Charlotte Knowles and Alexandre Arsenault don’t sell tie-dye sweat sets, athleisure or other pandemic-era impulse purchases, but business was nonetheless very good last year.
The nearly four-year-old label, known for its take on mesh corsetry, has won over stylists and celebrities and secured accounts with trendy retailers. But bondage-inspired tank tops can only push a brand so far, even when they sell briskly for $500 a piece and are worn by the likes of Bella Hadid and Beyoncé. After a year of pandemic uncertainty, Arsenault and Knowles say they have ambitions to transform their Instagram-famous label into a full-fledged design house.
It’s a difficult transition that’s proven elusive for many brands, which struggle to hold onto their social media buzz as new labels elbow into the spotlight. But it can be done: labels including Amina Muaddi and Khaite have proved the potential for spinning long-term growth out of a hero product and Instagram likes.
Knowles and Arsenault are on their way: the label became profitable and rebranded to Knwls in April, adding new categories over the past year including accessories, swimwear, shoes, jeans and even a kids line exclusive to Ssense.
“We really want to expand our design language into things that are not just shirts and underwear,” said Arsenault. “I think it’s gonna be about kind of limiting that a bit so that the other categories can shine.”
Knwls is attempting to scale less than a year after the design duo hired their first full-time employee, a studio manager and production assistant. (They’ve since added a fourth member to the team, to manage accounting and e-commerce.)
We really want to expand our design language into things that are not just shirts and underwear.
The brand relies mainly on wholesale, with a distribution network of 25 stockists including Browns and Dover Street Market. Ssense is the crown jewel: a stockist that the duo refer to as a “pillar” for the brand and one that’s supported them since their debut at Fashion East’s 2018 London Fashion Week Show. Just eight percent of total units are sold direct to consumers, the brand said.
The reliance on wholesale is a different direction than most young labels, many of whom are focused on translating Instagram followings into direct sales on their own websites where margins are higher. While Knwls has seen interest so far in the new product categories— its bootcut jeans were one of the first items to sell out on Ssense — convincing buyers to buy entire collections or take a chance beyond hero products can prove difficult.
Launching into new categories as a young brand comes with increased risk. “There’s always feedback from stores to expand more and do more,” said Knowles. “And then you do it and their selection is always the same thing.”
Product development is expensive, and buzz on social media or from celebrities doesn’t always translate to sales.
“There are so many designers who dress celebrities, but can’t get a foothold … with a consumer,” said Gary Wassner, the founder of investment firm Interluxe and factoring company Hilldun.
Still Knwls has references and style that have caused fashion insiders and buyers to take notice and support their growth. “When the other brands leaned heavily on sweatpants in 2020, it was refreshing to see Charlotte and Alex doing something entirely different in their category growth,” said Brigitte Chartrand, vice president of womenswear at Ssense and an early champion of the brand. “Knwls has remained one of our fastest-growing emerging brands across the Ssense portfolio.”
Knwls also hasn’t had to spend much on marketing so far. The attention from editors and influencers was mostly organic, without paid promotions or gifting, Arsenault said. Those mentions are key drivers of sales, helping to sell out product after paparazzi shots and Instagram posts.
I don’t think the way we’re structured needs investment for growth.
Still, there’s room for a larger presence beyond celebrity placements and Instagram exposure. Though the designers are based in London, 60 percent of their online sales come from the US. Last season, the brand partnered with Browns to extend its audience reach within the UK market, with hopes that the placement will help the brand’s exposure to new consumers and strengthen its connection to the British Fashion Council.
Knwls also has the guidance of Milan-based showroom 24/7, that’s connected them with manufacturers for new categories: production is primarily in Europe, with bags and shoes in Italy and Portugal and most clothing made in London.
Arsenault and Knowles have been approached by investors, but so far remain uninterested in new capital.
“I don’t think the way we’re structured needs investment for growth,” said Arsenault. “We have strong partners and good people around us.”