Creative Coalitions Finding Multifaceted Success

Forget private equity. A new wave of independent fashion brands in Europe is carving out success in a tough industry by being jacks of all trades.

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PARIS — Forget private equity. A new wave of independent fashion brands in Europe is carving out success in a tough industry by being jacks of all trades.

These creative coalitions — such as Acne Jeans, Surface to Air, Kitsuné and April77 — are not only churning out cool clothes and music, but excelling in such diverse areas as advertising and industrial and graphic design, and not necessarily in that order.

“[Creative coalitions] are a new form of company made up of advertising gurus. They have a lot of power because they know how to reach a new audience,” said Robert Burke, founder of consulting firm Robert Burke Associates.

In fact, by assembling a variety of creative talents, these coalitions are able to not only diversify their revenue streams — just as luxury conglomerates do — but fast-track their products and services thanks to expertise in new media and reach into multiple retail outlets.

Consider, for example, Acne Jeans, the Stockholm-based company that’s charting increasing sales growth annually, last year up 42.2 percent, thanks to its ability to multitask in manifold creative arenas.

Initially increasing its income from external clients, quickly the label’s internal projects gained momentum and developed into profitable separate entities. Today the company counts Acne Jeans, Acne Film, Acne Digital animations, Acne Creative (an advertising arm) and Acne Paper.

To be sure, these companies operate on a small scale, but they’re attracting the industry’s interest. Take Surface to Air, a purveyor of its own fashion and accessories label, which also runs a graphic design business that produces CD covers for the music industry, films and advertising. The Paris-based firm was recently tapped by Louis Vuitton to make a film on the luxury brand’s new line of fine jewelry by Pharrell Williams, himself a multitasking music-and-fashion impresario. Surface to Air also designs campaigns for luxury brands such as Burberry and Tsumori Chisato.

“We are heading toward a new breed of little design houses that are self-financed, an assembly of creative talent around one idea,” designer Christian Lacroix told WWD, citing the likes of Surface to Air and Acne Jeans as prime examples.

“The idea was to expand into all forms of media, without any hesitation,” said Jérémie Rozan, one of the four founding fathers of the Surface to Air collective. “We were going against common belief that businesses should focus on one specific category; instead we found it was very important to not count on just one source of income.”

This story first appeared in the January 8, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Without aid from outside investors, today the label’s sales have grown to over 3 million euros, or about $4.5 million at current exchange.

Having fingers in many pies can be a boon for such boutique businesses since multitasking feeds their core concept.

“It’s like a chemical reaction,” said Nobuyuki Ogata of Rio de Janeiro-based Oestudio. “Vast possibilities of expression with many different solutions to communicate one product.”

Oestudio (or The Studio, in English) is another creative hub ditching the designer one-man show for a group of creative luminaries. The agency designs graphics, logos, Web sites and industrial products, as well as running fashion and filmmaking businesses.

“We develop content and concepts for a slew of clients from across all industries such as fashion, design and film,” explained Ogata, who founded the company in 2001 after working at Fabrica, Benetton’s communication research center. Ogata’s projects include campaigns and catalogues for L’Oréal in Brazil and fashion consulting for Amazon Life and C&A Brazil, as well as its own fashion label, which was the toast of São Paulo’s recent fashion week.

By building an expansive product and services offer, the collectives broaden their chances of survival.

“Having various products allows us to sell in a variety of retail concept stores and diversify our retail reach,” said Alexandre Daval, the brains behind budding French brand Manifeste, a creative platform regrouping a series of limited edition fashion and accessories projects under a single label.

However, these self-starters, whose lines have been picked up by department and concept stores worldwide, don’t depend solely on established retail channels. Many have opened their own concept stores as well.

After opening its first flagship adjacent to its headquarters on Rue Charlot here last year, Surface to Air today counts two Right Bank shops, which sell its eponymous label for men and women, as well as hip brands like RAF by Raf Simons and Dark Shadow by Rick Owens. It also has a store in Rio de Janeiro and locales in Copenhagen and Los Angeles are in the works. Meanwhile, the brand tackled the wholesale market in 2004 by operating Rendez-Vous Salon, a trade show, which runs alongside Paris Fashion Week.

Acne, meanwhile, is rolling out stores in fashion-savvy capitals, choosing prime retail locations to set up its shops. After openings in Gothenburg, Sweden, and Berlin and the launch of an online site in November 2006, Acne has zoned in on a 540-square-foot space for its debut French boutique. Located under the colonnades of the coveted Jardin du Palais Royal, the store will be unveiled during Paris Fashion Week in February. More openings are planned for New York’s Greene Street as well as Hamburg, Germany, next year.

Meanwhile, Kitsuné — the Paris-based brand and music label founded by DJs-cum-entrepreneurs Gildas Loaëc and Masaya Kuroki, along with Abake (a graphic artist collective) — in addition to its central Paris shop, has set up temporary stores in markets including Tokyo and Milan. The brand, which also boasts its own fashion line for men and women, is said to be eyeing a new temporary location for a U.S. store. Its CD compilation, called “Kitsuné Maison,” sells at stores such as Colette and United Arrows.

By marrying fashion and music — A.P.C. and Paris-based April77 also boast their own music labels — collectives tap an often young and clued-in consumer.

Kitsuné, for example, produces music for select indie groups and has participated in a handful of collaborations with popular groups such as Air and Daft Punk, as well as compilations for London BoomBox. The brand’s MySpace site keeps its fans up to speed on the label’s upcoming concerts and news from the music world.

Given their multifaceted approaches to business, collectives are well placed to take advantage of media opportunities beyond music, such as social networking sites like MySpace, YouTube and Facebook. In fact, most collectives have approached social networking sites as a new platform to showcase their brands. Acne and Kitsuné host profiles on Facebook, for example, while April77, Kitsuné and Surface to Air boast blogs.

“Social networking and blogs are the next wave for designers marketing their brands,” said Burke.

April77, a music label that launched its fashion and denim label with a Sixties rocker bent in 2002, introduced a blog to link customers with similar cultural interests, including music, last year.

“The blog helped us to build a relationship with the consumer,” said Brice Partouche, who is fine-tuning the details for the launch of his e-commerce site,, this month. “It created a community where bloggers became part of the marketing.”

Since creative collectives are in close contact with the end consumer, thanks to their relatively small size and multiple activities, they’ve become a favored collaborator for limited edition products and cobranded lines, too.

Acne, for example, teamed with Tretorn to create a pair of sneakers last year and is working on an apparel line with Cone Mills. Similarly, Kitsuné has designed a pair of shoes with high-end shoemaker Pierre Hardy. Manifeste, meanwhile, teamed up with German designer Lutz for a line of style-conscious sweatshirts for both men and women and a gift box for newborns sold at L’Eclaireur in Paris.

Even when going it alone, collectives aim to surprise with out-of-the-box product. Oestudio, for example, was tapped to design Brazil’s official uniforms for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

Also with a sporty bent, Surface to Air will next summer introduce a beachwear collection in its boutique in Rio before hitting stores around the globe. An online site for its eponymous label was also recently launched.

Acne plans to increase its fashion offering by 30 percent for fall 2008 and will introduce Acne Miniature, it first full collection of apparel for children between the ages of 2 and 10. Company heads also hinted at an upcoming industrial design category. Meanwhile, next year Manifeste will launch a cosmetics line, which will open up a new retail avenue for the label.

“Creativity comes from contrast,” said Oestudio’s Ogata. “We’re building a new business model; once you have a strong backbone the possibilities are endless when it comes to developing this new form of multimedia.”

Brand founders agreed that internal communications, with a strong leader behind each pole of creativity, is essential in order to create a successful collective. That’s in contrast to more established luxury fashion firms, where friction can exist between investors and creatives.

In fact, while most collectives boast more than just one chief, even firms with one leader are forgoing conventional corporate structures in favor of a more flexible approach to hierarchy.

“It is essential that business not be a star collective but a talent collective,” said Manifeste’s Daval. “It’s a laboratory of inventions, a platform to understand the common factor among all the products.”

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