It doesn’t take a genius to note that now is not the ideal time to launch a new fashion business. If you are launching your new business, this season, you probably started way before this disaster of a virus appeared and it was too late not to see it through. Too much time and money has been invested to pull out. You’re not a quitter.
Left - In September, MATCHESFASHION launched its The Innovators Programme to help support young designers
It’s a bit like all those cranes on the skyline and builders finishing off their dense blocks of luxury flats. It’s too late to down tools, not finish them and get them on the market. But, fast forward six months and how many spades will still be in or breaking new ground?
There will a gaping hole of projects starting and the fashion business will have one of the largest.
The V shaped, bounce-back recession is ideal because it conserves this economic momentum and it just becomes a blip. Sadly, it’s not looking that way. There is still momentum in the market, but the longer Covid disrupts everything, momentum lessens, and the more time and energy it will take to get it all moving again. This will also make this gap even larger.
Fashion has a time lag. The time between starting and producing samples, to then show, get orders, make and then sell, and then get the revenues, is usually a long timeline. It’s a risk and nobody knows what the state of the market will be when you launch, even at the best of times. Today, many of those thinking about striking out alone and setting up their own thing will choose to put off starting well into next year when they can feel more confident about the economic landscape.
Without trade shows and fashion weeks - a vehicle to showcase to buyers - many stores and websites will reorder previous years’ product, with tweaks, from existing brands. This will only really start to show when SS21 hits the stores after Christmas and consumers will start to notice.
Fashion’s reason to be is newness, or the perception of newness, and a never ending supply of new brands and designers kept the whole industry feeling fresh and new, while established brands and giant luxury groups took most of the sales and profits.
Luxury multi-brand websites and department stores need newness to give vitality to its entire offer. It’s news, it’s buzz, it’s hype and they had it all without the financial risk. This veneer or gap needs to be filled and retailers and luxury groups are now realising that they will have to start supporting it or it won’t be there.
MATCHESFASHION has launched its year-long ‘The Innovators Programme’ designed to champion young design talent. It was built upon an existing womenswear project to include menswear and is a robust package of practical support including mentorship, preferential business terms and £1.8 million in marketing.
The programme was developed as the MATCHESFASHION team collaborated closely with designers during the Covid-19 pandemic. It became clear that many of the designers were unsure how their brands could thrive through 2020 and that practical support and ongoing commitment was required. The 12 designers are: Art School, Ahluwalia, Chopova Lowena, Stefan Cooke, Germanier, Halpern, Harris Reed, Charles Jeffrey LOVERBOY, Thebe Magugu, Ludovic de Saint Sernin, Bianca Saunders and Wales Bonner. Eleven of these designers were already partner brands and each designer was chosen "for having a unique and powerful DNA which is intrinsic".
“I am delighted that we have formalised our support for emerging talent, developing The Innovators into a programme that actually helps futureproof their businesses in what has been a tough year for the creative industry. I have worked with many of these designers for a long time and I am so happy that we are committing to their visionary collections in a practical, material way.” said Natalie Kingham, Buying Director at MATCHESFASHION. This group of designers will only contribute marginally to MATCHESFASHION’s group revenues, £372 million ended 31st January 2019, but they add far more to its brand as a destination for people who love fashion and a place to discover newness and the hottest design talent. This desire is insatiable and companies need this veneer of young designers and brands. A small financial outlay is worth the newness halo effect
In 2019, Liberty launched its ‘Liberty Discovers’ platform for up-and-coming talent. It supported designers by offering mentorship from the Liberty buying team and exposure opportunities via the brand’s communication platforms and access to Liberty’s two in-house product and fabric design studios, located within its Central London store.
Right - The LVMH Prize fund of €300,000 was split amongst the 8 2020 nominees
As for all the designer prizes, many decided to split the prize monies amongst the nominees due to the pandemic. The LVMH Prize finalists, Ahluwalia, Casablanca, Chopova Lowena, Nicholas Daley, Peter Do, Sindiso Khumalo, Supriya Lele and Tomo Koizumi all shared the €300,000 prize money equally. LVMH also pledged to support previous winners of the prize with a new fund, an undisclosed amount, and the six previous winners of the LVMH Karl Lagerfeld Prize.
In America, the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund was renamed ‘A Common Thread’. A Common Thread has raised over $5 million of which over $2.13 million was granted to 44 businesses in the first round of funding, $2.015 million granted to 37 businesses in the second round of funding and $500,000 granted to 47 NYC-based manufacturing businesses in the third round of funding for a total of 128 recipients across the three rounds.
Fashion’s tight production timetable and traditional cashflow model makes it very difficult for small designers and brands to survive. While the giant brands and retailers want to dominate, they also want a veneer of choice and newness. Expect to see many more funds, support and ‘prizes’ to appear from the large luxury groups and retailers.
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It 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.
“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