCartney’s fashion campaign shot with models lying in landfill tried to raise awareness to the problem, but much more industry commitment is needed.”

“Brands have understood its positive to be seen as ‘sustainable’. This has led to many jumping on the marketing bandwagon without any commitment and just greenwashing the surface of the topic. The word unfortunately is in danger of being watered down in the same way the word ‘luxury’ is now applied to fast fashion products. Why should consumers believe brands when they discover there is no substance behind a brand’s sustainable stance or strategy?” says Montgomery.

Niche brands with stringent green credentials are really trying to separate themselves from the mainstream ‘sustainable’ bandwagon. Swedish, independent outdoor clothing brand, Houdini, aims to “become fully circular in sustainability - and setting the standard for sustainable fashion and its mission towards ‘impact positive’ status”. Ninety one percent of their product is made from recycled, recyclable, renewable, biodegradable or Bluesign - it eliminates harmful substances right from the beginning of the manufacturing process and sets and controls standards for an environmentally friendly and safe production - certified fabrics.

Eva Karlsson, CEO, Houdini Sportswear, says, "We find ‘sustainability’ not only a boring phrase, but an underwhelming ambition. To be sustainable should be seen as the bare minimum for an organisation’s social and environmental impact. Imagine a world where businesses set out to have a positive impact on the planet, and customers demanded it.”

Can fashion ever be ‘sustainable’? “With the knowledge and available technologies of today fashion (as in apparel) could and should be way closer to sustainable than what is currently the case. The trouble is best technologies and best practices are seldom implemented by retailers and brands, or some are implemented for one specific product or product group rather than for the big bulk. This is true not only for environmental factors, but for social and ethical factors as well.” says Karlsson.

“There are numerous reasons for this. Lack of guts and willpower to change, lack of knowledge, lack of time in an ever speedier fast fashion market. On the systemic level hinders are built into the system – buyers and sustainability managers are often working in their separate silos, the pricing structures of today work against the transition to sustainable business practices and regulations are poor.” she says.

Can fashion ever be sustainable? linen flax celc water consumptionIs the future buying differently then? The Victoria & Albert Museum recently held an exhibition entitled ‘Fashioned From Nature’ looking at the materials and inspiration the fashion industry has taken from nature. It was sponsored by CELC, The European Confederation of Flax and Hemp and they used the exhibition to highlight and promote this natural fibre - linen.

Marie-Emmanuelle Belzung, Director, CELC, The European Confederation of Flax and Hemp, says, “Not many people know – almost nobody – that three countries in Europe are the worldwide leader in flax production: France, Belgium and the Netherlands. More than 80 per cent of worldwide production comes from these three. And the quality from here is far superior to elsewhere, because the climate and conditions are perfect, and the knowledge and expertise are far superior. So, linen production is very local – you can see the fields from the Eurostar.”

Right - Flax - linen - grows naturally with no irrigation

“And there is no irrigation – no water needed, no GMO, no waste, no poison going into the water system, which is vital when you consider the demand for water in the future. Plus, linen is a good local employer: it takes five times more labour than wheat, because flax is a very technical crop. More technical than corn or wheat or other agricultural products that might occupy the fields. Then, the process of transferring the plant to the fibre is purely mechanical, involving no chemistry. Linen is natural, and entirely sustainable.” says Belzung.

Compared to cotton, which uses enormous amounts of pesticides and water, linen is a local European crop and is underused in fashion with many associating it with seasonal summer shirts and suits.

“Linen’s continued popularity is thanks to innovation. In the last ten years, linen the textile has enjoyed two major innovations. Knitted fabric has developed thanks to innovation on the yarn. Knitted linen overturns one stereotype: it is linen that does not wrinkle. Second is washed linen, which gives the fabric some pep and so seduces a new generation of consumers. Makes linen soft and chic.” says Belzung.

“In our special project with Chelsea College of Arts the concept of linen as a sports fabric – natural moisture management, naturally hypoallergenic and anti-bacterial – was one of the strongest ideas. Of course, blending anything with petro-chemicals diminishes the sustainability argument. Flax fibres are also being combined with eco-plastics to create, for example, car interiors, speakers and sporting equipment such as skis.” she says.

Flax fibreLinen is a perfect example of how consumers can swap one fabric for another. If consumers have a choice between a white cotton shirt and a white linen shirt, with this knowledge, they can make a more educated decision with less environmental impact.

Montgomery says, “We are consuming more cotton than we are growing, so materials like flax will need to be used more by designers in the future. An education programme will be needed because, while brands continue to use cotton, consumers will buy it instead of alternatives such as flax because they are familiar with it. The Copenhagen Sustainable Fashion Summit has been very successful in getting high profile leaders from academia and industry together to discuss sustainability, but it is still only covering the converted. The loop from producer to consumer needs to be joined up.”

Right - Raw linen on display in the Victoria & Albert Museum Exhibition ‘Fashioned From Nature

“We need the whole industry to understand that sustainability needs to be applied to all aspects of the fashion business. Starting from yarns to fabric, manufacture, producing less through better range planning, making more locally, as well as recycling. Technology is being used to resolve the issue and their are new developments coming through such as polymer recycling, but this will take time. A lot more can be done in the short term simply by every brand making a sustainable commitment. The Kering group for example have been very pro active in enforcing their sustainable strategy across the group, while the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is researching new ways to inspire a generation to re-think, re-design and build a better future through a circular economy.” he says. 

“If the industry would let go of business as usual and decide on making the transition without compromise it could do so today. With emerging technology it could reach even further, becoming truly sustainable, restorative and even regenerative.” says Karlsson.

I don’t think it’s realistic to ask people to buy less. It’s even more patronising to ask people with less money not to buy cheaper clothes. We need people to buy differently while we wait for technology and economics to close the circle on fashion items. 

In the future, I can see us recycling our clothes like we do with other recyclables. Putting them into piles according to their fibre make up. This will satisfy the speed of fashion and also the in-built disposabiltiy.

Things need to go around and around and around. It’s not enough for something to be made out of plastic bottles once. It, itself, needs to be recyclable and then into something else and then something else. We need to close the loop. That is sustainable.

Published in Fashion

The first ever UK exhibition on the Spanish fashion designer, Cristóbal Balenciaga, and his continuing influence on modern fashion opens at the V&A. The exhibition marks the centenary of the opening of Balenciaga’s first fashion house in San Sebastian, Spain and the 80th anniversary of the opening of his famous fashion house in Paris. 

Left - The man himself, Cristóbal Balenciaga

TheChicGeek says, “While I love the V&A’s Fashion Gallery, the big exhibition space, where Pink Floyd currently is, is usually larger and something to get more excited about. But, this exhibition feels less cramped than previous exhibitions in the space - see Underwear here - and upstairs has a nice, spacious flow.

Balenciaga, as a designer, was serious. Those black voluminous gowns seem to sum up his lack of fun. He feels strict in that Spanish Catholic way, manifesting itself in his designs using lace and the Spanish Mantilla. You don’t get much feel for the man or his personality, but I think that’s how he liked it. He only gave one interview in his life, and that was just before he died.

Left - Known for his elegant volumes, Balenciaga was one of the great couturiers of the 20th century

The name disappeared into the history books when he closed his house and only came back into common culture with its revival around 20 year's ago when Gucci’s parent company, Kering, bought it alongside Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen.

Downstairs is a collection of pieces, mostly coats and dresses, from his most prolific period the 1960s. These are sculptural clothes for pictures and striking as they are, when they become practical, to enter the real world, particularly the commissions by the rich Americans, they look dated and frumpy. His volumes work on their own, but on people they add bulk and often swallow the wearer. These aren't easy wearing pieces.

Some of his pieces aren’t practical either. The wearer couldn’t sit down or go to the toilet in 'Envelope' dress, for example, but this doesn't detract from its beauty.

This was the golden age of 20th century of couture and while he produced ready-to-wear with his 'Eisa' range, his heart was in his exacting standards and the fine fabrics he used. 

Left - The 'Envelope' dress, 1967, a design you couldn't sit down or go to the toilet in

Balenciaga is more a collection of one-off greatest hits than themed seasons in the vain of Saint Laurent. These weren’t particularly well documented, even though they were huge, between 150 to 200 looks, as the press weren’t allowed into his shows, so the main imagery is striking black and white shoots in the magazines at the time which have entered in the common psyche of 20th century fashion images.

Upstairs is a large display with a varied selection of designers, both old and new, paying homage to the volumes that Balenciaga pioneered. There are a couple of men’s pieces by JW Anderson and Rory Parnell-Mooney to illustrate that his influence isn’t restricted solely to womenswear.

Left - JW Anderson paying homage to Balenciaga with his tulip trousers

There are a couple of pieces from the new Balenciaga, under Demna Gvasalia, who is producing great things and referencing the house while making it feel contemporary. Unfortunately, there isn't a blue Ikea bag in sight!

Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion until 18th February 2018. Admission £12

Published in The Fashion Archives