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How to Fix the Fashion System

With designers departing historic houses and the rise of digital creating a culture of more, more, more, BoF editor at large Tim Blanks joins designer Erdem Moralioglu, blogger Susanna Lau, publicist Daniel Marks and editor JJ Martin to discuss the problems facing the industry and how to fix them.
BoF's Tim Blanks chairs a discussion on the flaws of the current fashion system | Photo: Mark Sanders for BoF
By
  • Tim Blanks

LONDON, United Kingdom — On a balmy Friday in the salubrious, stucco-fronted district of South Kensington, BoF's editor at large Tim Blanks gathered together four individuals from fashion in the newly opened South Kensington Club to discuss the latest developments in fashion. They included: the designer Erdem Moragliou, who after 10 years in business with his independent label, Erdem, opened his first bricks and mortar store in Mayfair this year; one of the original fashion bloggers, Susie Lau, who launched Style Bubble a decade ago and now boasts 247,000 followers on Instagram; Daniel Marks, director of The Communications Store, which he joined 14 years ago. His clients include Net-a-Porter and Versace. And the editor at large of Wallpaper* JJ Martin, who runs her own vintage fashion site LaDoubleJ and is a consultant.

TOO BIG, AND TOO FAST:

A lot of fashion houses today are being run like consumer packaged good companies. There's no difference between selling handbags and toothpaste.

TB: Lets look at the unsustainable pace of fashion in light of what happened late last year at two of the most important French fashion houses, Dior and Lanvin. What is fashion doing to its designers?

JJM: Gobbling them up and spitting them out.

SL: It's been thus for quite some time. I don't know why we are suddenly asking these questions now.

DM: There are some who have been gobbled up and spat out, but there are others who are thriving. Fashion seems to be extraordinarily interesting to so many people; the demand is increasing and we seem to be feeding that demand and perpetuating it.

TB: What are the elements driving this absolute hunger for more and more?

SL: The biggest development of the last decade is conflating the luxury industry with the fast fashion industry, and one trying to replicate the other in a way that makes no sense, because they're two very different customers.

TB: What about in the mid-'90's, when Prada and Gucci said you could have a taste of their world with a key ring or a wallet?

SL: There wasn't pressure on ready-to-wear to suddenly have as many product categories or aesthetics. If you look at the luxury brands that have lost their identity, it's because they want to try and be everything, and do everything for everyone.

JJM: You have people making decisions who have nothing to do with the whole creative vision. I think someone like Raf Simons would have been deeply upset about not having a hand in all of the various aspects that represent his work, but in today's world that's impossible. Or you take an approach like Karl Lagerfeld. He's obviously directing, but there's no way he can design every single thing.

SL: This general assumption that there's this blanket consumer, who is voraciously consuming all this content and product and clothes, is not the case. We're overproducing.

JJM: I agree. I think the match that set the entire bomb was the rise of digital. The fast fashion companies could never have copied all these other brands if we didn't put the images online immediately. Fashion hasn't had time to reset its systems and values for a digital revolution. So you have a lot of dumb decisions being made. The fast fashion labels having such enormous success are going to be dangling little cherries in the eyes of fashion executives, so they're going to speed up their process and do more collections. A lot of fashion houses today are being run like consumer packaged goods companies. There's no difference between selling handbags and toothpaste.

DM: We feel bombarded because this is our industry. The reality is the consumer isn't taking in 150 different ideas or 300 different brands, because they don't have time.

TB: But the way more people know more about art and know more about fashion, do you think the 'more, more, more' is because there's more of everything?

JJM: How big is big enough? When can you reach a point and say: "I'm successful and I don't need 600 stores globally. I don't need to do $2 billion in sales." For you, Erdem, when will be the point that you want to stop and keep it how it is?

EM: That's an interesting question. It's so difficult to answer. There's always something else you feel you want to achieve. That's no different from anyone. I don't think you ever have a sense of "I am ready to retire."

From left, clockwise: Susanna Lau, Erdem Moralioglu, JJ Martin and Daniel Marks | Photo: Mark Sanders for BoF

TB: But instinctively, you wouldn't think it would be the creative person driving the stampede to a multibillion dollar business. Is that pressure compromising creativity?

EM: Well, you're talking about the mechanics of large brands. There are different models. You have the model of independence or the model of being owned by a luxury group or some form of investment. But, how creativity functions within the mechanics of a very large machine is challenging.

DM: But don't you feel compromised?

EM: I don't because I do exactly what I want. I own my company and every decision I make is mine. If I have in any way felt compromised, it's a result of my decisions.

JJM: And you don't say to yourself, "I can't do because I know it won't sell well."

EM: No, I hate that idea. I mean, I made a dress out of raffia! I think if your motivation is purely commercial it becomes something else.

TB: Do you feel fashion has been tripped up by its own illogicality? That this huge non-fashion machine has been imposed on fashion, and the way fashion works isn't compatible?

EM: Do I feel compromised that I need to do Pre-Fall and the collections? No, because I don't think the one collection would have existed had I not done the other. That Spring/Summer collection existed because I did Resort. It forced me to turn the page. You finish a show and it's totally traumatising — not traumatising — but you're like, "What do I do next?" You have no choice but to move on.

JJM: So, it's not like the show is too early and there are too many shows?

EM: That is up to the designer. It's my decision to show four collections and certainly not every journalist has to go to every show — don't! For me, they help me turn a page. I've done a week of press in Paris, and it's suddenly October and I have to get my head around Fall, but I have to do this other collection. That helps me in a weird way — in a bizarre way.

DM: The reality is we have built enormous bricks-and-mortar stores. We have made every high street look exactly the same and that's not exciting anymore. We need to think about individual experience — the person coming in to a store and saying, "I want to buy that bag because I love it."

TB: And if I love that bag and my friend loves it next year, she can go to that store and buy it too — that it hasn't gone because it's been replaced.

DM: Isn't that the joy of a brand like Hermès? The Kelly bag is never going away. I think that's one of the secrets of new brands and emerging designers. Celebrating their DNA and not being ridiculed by the press for putting out a signature.

JJM: I love signature!

DM: But more often than not, it's: "Oh, I've seen this before."

JJM: We need an exclusive! A global exclusive! What are you talking about?

SL: That's the industry being up its own arse! People don't care about who got it first. Brands need to look at their roots and why they existed in the first place. Because of this uncontrollable scale, and growing beyond their means, they've forgotten what they're about in the first place.

DM: Isn't that the worst self-fulfilling prophecy? You build a business, make it bigger, and have to sell more; focus on your best sellers, open more stores to make more money? That's the nasty part of the cycle — and, apart from your shareholders, who is to say that's success?

SHOWS AND SCHEDULES:

We are doing all our promotion of products that won't be available for four to six months. It's absurd.

TB: There's still the old system of showing, producing, delivery. But then there's this digital age where everything is instant.

JJM: We are doing all the promotion for products that won't be available for four to six months. It's absurd.

DM: To Susie's point, we're talking about simultaneous consumers here: the mass and the luxury consumers. Fashion shows are a trade event — that still exists and hasn't gone away. But now the fashion show platform is going out to millions of people who are saying, "I want that bag!" And you have brands like Versus Versace doing 'buy now, see now' from a catwalk show, but that collection is not being seen or traded in the same cycle.

TB: Is that dangerous?

JJM: I think it's very dangerous. Because it's feeding all of these fast fashion companies that are just copying all of these designers' hard work.

SL: Would we suggest that the schedule be moved so that all ready-to-wear shows be ready at the same time as haute couture, and go to market right away?

JJM: But Susie, it's not a point of when the collections are shown, but when they are bought. If the collections get bought three to six months earlier than any show schedule, and what shows is what is in the store now, then we have a new schedule. It becomes for the consumers and for the press — which is going to be 100 percent digital anyway. So there should be two moments: private moments for buyers and later, the show for the public and the press.

DM: But that's exactly how fashion started. The private moment was the show and the public moment was when the clothes hit the floor. What would be required is a six month break to stop, regroup, and allow the system to catch up with itself.

JJM: Or the designers can be clever about it, and already produce what they are showing on their runway and be ready for it.

SL: I think it's a good idea to push seasons closer together.

EM: I think within the couture model, where you're making a one-off for a very specific client, that works. In ready-to-wear that would be impossible unless you're pre-making all your collection.

JJM: What if you were showing your collection to buyers early and saving the show for press and consumers? Would it be possible to sell your collection in advance and produce it before your show?

EM: No, it would be impossible, because you would have buyers coming into your showroom, taking pictures of models. I think the moment you create a collection and show it to buyers, it's out there. Having a fashion show is the act of showing something you've been working on privately to the world.

SL: So you think the current season format still works for you?

EM: There are things that create a lot of pressure and relentlessness, but ultimately the way the system works is based on this idea of anticipation and excitement.

TB: But when you're showing your new collection before the last collection is in the store and the customer says, "I want that, what I just saw," is that an issue for you?

EM: For a woman to have chosen her wardrobe six months ago, and suddenly have it delivered, is a bit archaic. But, I just can't imagine creating a collection and then having to produce it without understanding who's buying it post the presentation and the show.

JJM: So you're saying that the press' interest and guidance helps in terms of the sales process?

EM: How we're functioning at the moment — journalists and shops are acting like magazines and creating buyable editorial. It's becoming increasingly blurred.

JJM: I feel the system is out of date. But I do find fashion week relevant. There is a cultural thing happening for us as an industry. It's nice for everyone to get together and socialise with other journalists, exchange ideas with retailers — for all the designers to come together. I don't think fashion week should go away.

DM: You get a cultural barometer of what fashion needs to say to the consumer; like being in Milan when Alessandro Michele transformed the brand and all of the sudden we're buzzing about Gucci.

SL: Isn't it a bit worrying that we need to have these changes with every single brand? Which is this thing that's happening, that people are suggesting houses create these moments of excitement every three years?

DM: I think the worrying part is designing product because of a need to fill shelves, as opposed to a need to entertain and conjure and fulfill dreams. We have thousands of images changing every minute, but we forget there's that magical moment where a consumer hands over a credit card to buy something they don't need, just to feel beautiful or better or rewarded. That's the magic we miss in this noisy digital arena of shouting at the consumer.

SL: I think there's diminished quality across the board in the industry so it makes those moments harder to come by — so when they do come it feels more pronounced.

TB: Yet there's a curious thing that a lot of those moments are emotional moments — especially when you are in a show and it's created by multiple factors. It's that very old school sense of drama and theatre that all coalesces into this thing we're impressed by. The digital experience flattens that.

JJM: Completely. The digital flattens it for the viewer, and then our digital reality is flattening it for the designers. They can't make magic 10 times a year, they can make magic twice a year — if that.

THE DIGITAL DISCONNECT:

The brands are petrified. They know they need to embrace digital and they don't know how.

SL: Ten years ago, everyone could become an influencer in their own right and have a voice, everyone making their own judgments and opinions. Every- thing is becoming so much more transparent that it's very hard to dictate and mould everything.

JJM: I think a lot of the brands are petrified. They know they need to embrace digital and they don't know how. They have 23-year-olds running their $2 billion empire and making friends with people who have a million followers on Instagram. Fantastic! But there's no way of tracking sales linked to that. Is that really the way to be manning your ship? I think that's a load of horse crap.

DM: But isn't this the new way to sell fragrance? If you have Gigi Hadid or Kendall Jenner walking down a catwalk or liking one of your photos, they're selling the fragrance, not the £2,000 coat they're wearing.

JJM: We need to start thinking about how selling that £2,000 coat works in the digital world. Everyone needs to get their heads wrapped around digital. The media needs to get their heads wrapped around it. They have a herd mentality and the brands are acting like a herd when it comes to: "We don't know what to do so let's make sure the Blonde Salad is front row."

DM: One of the issues with brands is that advertising content is generic — same model, same photographers — all generic. And you have to be in a lucky position to afford all of that.

JJM: I'm shocked that the brands haven't jumped ship from these traditional formulas. I think they don't understand the alternatives.

SL: Or even know the alternatives.

TB: There's never been a better time to be in fashion, there's never been more of a need for storytelling in fashion. I call it the digital campfire, which is the ability to tell stories in a more successful and direct way. Who is doing that?

JJM: Right now there aren't enough people doing that. I'm shocked that big publishing houses aren't turning their editorial teams towards this. I'm surprised that there's so much of a focus on print. And that's going to keep happening as all the big brands keep giving the same-looking ads to those same magazines.

DM: The brands and the media have this sort of odd pact, which is number counting. We put 'x' amount of advertisement in your publication and we want 'x' editorial back. If you don't give us 'x' editorial back, you won't get advertisement.

TB: Hasn't it always been like that?

SL: But there's more accountability now, and it's more transparent.

DM: Then there are a few publications that say: "We are going to make such exceptional content that whatever we do, from an investor's point of view, you're going to want to be part of our world." But I'm sorry; I am a sucker for a big, fat, beautiful Vogue story. Who wouldn't want to be part of that world? It's where you start to get generic catalogue that the magazines are suffering.

SL: Even more so online.

TB: Everybody has a voice and an opinion and a forum. What shake-up do you see of this notion of Darwinism?

DM: I think the consumer is going to filter it out. If you are signing major talent for an advertising campaign and the consumer has no engagement with that talent, the consumer will spot that a mile off and stop going into those stores. Advertising doesn't have the same impact, and brands aren't going to be spending the same amounts on celebrities.

JJM: Honestly, at this point, consumers can sniff it out. They really react well to authenticity. They react well to people who are generally in love with the product.

SL: What's interesting is you've got all of those mainstream digital influencers, but then on the flip side — and I'm talking about a market that skews much younger — is you've got girls coming up out of nowhere, no connection with the industry, but managing to have a brand by themselves.

TB: How? I follow some of them and I'm curious. If they're in Brazil, why do they have millions of followers in China?

SL: They're creating macro trends on their own without the help of fashion.

TB: How do they convince people that they are an authority?

SL: Authority doesn't come into it. It's about a consistency of voice and an aesthetic they have cultivated themselves — a confident point of view. A girl who is obsessed with My Little Pony colours has 800,000 followers because she's constantly posting things that are shades of pastel. It exists outside of fashion — not being informed by fashion — and it's a reaction actually to what's happening in mainstream fashion. The conundrum for brands and their storytelling is: who will they be speaking to in the future? They do have to look at millennials and even younger.

CREATIVITY IN CRISIS:

Brands need to be more sensitive to what a creator does while still understanding the business side, but it hasn't turned out that way.

DM: I think fashion has got very caught up in the idea of the 'best-seller.' "This jacket sells, so we must buy more of them." When the consumer has three of them, they don't want another one! So what happens with your personalities is they're not following the herd. None of us knew we wanted Gucci. It wasn't based on best-sellers, it was based on an explosion of personality.

TB: That was authenticity and a response to a history and a legacy as well. When we talk about Alessandro Michele, he's an exception to a rule. The next house that tries to do something like that, they're copying Gucci and no longer authentic. One of the big issues is human beings are impossible to predict.

JJM: It wasn't preconceived, that's what is genius about Alessandro. When you ask him what happened, he's like: "I did what I wanted to do, there's nothing special here."

TB: But the next people that do that, it's preconceived and it won't work.

DM: But it will work if it comes from passion and conviction for something. We're in this industry that is noisy, and if you are going to exhibit passion, it's a huge explosion. It's something that makes us feel and you say the consumer is difficult to predict?

TB: No, I said people are difficult to predict.

DM: But we're very predictable. We love emotion, kindness, anger — that makes us tick as human beings.

TB: But within that there is manifold unpredictability.

SL: How do we define that aesthetically speaking?

DM: I think you define that aesthetically by moving away from anything repetitive and banal.

SL: But they are banal.

JJM: With designers producing 10 collections, how can they not be?

TB: So what? They do fewer collections?

JJM: I think the runway should be the big bang.

DM: Don't we need a system that celebrates individual creativity? There are some designers who could do 100 shows and they have so much to give. There are other designers for whom it's okay to do something brilliant, and special and gorgeous once a year. Why can't we be multi-faceted?

SL: That's a great way of thinking. Why does success have to be in maximum product and product categories?

TB: The fashion industry can't embrace multitudes. There's this hidebound thought that says, "This is the way things have always been done so this is the way they will be done."

JJM: Why do we need to have 100 million stores around the world? It just seems absurd to me, once you get that click.

TB: Why are people obsessed with gigantism? Do you think it's the designers?

SL: No, it's the businesses and the people controlling them.

DM: I think designers need to find partnership and collaboration, and this is one of the hardest things; for designers to find teams across the commercial side of the business that champion them for who they are and what they stand for, as opposed to the bottom line.

JJM: Why does every brand need to go public? Why does Valentino need to become a billion dollar brand? They were doing amazing. Everyone knows that is the internal brief, but why?

SL: Brands need to be more sensitive to what a creator does while still understanding the business side. But it hasn't turned out that way.

DM: Champions of creativity can understand how to build an appropriate-sized business around the ability of the creator. If we're going to challenge designers and give them longevity, we need to have business people that understand what sustainability really is. And you need to have a retail system that admires and respects that.

TB: What about the designers themselves that are put off from jobs? What Raf did — it's a very radical thing to do.

JJM: I don't think Raf set it off, but he's an example of what is happening and someone that we can look to and say is representative of the zeitgeist. People are talking about spirituality, meditation, experiences — not buying objects. I think people are waking up and having a crisis, and they don't want to live their life from a phone. I think there will be a huge change.

DM: We also hear talk of quiet. For me, that's finding the rhythm that suits you. And this is what I mean about the industry needing to be more multifaceted — the consumer is like that too.

TB: Back to the Gucci situation; Marco Bizzarri took a huge risk. How many CEOs would have sat down with Alessandro Michele and said: "He is the guy to take my multi-billion euro business forward." Is risk-taking a solution? In a sense, in the business, you have nothing to lose.

JJM: Yes, absolutely! We need more risk takers.

DM: Design risk is different from business risk, and when you say, "Who is responsible for this," it's a collective. It's when you get everything you need to champion this creative and that creative is listening and has an understanding of who's coming in to buy the product.

SL: Well, the synergy between the creative and business world maybe isn't happening at a lot of companies.

JJM: Let's be honest. Probably Arnault is not sitting around like, "Let's look inward." They're looking at directives for all their top lieutenants to beat last quarter's numbers. Is that helpful for fashion? That may be helpful for a company like Givenchy that seems to be underdeveloped from a revenue stand-point. Based on all this buzz that Riccardo is so brilliant, it shocks me how small the business is — there's something disconnected there.

SL: Design by numbers is a really dangerous thing.

TB: The only definite thing about being hot is you are going to go cold.

JJM: Exactly and can that designer or that company deal with that?

DM: That is one of our greatest challenges in the industry. We can be guilty of being kingmakers. We say something is hot and then we say something is cold. The customer is responding to these beautiful butterfly embroidered shirts of Valentino and may still want that in a year, but we've said that's off the boil now. Is that their guilty pleasure? Who are we to say what's cool and what's not. If a brand chooses to be consistent and stick to something and celebrate its universe, the consumer is going to go with it.

TB: I agree, consistency is so underrated.

SL: And if we believe in the meritocracy, product will stand out in itself, whether or not it has this hype machine behind it. It goes back to that Hermès thing. It's not like they're trumping around Kelly bags all the time, but you know it's this beautiful thing that's consistently good.

JJM: Instead of saying the system is broken, the current system offers so many opportunities. Some designers will work with their own commercial team and select buyers and what they show on the runway will be ready. Who knows? I think what we're talking about is that these problems and difficulties present enormous opportunities for the fashion system to start looking at itself with new eyes, and to pave new roads.

To read our in-depth case study on Vetements, featuring Demna Gvaslia's thoughts on the fashion system, click here

To order your copy of BoF's special print edition, The New World Order, for delivery anywhere in the world or to locate a stockist, visit shop.businessoffashion.com.

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