Luxury Outlook | Innovation engine


As the big three U.S. automakers await to hear their fate on a requested bailout from the U.S. government and Citigroup teeters on the verge of bankruptcy, it now seems that the fall of Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns and other corporate casualities was just the beginning of what is likely to be a global economic meltdown of epic proportions.

With this as the backdrop, a reader recently wrote in to ask about the prospects for aspiring job seekers in the fashion industry more generally. Others have been wondering how some of the emerging businesses that have come to the fore in recent years are faring.

The short answer to both questions is that things are extremely tough out there, but there is always opportunity for innovators.

Even in the best of times, starting a fashion business is a risky proposition, with failure rates well above 90%. Add in the challenging mix of a tough credit environment, plummeting consumer confidence, rising unemployment and a general cloud of uncertainty, and the prospects for running a fashion business begin to look decidedly gloomy.

It is not only small retail and fashion businesses that are suffering. Even some of the big boys have seen tough times in recent months. One need only note that Neiman Marcus’ revenues fell 27.6% in October 2008 versus the same month last year.

But this too has had a follow-on impact on small design businesses, who lack their own retail distribution and therefore rely on department stores and specialty boutiques to get their products to market. Most emerging fashion businesses are only just beginning to feel the impact of the downturn now as department stores have been cutting back orders for Spring/Summer 2009, and cutting out some brands altogether.

As for fashion industry jobs, many companies have instituted strict hiring freezes across the board. At Condenast, news of an across-the-board 5% cut of all magazine staff has been leaking onto the Internet. This is in addition to a 5% budget cut and the compression of several titles including Men’s Vogue. Many European luxury brands have also got hiring freezes in place.

However, all is not lost. Even in times of economic crisis (or perhaps, especially in times of economic crisis) true innovators who deliver exceptional value will be rewarded. A buying director of an internationally-recognised fashion retailer told me that the companies that are suffering the most are the ones that don’t have a unique point of view. She pointed to many of the L.A.-based contemporary brands whose products are interchangeable, except for their brand labels.

On the other hand, she said that design-led businesses offering competitive price points, like Camilla Skovgaard and 3.1 Phillip Lim, continue to perform. It’s not a coincidence that both of these brands produce their product in China to achieve the quality/price relationship that consumers are increasingly expecting.

On the high-street, there are successful innovators too. American Apparel (leaving CEO Dov Charney’s dodgy tactics and questionable personal behavour aside) continues to experience soaring retail sales because of its unique positioning and easy-to-manage product assortment that has struck a chord with aspiring hipsters around the globe.

In the fashion job market, digital media experts who understand the fashion world are being hired by major brands and retailers that are finally looking to the Internet seriously as a distribution channel.  The Internet, by several accounts, is continuing to provide growing revenue streams in the luxury and fashion space. And, as advertising budgets are cut back, its wide-reach at relatively lower costs than say, a page in American Vogue, means more investments may be made in company websites and cost-effective online marketing initiatives.

Perhaps the one positive thing about recessionary periods is that they do foster innovation and creativity, as opposed to allowing people to rest on their laurels or ride others’ coat tails. This video runway show from Jean Charles de Castelbajac, in cooperation with Lego, for example, has become an Internet hit. Incidentally, his business was just saved from bankruptcy by Atlas Design Group last week.