STOCKHOLM, Sweden — In their paper, “The Law, Culture and Economics of Fashion,” law professors Scott Hemphill and Jeannie Suk define fashion as being simultaneously characterised by ‘differentiation’ and ‘flocking.’ On the one hand, consumers wish to belong to a group. On the other hand, they desire to assert their individuality and dress differently from others.
As fashion continues to be reshaped by digital media, ‘differentiation’ would seem to have the upper hand. ‘Personal style,’ ‘beyond trend’ and ‘individual expression’ are catchphrases of our day as social media puts more power in the hands of individual consumers and, in theory, allows for the growth of more variety in tastes, styles and brands.
Jörgen Andersson sees things a little differently. The newly-appointed co-global chief marketing officer at Uniqlo was previously chief marketing officer and global brand and new business director at retail giant H&M. Last week, at a seminar in Stockholm entitled ‘Swedish Innovations & High Street Fashion,’ Andersson shared insights from more than 30 years in the retail business and his thoughts on what he calls the ‘generic’ nature of contemporary consumer culture.
BoF: In your address, you used the word generic, both about fashion consumers and brands. Could you tell us a little more?
JA: I think today a lot of consumers talk about wanting to be unique and having their personal style, but in actual fact, almost everyone belongs to one of a few sub-groups of style. Since fashion went digital, everyone has access to the same information at the same time. And a lot is still very influenced by what goes on at the large luxury houses. Most shopping centres and main shopping streets have the same stores — many of them vertical retailers owned by multinational corporations who all have the same goal: to make money and expand. In order to do so, they have to look at what trends can be adapted for the mass market, which means the products are pretty much the same everywhere.
BoF: People do seem to look for influences in more different places though?
JA: Yes, but what they will find in those places is the same kind of different things. Take the Brooklyn style, with guys in shirts and selvedge denim and beards. Everyone in Brooklyn looks like that now. At the Selfridges office in London, they have a fantastic suite of photographs with people from different sub-groups. You have The Computer Nerds, The Skaters, The Rockers and so on. It is absolutely striking how different the sub-groups are, but also how similar they look to their peers within the group.
BoF: How about the luxury houses? Are they more different from each other?
JA: The large groups, Kering and LVMH, operate according to the same formula. They acquire smaller brands, help them broaden their customer offering for example by adding accessories, perfumes and bags. And if you do a blind test with luxury perfumes, of course, very few people can tell which brand they are from. It’s all about the packaging and the advertising, [and] ultimately the brand experience. I think that can be true about a lot of ready-to-wear too. A jumper with the label cut out can be from a lot of different brands.
JA: Well that, I think, is because there is this special profession, which is being a ‘fashion art director.’ Which is odd, because as far as I know there is no such thing as a ‘car art director’ who only does car advertising. This small group of fashion art directors, they all work with the same stylists and photographers and models, so it is no surprise most fashion advertising looks the same.
BoF: How did you approach the generic nature of fashion when you were at H&M?
JA: Ten, fifteen years ago when we were looking to better define the H&M brand and experience, instead of trying to find or invent something that was unique but still quite similar to others, we decided to keep it generic. H&M was simple; it was all about simplicity. The business concept is ‘fashion and quality at the best price.’
But that is actually something a lot of retailers can say about themselves. One thing made H&M different: H&M stores change constantly. There is always new supply coming in of all different kinds. We decided to build on that, and make everything about how we did things rather than what we did. We wanted to be the fun of fashion, where fun was defined by the width of the assortment, the affordable price, new garments every day, new and unexpected collaborations, and so on.
The idea was that the only thing that was to be consistent about H&M was the inconsistency.
BoF: The most well-known outcome of that decision is probably the designer collaborations, starting with Karl Lagerfeld in 2004.
JA: At the time, we were known for the outdoor advertising we published in November each year, the women in underwear who [caused] drivers to crash their cars because they couldn’t keep their eyes off them. We were criticised for those, of course, and we felt that we wanted to create something different and new. Something that would keep us top of mind. If people had ten minutes on Oxford Street, we wanted them to spend those in H&M.
Jan Nord, the creative director, and I started thinking about what to do and came up with the idea of a designer collaboration to communicate our business concept — fashion and quality at the best price. Karl Lagerfeld was top of our list, of course. To me, he embodies the changing nature of fashion. He’s said it himself: “I never do or say the same thing twice.”
BoF: How did the collaboration come about?
JA: Donald Schneider, who was then working with Vogue in Paris, and who is now creative director at H&M, put me in touch with Karl. When we met, it took about two minutes before Karl said, “I love it. When can I start?” Would he be in the ad for the collection? “Are you kidding? I love advertising. I love it.” At some point in our discussions I used the word ‘cheap’ about H&M, by mistake. He’s actually the one who said “Cheap, what a depressing word, I would much rather call H&M affordable,” which we ended up using in the commercial we created with him.
BoF: As part of your presentation, you also included six images from six different retail outlets that looked very much the same. And you mentioned that H&M’s CEO, Karl-Johan Persson, had a hard time picking out the H&M store among them. Would you be able to do the same thing with Tadashi Yanai, your new employer at Uniqlo?
JA: No, I don’t think so, because Uniqlo stores – although the interiors are like a white canvas – are merchandised in a particular way with the same pieces: the t-shirts, the lightweight down jackets, the cashmeres, and so on, are all displayed together in different colours. It’s so generic that it is instantly recognisable as Uniqlo.
Disclosure: Madelaine Levy is a contributor to H&M’s quarterly customer magazine.