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Minor Becomes Major: Brands Speed Growth Of Secondary Lines

Fashion's biggest names no longer are having second thoughts about their second lines.

PARIS — Fashion’s biggest names no longer are having second thoughts about their second lines.

In a flurry of activity not seen since the “diffusion” heydays of the Eighties, a spate of new European second lines are arriving on the market, while established brands are being given a fresh spin and higher profiles with tactics such as attention-getting runway shows.

All the activity suggests designer firms, recently focused on ultraexpensive, exclusive products in a booming luxury climate, are now keen to tap into aspirational customers, as well.

Among the latest arrivals is Alexander McQueen’s McQ collection, delivered last month to some 400 doors worldwide, and forthcoming for spring 2007 is John Galliano’s Galliano, which is gunning for wholesale volume in excess of 100 million euros, or $125 million, in three to five years (for more on the Galliano collection, see opposite page).

Meanwhile, Prada, Versace, Chloé and Giorgio Armani are among firms putting their second brands under the management microscope, fine-tuning or repositioning them — and seeking to kick-start growth. Emporio Armani, for example, plans to move its show from Milan to London for a fashion week splash there. The move follows Prada’s decision last season to shift its Miu Miu show to Paris from Milan.

And Chloé recently introduced a cruise collection for See by Chloé, emblematic of big ambitions for the brand, first launched in 2001 and manufactured under license by Neo Res SpA, a Carre, Italy-based company.

“I really intend to grow this business,” Chloé chairman and chief executive officer Ralph Toledano said. “Our turnover is far below what it should be. Instead of making less than half the sales [of our top collection], we should be doing twice that amount.”

To that end, Toledano has been beefing up staffing for See by Chloé, bumping up the fashion quotient and taking tighter control of distribution. Prices also have been made more competitive, he added. For example, the suggested retail price for high-waist jeans from the cruise line is $460, while T-shirts run at $230. At present, See by Chloé is sold in some 750 doors, including Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom and Holt Renfrew.

Jonathan Akeroyd, ceo of McQueen, said independent consumer research in London confirmed high brand awareness and a strong desire to purchase McQueen products, but many consumers considered price a barrier.

The average age of a McQueen customer now is about 35, whereas the new line is targeted at people in their 20s, he noted.

In recent years, it was fashionable for designers to mix different concepts and price points under the same label, said Sidney Toledano, ceo of Christian Dior and acting president of Galliano. “It was a creative approach, but today you have to be more clear in your proposition.”

Designers like Galliano travel extensively and have a broad understanding “of market needs and segmentation borders,” Toledano said. “We need a real separation into two lines.”

Galliano’s licensing partner is Italy’s IT Holding, and the designer praised the company, in which design and production teams are completely separated, preventing ideas from migrating from one brand to another or sameness creeping into all of them.

And he confirmed the full involvement of his Paris-based Galliano design team and himself: “I was present at every fitting.”

Galliano’s partner, IT Holding’s Ittierre unit, was a pioneer in launching designer jeans and younger lines in the late Eighties and early Nineties, including Versus and D&G. Although Ittierre has stopped producing those lines, the company still has a large portfolio of licenses including Just Cavalli, Versace Jeans Couture and Costume National C’N’C.

“You need to have specific capabilities in terms of manufacturing and distribution…that’s not easy to create,” said Maurizio Negro, Ittierre’s ceo. IT Holding has built up a client network of 4,500 retailers, mostly in Europe and the U.S., and the company is laying the groundwork to expand its presence in Asia, especially China.

Whereas designers’ top collections focus on cut, fit and high-quality materials, diffusion lines need to offer innovation in terms of fabric treatments, washes, embroideries and prints to make pieces stand out, Negro said.

Many observers lamented what they described as outmoded nomenclature for their new lines, insisting that descriptors such as “younger,” “cheaper” or “denim-based” do not tell the whole story.

“How we define it to the media is really a challenge,” said Alexander McQueen’s Akeroyd, who, before joining the designer company, part of Gucci Group, was merchandise director at Harrods. He said the term “diffusion line” often conjures up missteps of the past, when cheaper fabrics, excessive use of logos and a basic approach to fashion were commonplace in the segment.

Today, he said, a second line must have a strong dose of fashion and a distinct identity, and should not make too many compromises because of price, especially as the collections must compete with formidable fast-fashion players such as Topshop, H&M and Zara.

“We have to do a line that’s edgy, that’s got a point of view,” he said. “You don’t want to make too many compromises because of price. The most important thing is the styling and the image.”

Over the past year, Dolce & Gabbana, Versace and Prada all have made significant decisions regarding the future of their diffusion lines.

Dolce & Gabbana terminated its 12-year relationship with IT Holding, taking operations in-house for D&G. The first D&G collection produced and distributed entirely by Dolce & Gabbana will be introduced for spring 2007, and the company is in the process of setting up a new headquarters and ramping up production for a brand that does upwards of 150 million euros, or $189 million, a year in revenue.

Versace also is rethinking the category, focusing on its main collection and disassociating the brand from lower-end products. The company took over U.S. distribution of the Versace Jeans Couture line and halted Versus.

Versace has declined to discuss the future of Versus other than to say that it’s gearing up to relaunch the line later this year.

Prada, meanwhile, is repositioning Miu Miu to give the brand its own identity and disassociate from the world of secondary and diffusion lines. Prada moved the Miu Miu runway show to Paris last season, staging it in historic restaurant Laperouse. The house also used the restaurant as a backdrop for its fall advertising campaign starring Chinese actresses Dong Jie and Zhou Xun and Japanese model Lina Ohta. Prada also has inflated price tags at Miu Miu to boost the brand’s exclusive allure, but the company declined to quantify the increase. Last year, sales at Miu Miu grew about 18 percent to 129 million euros, or $161.3 million at average rates for the year.

Meanwhile, retailers said they are newly bullish on select second lines, which have rebounded from errors of the past.

Sarah Rutson, fashion director at Lane Crawford in Hong Kong, allowed that many secondary lines were “franchised out too early,” saturated many markets and had inconsistent and often “low-end” positioning across different countries.

Today, however, she said consumers are transfixed by luxury branding and eager to buy into designer names. “You can attract a larger, wider audience, and a younger customer,” she said, adding that “a main line customer also will often buy from secondary lines. It’s an add-on sale as opposed to trading down.”

Rutson said Lane Crawford has built strong business with Prada’s Linea Rossa (or Red Line), D&G and See by Chloé, and it plans to add McQ for fall-winter. “[McQueen] is certainly a designer that has an especially large following with a fashion-forward, younger crowd who would otherwise never be able to afford his main collection,” she said.

“Diffusion collections are receiving management attention because of the business opportunities that exist within the contemporary market,” agreed Ken Downing, fashion director at Neiman Marcus, which carries such European brands as Just Cavalli, D&G and Valentino Red. “Our customer is interested in great fashion product in every category. We are excited about the new McQ collection by Alexander McQueen…and equally excited to view the new collection from John Galliano.”

Michael Fink, vice president and fashion director of women’s at Saks Fifth Avenue, said secondary lines are particularly appealing as designer prices have been creeping ever higher. “It’s broadening your customer base. There’s only so many people who can afford a dress over $4,000,” he said. “It’s a way to really get in and pump up some volume.”

Fink said diffusion lines have “absolutely evolved” and identified their niche customers with sharp styling and the latest trends, mentioning the likes of M Missoni, D&G, Just Cavalli and Valentino Roma. “They’re not watered-down main line versions,” he said. “They treat a second line like a main line. It’s a real business.”

Fink allowed that Miu Miu’s shift to Paris Fashion Week from Milan was a “smart move” to give it a stronger identity away from Prada. However, “for the most part, secondary lines don’t really need to be on the runway unless they have an extremely strong personality,” he added.

Averyl Oates, buying director at Harvey Nichols in London, said second lines such as Marc by Marc Jacobs can even set fashion trends and inspire high street retailers.

“You will get the customer that buys the main line buying the second line for more relaxed pieces, and also a customer new to the designer who is maybe looking for more accessible pieces and less-serious fashion pieces,” she said. “Rather than it being a cheaper version of a main line collection, as diffusion lines initially were, second lines now carry their own identity and are thought of as an individual label.”