Who Wears the Clothes? Balancing Branding and Customer Reality

Eileen Fisher, Marc Jacobs, Alber Elbaz and even Kathy Griffin weigh in on dressing customers of different sizes and styles.

Fashion's Reality  Check

“Well, it’s just not the image that we’re going for.”

This story first appeared in the November 24, 2009 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Those words set off a frenzy in the blogosphere and in news outlets, including this one. According to Rosie O’Donnell, who relayed the anecdote with considerable passion on her Sirius XM radio show on Nov. 2, that was Eileen Fisher’s reply when O’Donnell acknowledged her for being a plus-size woman’s sartorial best friend. The exchange occurred after a recent performance of Nora and Delia Ephron’s play “Love, Loss and What I Wore.” “That’s not really our demographic,” Fisher supposedly added. “It was like someone stabbed me in the heart,” O’Donnell told her radio listeners.

While the comedian declined to comment for this story, Fisher recalls a slightly different version of events. “I would never use a word like ‘demographic.’ I did not say that, no,” she told WWD. “I never would have said [those lines] in that way. I would have said that we’re trying to reach a wider audience. It would make me sad if I was misunderstood.” The silver lining here for Fisher? “It’s created a kind of buzz,” she says. “People are coming into the store and going, ‘Are you leaving me behind? Oh, good; you’re not.’ And then new customers are coming in. So, we’re not going to complain.”

Nevertheless, the incident brought to light the divide that often exists between a designer’s perception of his or her brand’s image and its customer base, and the reality. “That’s kind of an industry inside joke,” says Tuleh’s Bryan Bradley. “Some designers live this pleasant lie that their customers are all incredibly chic, and they’re really well-heeled, and they’re soigné at night. That’s the fantasy, maybe, that gets [the designers] through the day.”

Certainly over the years there have been instances when image issues unrelated to sizing have caused a stir. For instance: the Burberry versus “chav” brouhaha from 2004. Here, wannabe-street young Brits — derogatorily dubbed “chavs” — took up the label’s venerable plaid as a wardrobe anthem, to the dismay of company higher-ups. The house discontinued its logoed baseball caps in response and threatened legal action when, in 2006, London’s Metropolitan Police termed a related criminal crackdown “Operation Burberry.” Prada found itself in a similar situation around that time, when the company’s sneakers were banned from several U.K. clubs due to their affiliation with local street gangs in 2005. And then there was rapper Jay-Z’s boycott of Cristal Champagne, ignited when Louis Roederer president Frédéric Rouzaud responded to a reporter’s inquiry about the brand’s association with the hip-hop crowd. “What can we do?” Rouzaud told The Economist in 2006. “We can’t forbid people from buying it. I’m sure Dom Perignon or Krug would be delighted to have the business.”

But more often than not, image issues focus on matters of size, chic and, to a lesser degree, age. Whatever the specifics, all such issues address branding, specifically, how a firm should establish and maintain brand integrity without alienating its consumers. “Not every customer is the perfect size 2, 6-foot-tall girl. Not everyone dresses like Daphne Guinness, you know?” Jason Wu says. “We have to be practical as designers. In order to have a successful business, you have to be able to dress women of different body types, sizes and ages. Why limit yourself to one age group? Because the twentysomethings grow up, too.”

Wu’s viewpoint was echoed by many interviewees for this story, although several noted off the record that a verbal insult — especially one directed at an opinionated celebrity with a radio show — probably isn’t the best way to go. Still, there’s no denying that fashion’s aspirational element is a necessary one that fuels the industry, no matter that it may turn politically incorrect on occasion. “Eileen Fisher should stick to her position,” offers C.W. Park, editor of the Journal of Consumer Psychology and a marketing professor at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. “By focusing your appeal on a particular select group, which is idolized by mass [consumers], demand will be automatically created. We all know that. That’s what Eileen Fisher was trying to do, the way I read it.”

In fact, she was. “Even our core customers [interviewed in a focus group] were asking us to be a bit more edgy,” Fisher says. “People got stuck in the early impressions of what our brand was — these are big, loose clothes, ‘they’re for my mother,’ or something like that. We’re making a conscious effort to widen the reach of our brand, and we’re doing that by the way we merchandise and present the brand. We didn’t do anything different with the clothes except advertise and put them together differently. They’re the same clothes. I want to serve our established customer by moving her forward as we also appeal to an emerging customer.”

Yet “you don’t want to over-reach.” That caution comes from Trey Laird of ad agency Laird + Partners who cites the attempted rejuvenation of St. John three years ago as the perfect example. The effort temporarily cast aside the firm’s mature image in favor of a sultrier version featuring Angelina Jolie. The move proved disastrous.

So how can/does/should the fashion set bridge the gap between the ideal and the actual? WWD surveyed designers, retailers and brand and marketing specialists — and one notorious D-lister — to find out.

Marc Jacobs
“Of course, there’s that aesthetic thing of what you think you’d like your clothes to look like. But what I’d really like to see is people enjoying them. So I could really care less if they’re split up the back or turned upside down or inside out. Who cares? Once you’ve done it, it’s the customer who makes it work. All I can think of is that I’m grateful if anybody chooses to wear what we do.”

Michael Kors
“As soon as you go into the world of being a designer, it’s not successful unless people wear the clothes. That’s the mark of whether or not you’re doing a good job. You know who you dress, and you know what it is about what you do that turns people on. Sometimes when I’ve seen the same clothes on very different women, I kind of love what they do to the clothes. We had a dress from five or six years ago that got worn by both Lil’ Kim and Sigourney Weaver. They wore it in obviously different ways. Sigourney looked like Sigourney — she wore it to the Tony Awards with diamond earrings and brown satin slingbacks — Lil’ Kim was still full Lil’ Kim. She wore it with a fur bolero, boots, a hip belt and a hat. They both looked great. It’s kind of a testament to you, if you can dress a lot of different people and make it work for them.”

Karen Katz, president and CEO, Neiman Marcus Stores
“Women want to look fashionable, modern and up-to-date every season, whatever the size. She wants to walk out of the house and feel good about herself every day. Part of what a retailer does is offer an assortment of product that talks to different kinds of consumers. I think some designers at every level miss business because they do not want to pay attention to a customer above a size 10. And you know what? Sometimes when that customer is underserved in terms of ready-to-wear, she’s spending lots of money on shoes and bags.”

Alber Elbaz, Lanvin
“I prefer surprises rather than shocks. I’m always happy to see anybody in my clothes. Our logo is a mother and daughter, so we’re not just dressing 17-year-olds who go nightclubbing in Russia. The fact that I’m not exactly a size 38 1⁄2, I know what it’s like to live with discomfort when clothes don’t fit.”

Stella McCartney
“It’s never healthy to get comfortable in one kind of language, and it’s never healthy to give yourself a false impression of who your customer is. That’s one of the genuine reasons I really enjoy meeting my customers. I love seeing that they’re not what I expected. I find different age groups, different body builds, different job backgrounds so exciting and interesting — and I’m not just saying this. To me, you’re a proper brand when you start to talk to different demographics of people. When you meet a larger lady and she says, ‘Oh, I love your stuff, but there’s nothing for me’ — it breaks my heart. I feel like I haven’t done my job properly when women say that to me.”

Donna Karan

“To me, reality is the only image that is real. In everything I design, the consumer is taken into consideration. The girls who come in for my runway show — this is another planetary group of people. I look at people today, I look at clothes and I look at reality. What we’ve been able to do is accent the positive, delete the negative. Every woman wants to feel sexy. Sometimes sexiness is being aware of [yourself] and what feels good about [your] physical body. I think there are lessons to be learned about that.

“This is one of my classic experiences: I go to the store and my salesperson shows me what this woman bought. I was there with my family and I said, ‘Guys, I have to stay here for a minute.’ Because I believe she was misdressed. She was a Donna Karan customer, she wore all the clothes and they were in the image of what she thought was best for her body. She would wear wide pants and a short jacket — they made her look bigger. I said, ‘If you put on a peg skirt, you’re going to look thinner. Let’s celebrate you as a woman.’”

Angela Missoni

“It’s obvious that when I design I have an image and customer in mind, but the reality is very different. We create a target and ideal customer in our heads, but if one season it’s redheads, it’s obvious that the customer will be very different. In general, I’m flattered when people buy my clothes and understand the philosophy. But I tell our sales staff not to sell an outfit just for the sake of selling it if it doesn’t look right. Knitwear is tricky and can make you look much bigger, so when I see a woman squeezed into one of my outfits, I’m not thrilled.”

Carolina Herrera
“Have I ever been horrified to see someone in my clothes? Many times, but I close my eyes and look the other way. That happens to everyone. What can you do? Go and tell her, ‘Don’t wear that dress again’? We designers always have fantasies in our heads, but the difficult task is to make them reality. Because you can be the best designer, but designing in your own place and with nobody wearing [your clothes], then what happens? You’re nowhere.”

Tory Burch
“As a designer, you have a certain vision of who you’re dressing and it’s not necessarily the reality of it. But, for me, I look at our customers as very different, because we dress an older woman, we dress a young girl and we have that middle-of-the-road 35-year-old. We recently added a size 14, because I felt we were not meeting all the needs of our customer. I love to dress all types of women and certainly all ages, so, for me, that’s part of the success of our brand. When I see someone who’s a larger size wearing my clothes, I’m completely flattered that they’re making her feel good. That’s why I’m designing, to make women feel good about what they’re wearing.”

Francisco Costa, Calvin Klein Collection

“I welcome everyone in my clothes — not just the statuesque. We dress so many different types. Calvin is a modern company, and people are attracted to that engine.”

Jim Gold, president and ceo, Bergdorf Goodman
“Certain brands project themselves in a very specific way. Others project themselves in a more democratic way. Each brand has its own DNA and its own mission, but when we approach the buy, we buy in a manner that will allow us to maximize the business. Some brands, based on what they offer us, allow us to service a wider range of customers and, as a result, they often have a much larger business than those who are very specific about their product and brand mission. That’s why, when you go in the store, you see certain brands that are very niche and very particular about who they want their customer to be — it’s a nice business and important to us, but it might be a rather small business. Others that take fit, let’s say, into greater consideration, often have a much more robust business.”

Jean PaulGaultier
“I am flattered when people wear my clothes in another way, interpreting them in their own style, mixing them. I don’t have a set idea: It’s about expression.”

Trey Laird, Laird + Partners

“Part of a designer brand versus a commodity brand is to provide a bit of a dream, a bit of desire and a bit of aspiration. That holds true for all different levels of positioning. It doesn’t have to be top designers. Even for more accessible designers, the reason they’re a designer brand versus just a manufacturer or an anonymous brand is that it really comes with more of a point of view and stands for something bigger than just the product. Hopefully, that carries through some sort of dream or desire. I don’t think it has to be, ‘This is the 100 percent reality of my customer. I have to reflect exactly that 100 percent, or else people won’t get it.’ To me, it’s not an issue that there’s going to be a bit of divergence. As long as the customer can relate to and desire it, and want to be part of that world, that’s what’s effective. But if you’re putting something out there that your true customer can’t even get her head around, then obviously, you’ve got a problem.”

Cynthia Rowley
“It’s hard to be definitive about who your customers are. In that way, it’s important for a brand to have a point of view. I need to have something in mind when I’m designing. It’s pretty true to the reality of the brand, but it’s hard to ever be definitive about it. A lot of my friends, artists like Rachel Feinstein, are my fantasy customers. But those are singular cases. If that [clientele] was all that was buying my brand, I would have been out of business a long time ago. Hopefully, having those people as a fantasy makes the brand more aspirational — but in an authentic and attainable way. Maybe in the past it would have been easier for designers to be more choosy about defining their customer. Now, I think the broader the range, the more commendable.”

Marc Gobe, founder, Emotional Branding
“What makes a designer is when a connection is established. A really great designer is one who can anticipate the dreams that his or her customers want to have but can’t formulate themselves. [But] brands don’t belong to designers anymore. People make brands into what they want. It’s a lot more difficult to be dogmatic. Alexander McQueen, by streaming his show directly to the people, is recognizing that the decisions are not going to be made by the magazines, but by the people. They are going to decide. There has been a fundamental shift in the luxury industry. It’s really a different world.”

Yigal Azrouel
“New York is a bubble. It’s not really the real customers. When you go to a place like Chicago or Los Angeles or Florida, you see the reality of the customer. I do a lot of personal appearances and get to meet clients and see how they are, what they like and get their reactions. It gives me a lot of feedback, which definitely helps me to understand. It’s not just making a beautiful dress — I want to make sure the consumer is out there and wearing the dress, and the reactions that I get definitely help me to refine my ideas.

“[But] we try to keep an image. You want to associate yourself with people, with celebrities, who feed your brand. Of course, I don’t have the control if somebody wears [something] the way she wants to wear it, but I don’t get horrified by anything because I feel like every person has his own individual style.”

Alexander Wang

“Nothing gives me more pleasure than seeing real women in my clothes. The girl I envision for the brand helps create the clothes in my head, but it’s the element of surprise — when I see my friends and girls on the street incorporating the collection with their own personality and style — that is the most inspiring and gratifying.”

Sarah Easley, co-owner, Kirna Zabete
“When you buy upscale fashion, you’re buying a dream a little bit. I think the customer is often relating both to the [designer’s] muse as well as to the designer. But designing in a vacuum isn’t going to translate and be successful. The public decides the fate of the designer. The designer often has one idea in his or her head of who that person is and, then, it often turns out to be something else and you have to go with that. You also can’t design for everybody. The best is just to find your voice and stick with your voice. You discover who gets it, loves it and wears it — and then elaborate on that. I appreciate when designers ask me who’s buying [the clothes], how the customer is wearing them; they want feedback from the dressing room. When that’s interesting and useful and inspiring to the designers, they’re in it for the long haul.”

Jason Wu
“When I started, one thing I discovered was the huge disconnect between what’s sometimes in the press and what actually sells. I think, right now with the economic times, there’s that emphasis on runway looks that make sense. In school, it was really much more about designing the concept of the collection and making interesting clothes. We seldom thought about the customer. Once your product is released to the stores, you can’t control a certain type of person from buying and wearing your clothes. And in these economic times, one should just be happy that somebody’s purchasing clothes, right? There are going to be times when somebody shows up in my clothes, and they may not be my fantasy customer, but they’re a customer.”

Maria Cornejo
“Most designers aren’t really in touch so much with their real clients. Because I started with the store, I’ve always been aware of who our client is. The first time we did a show in New York [in 2001], I actually put the collection on real people, not models. And it basically bombed. The press didn’t understand; they thought it was weird. So I had to resort to going back to models. It’s a bit of a shame, really, because anybody can make a 15-year-old look great. It takes more to make someone normal look amazing.”

Patrick Robinson, creative director, Gap
“I’m in charge of a large design team here. When I first started, the one thing I made sure I said to every designer was to be focused on the customer and know who she is — not make the customer up. There’s making the customer up, living in my ivory tower and saying I want everyone to be fabulous and long-legged and wear high heels in the rain and there’s designing clothes for yourself. ‘Make this for yourself because you’re the customer,’ I tell every designer. ‘And if you make it for yourself, you’ll resonate with someone else.’ People like having the pretty face of the model, but we superimpose ourselves onto it and if we don’t see ourselves, it’s not going to work.

“We’re at a point now where you do have to connect with people. Even if it is fantasy, they have to see themselves, they have to want to join your tribe, your world. At Gap, we’re not concerned about making everything democratic for everyone, but making it inclusive. There’s a big difference there. And it’s not just about the look you want to advertise. The price you put out there also tells people whether they’re invited or not invited.”

Andrew Gn

“Not everybody is Kate Moss. Everyone has the right to look great. I’d love to dress Beth Ditto. When I see someone wearing my clothes, I am proud, often. Puzzled, sometimes. Horrified, never.”

Bryan Bradley, Tuleh
“I wouldn’t say you have to cater to the customer because I think the whole point of being a designer is that you lead the customer — you don’t cater to her whims, you cater to her best self. We’ve been around 10 years, so I have a pretty good handle on who our actual customer is. But you have to constantly adjust because that’s the nature of evolution. Otherwise, you would be stuck and there would be no point. The idea of this woman — we named her Tuleh and not Bryan — I made her an intentionally broad idea from the beginning. That whole narrow-customer idea, you see with students all the time. The best thing that can happen is when you have three generations of women in one family in the dressing room at the same time. Why have one customer when you can have all three?

“I think if you’re thinking about protecting the brand’s image, then the brand’s image is just not there — or it’s weak. The idea of trying to distance yourself from a bad outfit or a bad moment gets a little too serious. A fashion moment could be good or bad and they’re both valid, don’t you think?”

Simon Kneen, creative director, Banana Republic
“Good design should be around an idea or an aspiration, but be able to flex easily to different consumers — make it great and understandable for all. Dream [the customers’] dreams and find [their] aspirations — make them your own aspirations and never distance yourself or look down on the customer. The more a designer has in common with the customer, the better a relationship you will have. The customer is king and queen.”

Rick Owens
“I think you’ll have a hard time finding a designer who’s gotten this far imagining only skinny 17-year-olds are buying his clothes…I always feel lucky that anyone responds to my clothes at all. Truth.”

C.W. Park, professor, USC’s Marshall School of Business; editor, Journal of Consumer Psychology
“Designers try to highlight the very high-end or clothing for very perfect bodies — that’s how they’re trying to position themselves. Tiffany, for example, only advertises very expensive jewelry. Yet, when you enter the store, you can buy $150 to $200 jewelry. The bottom line is, by offering those affordable, lower-end items, it makes people [feel like they’re moving] a little closer [to that ideal status].

“I think we have to make a distinction between core target customers versus [other] customers. Core target customers are those really valuable brand custodians — you don’t want to make any compromise with them. It is absolutely important to make a very clear identification with them. Regular customers would like to belong to that core customer group. So, by relating your brand to that core customer group only, you can in fact create demand from regular customers.”

Kris Van Assche
“There are times when I am not happy about the way people wear my designs, but I don’t choose the client.”

Chris Benz
“From the very beginning, I’ve always seen the import of establishing that connection [with the customer] through trunk shows and going into stores and seeing what’s selling and all that sort of thing. It’s kind of a luxury if you are able to, as a designer, have that dialogue with your customer because they do have a lot to say. Obviously, design can come from a high, ivory-tower construct. But when you see the kinds of things that resonate with people, it’s encouraging, sometimes even if it isn’t exactly your ideal. Whether or not something ultimately ends up on your specific sort of person is neither here nor there. You don’t want to get too specific with your niche or else it becomes harder to design within that.”

Giles Deacon
“This sounds cheesy, but I’ve been very lucky — my clothes work well on women of all ages. I see women all over the place wearing my things — and sometimes I do a double-take because of the way they’ve mixed the pieces. Agyness [Deyn], for one, puts odd combinations of things together.”

Jane Buckingham, president, Trendera
“I always say that, if I have the life that my closet thinks that I have, I’d live a really fun life. Everybody is dressing toward what they want to live for. In this market, I think designers have to be a little more aspirational than they normally would. In today’s economy, nobody’s going to buy another black turtleneck. You’re going to buy things that feel unique and have that brand allure of the designer, which makes [the clothes] special. But that doesn’t mean designers should be out of touch with the consumer. The worst thing today is to not appreciate your customer. Yes, you have to distinguish and keep your brand integrity, but appreciating your customers, no matter who they are, is really important.”

Kathy Griffin, comedian

“When Robert [Verdi, my stylist] and I made that decision to stop trying to get loaner stuff and to buy stuff, my life became a lot happier and easier. I didn’t have to deal with the p.r. people saying, ‘We’re hoping a taller celebrity wears this dress.’ Now, I actually prefer buying the stuff. I buy it. I can alter it permanently. I can cut it, make it into a cocktail dress and wear it again. And then, if I play my cards right, my favorite thing is to wear the same dress to two events and then be in the Us Weekly ‘What Was She Thinking?’ column.

“Sometimes the younger starlets, they’ll dress a little old. You might see a younger girl dressed up in something a little mother-of-the-bride. And, of course, [for] someone my age — I’m always saying to Robert, ‘age-appropriate, age-appropriate.’ My fear is to be the 50-year-old chick who’s trying to look 20.

“Also, let me tell you something. I know women who buy Eileen Fisher, and the reason they buy Eileen Fisher is the same thing Rosie was talking about, which is, the women I know who buy Eileen Fisher, they want comfort, they’re soccer moms, so Eileen Fisher can act like she’s playing to the size 2 woman, but the truth is, I think what makes her brand successful is that there are a lot of women that love to go to that store and feel like they can get seven pieces that go together that they never have to worry about again.”