Memo: Spring 2021

The SoHo streets roared on a Saturday night. Joggers and Allbirds were no longer in sight. Long-past solitude and endless fright, fashion returned in all of its might.

This weekend, after a year of pandemic restrictions, the streets of Lower Manhattan were lively. A celebration could be found in the streets. With warmer weather, every sidewalk table was inhabited. While indoor dining returned on February 12, contact tracing and restrictions still apply. The street car-like “outdoor dining” solutions that kept the city alive during 20 degree weather were packed at every restaurant.

Athleisure, tennis shoes, and Canada Goose coats had been set aside for the type of understated yet casually elegant fashion that Manhattan is known for. It felt like the release of pent up energy manifested through consumer behavior, a roaring scene of jubilation and free spending. But I wanted to quantify it in as simple a way as I could find.

The “Roaring Twenties” of the 20th Century was a boom period in new construction, new infrastructure, pent up demand, and new forms of art. The “Roaring Twenties” of this century will see a similar boom in new construction, high speed internet and commerce adoption, pent-up demand, and creator-driven dynamism. What our internal data explores may indicate that Roaring 2.0 may be well on its way for the fashion industry.

The DTC Power List tracks 465 modern brands, marketplaces, and retailers. Of those, nearly 280 are manufacturers or resellers of fashion products. For the first time since the list has tracked growth data, 75% or more of the top 20 growth positions are apparel and accessories retailers.

The direct-to-consumer industry has quietly served as a leading indicator for how the greater economy will change. Apparel and accessories retail has nearly completed its return to form and the timing couldn’t be better for an ailing sector. According to 2PM analyst Hilary Milnes:

Retail store openings are outpacing store closures for the first time in years, following 2020’s record year for shutterings, as companies rebound from the worst of the pandemic.

As more consumers prepare to return to their social lives, the apparel retailers that hold onto two key insights will regain momentum lost over the previous year: (1) there is pent up luxury consumer demand and (2) eCommerce is an applied science. A recent quote by Ministry of Supply Co-Founder and CEO Aman Advani encapsulated a sentiment shared by many across the retail industry who struggled to navigate:

We’ve been close to tears more times than I can count over the past 11 months. There’s a class of people killing it right now that makes Pelotons, but there’s a lot of people in our shoes. [1]

Soon enough, the tables may turn. With warm weather and a desire to connect in person, gyms like Williamsburg’s Equinox were packed with members returning to their old haunts (albeit with masks). It’s the Pelotons, Mirrors, and Tonals who may have to re-establish value propositions as North American consumers look to take a break from our virtual-first lives.

Roaring 2.0s

Few brands seem to understand the two key insights of pent-up demand and eCommerce as applied science like Ralph Lauren. The generational lifestyle brand is advertising a timely experiment that may come to define the application of lessons learned through the pandemic and how they may impact physical retail. On March 25, the brand is hosting an immersive fashion experience led by star musician Janelle Monae called “All or Nothing At All.” The company has hosted live stream events before. This time, Ralph Lauren is layering an eCommerce opportunity atop the experience.

This one promises to be similarly cinematic, only with guests invited to experience it from home, as well as purchase the see-now-buy-now collections from the same screen. [2]

This is the first of many pandemic lessons to be applied to life after lockdown. By broadcasting the in-store experience and making it available to online shoppers, Ralph Lauren is shaping how brands can safely re-engage casual fans of the brand while attracting new ones. In May 2020’s “DTC Ideas Taking Shape”, I explained the appeal of this linear commerce strategy:

Pioneered by Taobao and introduced to America through companies like ShopShops, live streaming is due to become the next great acquisition channel. [2PM, 3]

The Spring of 2020 represented a period of forced innovation as many brands and retailers, both modern and incumbent, wrestled with how to survive a once-in-a-century disruption. The Spring of 2021 is shaping up to reveal how well many of those retailers will apply the lessons learned. For many of those who are well-positioned to maintain (or regain) momentum, their new strategies will likely resemble a blend of the old and the new.

eCommerce is an applied science, blending proven strategies with new-age methods. The hybrid strategy of customer engagement has a role in capturing the pent up demand of Roaring 2.0. It’s neither “all” or “nothing at all” any longer. It is a somewhere in between, where online and offline is blurred for good.

By Web Smith | Editor: Hilary Milnes | Art: Alex Remy

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