Memo: In Good Fashion

The merits of fashion retail have never been logical but for the best operators, there is a way to make sense of the chaos.

Likeability, brand equity, and appeal can shift in an instant. But there are predictors of success and failure. Historical benchmarks have long been available to serve as guideposts for the savviest retailers looking to navigate tumultuous times of the present. Manufacturers have thrived during war, recession, protest, and pandemic, and only the poorer performers cited external factors as cause for concern.

A common misconception in the digitally native vertical brand industry is that the previous year of the pandemic is thwarting the growth of fashion retailers, harming sales projections, stifling growth, or shuttering doors. The hard data contends there’s more to the story. Of the current top 100 fastest-growing direct-to-consumer brands tracked by 2PM, 40 are fashion retailers, while four are in the top 10. This has been a breakout year for fashion.

Updated for the week of 2/8/2021

A number of modern brands deepened community and developed foundations for explosive growth over the last 12 months: Parade, Rowing Blazers, Madhappy, Aime Leon Dore, Tracksmith, Buck Mason, Gymshark, and Monica & Andy are but a few. For the retailers who struggled through the last year, this memo can serve as a helpful reset.

The average American buys a piece of clothing every five days. A study of historical crises will show that our behaviors do not slow to halt during moments of distress. Instead, they change; we allocate our spend differently. We limit our purchases to “affordable pleasures” or we shift to differing styles that represent the feel of the moment in question. We are wired to buy things to wear and we do so frequently, even the most frugal of us. What changes is how we express our individuality in evolving times.

Consider Ralph Lauren’s rise in the late 1970s and early 1980s despite a catastrophic American recession. A 1990 article in Utah’s 171-year-old daily paper Deseret News began:

If the 1980s were a movie – and the metaphor is almost unavoidable given actor/president Ronald Reagan’s domination of the decade – the credit lines would have to include costumes by Ralph Lauren. [1]

The designer identified and marched forward on a new approach to an established idea, the article explains: The New Traditionalism or “the baby boom’s kitschification of the middle age.” Lauren wasn’t the first; an even greater example of this strategy is 1947’s launch of then-obscure designer Christian Dior’s first line.

In 1947, my first collection was successful beyond my wildest dreams. 

After departing the army in 1942, the 37-year-old Dior joined the Lucien Lelong fashion house alongside a gentleman named Pierre Balmain, the house’s other primary designer. Drio, along with Lelong and Balmain, labored to maintain France’s fashion industry throughout World War II. Five years later, Dior launched his design house’s debut fragrance. The bottled Miss Dior perfume was a tribute to his sister Catherine who was liberated from a concentration camp just two years prior. Inspired by the country’s Belle Époque period of the late 1800s, Dior preceded Ralph Lauren in a period-driven return to tradition. It was his admiration of that period, 50 years on, that influenced a femininity in his design that would eventually take the contemporary fashion world by storm.

Fashion has never been logical. Sometimes, timing is as much a factor as anything else. For Dior, timing couldn’t have been better. Fast Company’s Liz Segran recently covered COVID-19’s effect on fashion trends. She cited Dior’s prescient strategy and brilliant timing:

During World War II, for instance, women wore jeans and overalls as they took over men’s jobs. Then, in 1947, Christian Dior unveiled his debut collection, which featured figure-hugging jackets, fitted waists, and A-line skirts. It was a radically feminine look that repudiated the utilitarian, masculinized garments of the previous years—and that was the point. Around the world, women swooned over this style, dubbed the “New Look,” which became a dominant fashion trend of the late 1940s and early 1950s. [2]

This next part is prescient. In that Fast Company report, Segran went on to explain the dynamic of women wearing men’s workwear, including overalls and denim, during the war. She cited author Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell explaining how, even after the war concluded and the pendulum swung to a radically feminine look, the fashion trends of the war persisted:

After a crisis, there is a backlash, but there is also a lasting effect. Both of these can be true at the same time.

The war years normalized a new era for womenswear, including pants and garments that were never before considered customary. This sheds light on the potential post-pandemic behaviors of today.

The retail industry has suffered from foundational issues. The reliance on debt leverage to fund growth and inventory has contributed to legacy companies filing for bankruptcy. Of these, J.Crew, Brooks Brothers, JCPenney, and Neiman Marcus are three of many.

However, like womenswear post-World War II, the reset is not as clear as once thought. America’s current comfort in casual wear is likely to persist in the home and places of work for years to come. Consumers did buy clothes to wear during the pandemic despite the remote work trend, stay-at-home orders, and distance learning. The clothes or the messages by the retailers were just unique to the time.

Good Fashion, Bad Everything

This year, traditional retailers like VF Corporation’s The North Face grew in prominence through careful merchandising, streetwear adoption, and savvy collaborations (See: Gucci). Lululemon’s stock is trading near all-time highs. And Gucci has become the “preferred” luxury brand of Generation Z.

While many brands are suffering, and some have had to take drastic measures like permanently closing stores, other brands like Dior or Louis Vuitton have been performing well, indicating that the pandemic is hitting brands with pre-existing conditions harder. [3]

Direct brands like Parade climbed from relative obscurity to $10 million in annual revenue. Rowing Blazers, a traditional menswear retailer, showed up on everything from NBA stars to Princess Diana in Netflix’s The Crown. Madhappy used savvy merchandising, a persisting message, and their partnership with LVMH to earn Lebron James’ attention in the NBA bubble. The brand is now one of the most coveted streetwear brands born in the last five years. Gymshark accepted its first funding, landing at a valuation north of $1 billion. And Tracksmith, the amateur running brand, finally caught the attention of the mainstream after years of quiet growth. It is now featured across the airwaves thanks to the success of their succinct and aspirational advertising strategy.

Like Ralph Lauren’s rise to prominence during an economic recession and political and cultural reset, and Christian Dior’s establishing of a new post-war tone for American women that flew in the face of other trends, the brands that succeeded during our most recent global crisis did so because they were properly equipped. In each case, they all share (1) smart marketing, (2) savvy merchandising, (3) a messaging strategy that cuts through the worried noise, and most importantly, (4) appreciation for the history of the industry.

For the brands that struggle to regain their footing, at least one of the above four are missing. The pandemic has served as a mirror for modern and traditional retailers alike. Walk into a J.Crew and you may feel soulless. Walk into a Rimowa store and you will feel the sense of New Traditionalism that catapulted Dior and Ralph Lauren to generational success. An over-reliance on physical distribution, pay-per-click advertising, traditional merchandising cycles, academic marketing strategies, and stale interpretations of customer profiles are the preexisting conditions that culminated with the current state of retail distress.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Study the best practices of the past. There will always be momentum shifts, forth and back, over time. The brands that survive are studied in sociology, customer understanding, brand history, communication, and the experiences that elevate a product into a moment. These brands capture more than eyeballs; they capture imagination. It’s the one constant of an enduring brand over decades of ebbs and flows.

By Web Smith | Editor: Hilary Milnes

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