LONDON, United Kingdom — Floral fabrics for a collection of dresses? Colourful prints in the summer? That’s hardly groundbreaking marketing — if anything it’s become quite the fashion cliché.
Yet consumers, it seems, can’t get enough of printed dresses. And not just for the hotter months.
Take Zara’s polka dot dress, which went viral last summer in the UK and even had its own fan account on Instagram with nearly 26,000 followers. Its success was down to the fact “its classic monochrome print and loose fit were flattering for women of all shapes, sizes and ages — and affordable to most,” said Marguerite Le Rolland, beauty and fashion research manager at Euromonitor International. Today, the retailer still sells a version of the smock dress in more muted colourways suited to the winter months.
Printed dresses have enjoyed a renaissance over the past few seasons, with a wide consumer appetite evident across price points, from high street names to pricier offerings by brands like Zimmermann seeing sales all year around. Last year, the global dress market tipped $62 billion, with sales expected to reach $67 billion in 2021, according to research company Euromonitor International. But despite the ubiquity of printed dresses, a host of contemporary labels have managed to really capitalise on the category, building cult followings and successful ready-to-wear offerings in the process.
It worked because of the price and the prints.
For Rixo founders Orlagh McCloskey and Henrietta Rix, dresses began as the business’s bread and butter. Today, Rixo offers a mix of apparel, swimwear, bags and jewellery, but when the brand launched in 2015, it was with a 2o piece collection of mostly silk-printed floral dresses, blouses and skirts.
“Everything was just dressy, silk dresses. We weren’t a lifestyle brand, we were such a one-dimensional brand,” said McCloskey. But the quality-price equation was core. It worked because of “the price and the prints,” said Rix.
Most of Rixo’s dresses retail around the £300 mark, placing the label firmly in the accessible luxury segment. While the look is quite youthful, Rixo’s core shopper is a 35-year-old, professional woman with a high income and willingness to splash out on a dress. The brand has also been very restrictive on supply, running an 80 percent full-price sell through rate.
Keeping a tight control over distribution also helps maintain the brand’s value. Rixo initially turned down high-profile suppliers because of a concern about over-extending the brand in London. They regularly cut back wholesale orders.
Rixo were profitable in the first-year thanks in part to a Chinese supplier willing to bet on small orders and flexible payment terms. Four years later, with zero marketing spend and over 140 stockists, the brand expects sales of £15 million ($19.5 million) this financial year ending June 30, 2020.
“We’re here for the long term,” Rix explained.“We’re not going to be this Instagram contemporary brand, we want consistency, we want to know our customer, we’re not looking to sell it on in two years’ time.”
Nevertheless, Instagram has been a powerful marketing tool for Rixo and its contemporary peers, with bold colours and lively prints grabbing consumers’ attention while scrolling through feeds.
This was also the case for Rotate by Birger Christensen, the brand launched by Danish retail executive Denise Christensen in August 2018 alongside stylists-turned-influencers Thora Valdimars and Jeanette Madsen, who were enlisted by Christensen to create the collection. It was designed to be an eye-catching collection of dresses: full of bold colours, prints and sequins.
The brand leveraged Valdimars and Madsen’s extensive social media network and influencer circle of friends to raise its profile. Its first hit was a hot pink mini dress with leg-of-mutton sleeves, priced at £280. Christensen thought the brand might shift 200 of the dresses. To date, it has sold 2,000 of that one style.
You can wear them with hoodies, layering pieces, with trainers, but there’s also that customer that you can really dress up.
Like Rixo, Rotate saw an affordable price point as a must, even though the dresses would be of a high quality and well-constructed. “We compromised a little bit on our own margins to make sure that we keep the prices [down],” Christensen said.
Christensen declined to share sales figures for Rotate, but global fashion search platform Lyst spotlighted the brand as one to watch this year, after searches for the label increased 27 percent between May and October in 2019. Now in its fourth season, the brand is stocked at luxury retailers like Net-a-Porter, Browns and Selfridges, and is exploring category expansion beyond dresses, with tops and jumpsuits.
Cool-girl “It” brand Reformation sells a broad range of clothing from outwear to underwear and swimwear (in July 2019, the New York Times reported the brand expected sales to exceed $150 million that year). But dresses have always been the brand’s most popular item, said Founder Yael Aflalo.
“The key is getting the fit right,” she said. “The design process is focused around getting that right rather than on a specific trend. That said, if a particular style with a puff-sleeve or a high slit is selling incredibly well, we’ll make it in more shapes, lengths, fabrics, and colours.”
The popularity of the dress category is unlikely to wane. Instagram has helped to casualise what was previously reserved for smarter occasions like weddings, with influencers and stylists showing their followers how to style their dresses more casually.
“You can wear them with hoodies, layering pieces, with trainers, but there’s also that customer that you can really dress up,” said Poppy Lomax, womenswear buying manager at London department store Selfridges, which saw dress sales grow 37 percent last year.
But as the print trend matures, designers will have their work cut out to keep the aesthetic evolving. Selfridges’ Lomax has already seen a shift from brands, however.
“It’s still about bold print, but not necessarily a floral print,” she said. “We’ve seen a good increase on the oversized dress, whether it’s short or midi or maxi. It feels like the shape is moving on.”
Additional reporting by Sarah Shannon.