At the start of 2020, French contemporary label Ba&sh was riding a surge of growth.The company’s sales had grown nearly five-fold since 2015, when LVMH-backed private equity firm L Catterton took a 50 percent stake, with its rise fuelled by consumer appetite for the brand’s Bohemian “French-girl” style and an international expansion push.Then the pandemic hit. Demand for the brand’s €260 dresses and €340 blazers fell, and its 280-strong global store network was largely forced to close. While the company fell back on e-commerce and pivoted to offer options like click-and-collect, its growth run came to a sharp halt.But when lockdowns eased, and consumers were able to socialise again, it was as if the brand barely missed a beat. This year, sales are on track to reach €254 million ($285 million), a 22 percent increase on 2019, Ba&sh said. By 2025, it has ambitions to double that number, chief executive Pierre-Arnaud Grenade said.The performance stands in contrast to the wider category, which was already filled with struggling brands before the crisis of the last 18 months.Price-wise, contemporary fashion sits in the middle of the market, below expensive “designer” labels but above fast fashion and high street brands. It’s crowded, competitive and its consumer is easily cannibalised by both higher-end and lower-cost options.That’s particularly true in periods of economic uncertainty. During a downturn, affluent shoppers tend to gravitate towards more special, luxury purchases, while middle-class shoppers may cut back on spending or focus on more value-driven offerings, leaving the middle to feel the squeeze. The pandemic period has been no exception, experts say.The contemporary market in general “has suffered quite badly,” said Nina Marston, senior analyst at market research firm Euromonitor International.And yet Ba&sh is among a cohort of brands bucking the broader market trend by going directly to consumers with a strong narrative and brand identity.Elsewhere, LoveShackFancy’s distinct brand of romantic-bohemian meets “cottagecore” has successfully captured the hearts — and wallets — of Gen-Z and Millennial shoppers. Sales at fellow L Catterton-backed label Ganni is on track to beat forecasts by more than 20 percent this year, according to CEO Andrea Baldo. Smaller labels like Budapest-based Nanushka and Oslo-based Holzweiler say they are growing fast. In the US, Reformation is outperforming major luxury brands, data from Earnest Research shows.Grenade describes Ba&sh as part of a “third wave” of contemporary labels reshaping the category for a new era of retail.A Fresh ApproachLogo-led apparel lines from US designers like Polo Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger dominated the mid-market price point in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Then came a fresh cohort of “accessible luxury” labels, like Theory, Vince and The Collected Group’s Joie, Equipment and Current/Elliott brands, which focused more on designer trends and upscale wardrobe staples at less-than-luxury prices.But many of these players prioritised scale over profitability and were slow to digital, while also relying heavily on lower-margin wholesale relationships with big department stores that were facing their own challenges. That gave brands less control over merchandising and pricing, and heavy discounting often eroded brand equity.Some players, like Vince, managed to get business back on track ahead of the pandemic. Others, like The Collected Group, which filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this year, had a harder time executing a successful turnaround. (The Group has since emerged from Chapter 11 following a restructuring.)The brands succeeding in the current market are doing things differently: they have their own sales channels and are focusing more on brand-building and storytelling to set them apart from competition at both the high and low ends of the apparel spectrum.“They’re true brands that have their own DNA, own set of values, proprietary design and concepts,” said Ba&sh’s Grenade.Many are approaching retail much more like a luxury brand would, focusing on building strong customer relationships, carefully curating retail partnerships and aspirational positioning — regardless of the number on the price tag. Nanushka and Ganni, for example, have effectively leveraged influencer marketing while choosing wholesale retail partners that position their garments alongside top luxury brands like Gucci and Balenciaga.“You have to be aspirational,” said Grenade. “You have to engage your people, so that they... like the purpose of the brand and they like to be a part of it.”Evolving the Business ModelWhen Grenade joined Ba&sh shortly after L Catterton’s investment in 2015, it was already more than a decade old and operating under a fairly traditional model. It had an e-commerce website, but online accounted for less than two percent of sales, while the brand relied heavily on wholesale accounts in its native France.Grenade shifted that model, expanding into new lines, including knitwear and outerwear, and launching accessories to give the brand more of a lifestyle offering. The label also moved from seasonal collections to a series of 20 drops a year to keep the products feeling fresh and new.Instead of relying on wholesale to drive growth in new markets, Grenade focused on bolstering the brand’s own channels with strategic — and profitable — retail locations and investments in digital. Today, e-commerce accounts for a third of the business and only seven percent of sales go through wholesale partners.“You have to make sure that you always are very balanced in the way you do things,” Grenade said. “There are many factors that can affect the stability of a company today. If you are a regional champion and your home market isn’t doing well, you are in danger.”Grenade also did away with traditional advertising, redirecting the budget into brand marketing and digital investments, and setting up an internal “content factory” to create a steady stream of pictures, videos and other assets for social networks. Strategic wholesale partners, like Shopbop and Bloomingdale’s, have also served as a key marketing channel and customer acquisition tool, rather than a business driver, said Grenade.Staying CompetitiveFor contemporary brands, the stakes are higher than ever, as the fight for consumer attention within a challenging price category has intensified. For long-term success, companies need a brand proposition that stands out.“What makes a strong player in today’s very saturated apparel market is distinctive storytelling, distinctive aesthetic... and also brand ethos,” said Marston.Consumer expectations are changing too; a growing number of successful brands in the contemporary segment are pitching themselves as sustainably minded to help justify higher prices to shoppers, said Globaldata analyst Louise Deglise-Favre. “As a premium brand, you have to tell people that you are sustainable,” she said.In 2017, Ba&sh began rewiring its supply chain and business operations to run more sustainably, Grenade said. This Spring, it unveiled a new set of environmental targets, and is experimenting with new business models like rental and resale.The company expects future growth to be driven by further expansion in the US and Asia. In China, a region that currently accounts for 12 percent of sales, it plans to add an additional 40 to 45 new stores. Further developing its accessories offering is also a priority, while the goal is to scale e-commerce to account for almost half of revenues.Underpinning these initiatives, however, is a customer-centric focus, said Grenade.“Retail is about relationships [with customers],” he said. “Focus on the relationship and money will follow.”Additional reporting by Rachel Deeley.