It’s no secret that fashion has found itself in a challenged state. Traditional industry totems — from department stores to luxury brands — are rushing to figure out the new Millennial shopper, who continues to write her own rules of consumption.
Accessories is one of the first categories to exhibit hints of a way forward. The change is heralded by a new class of designers — ones who are armed with a lower price point, distinct designs, earnest online personas and an air of transparency about where their products are manufactured.
As previously reported, a sense of “sameness” in the luxury market had rendered both buyers and consumers less excited by high-end handbags and shoes after more than a decade of stores and shoppers rushing to buy the latest “It” item. In recent seasons, new brands like Mari Giudicelli, By Far, Suzanne Rae, Maryam Nassir Zadeh, Amelie Pichard, Attico, LOQ and Rachel Comey have emerged as favorites — with buyers reporting 100 percent sell-throughs of their collections, sometimes within a 72-hour period.
Realizing that it would be almost impossible to compete against the European luxury houses, these labels are breaking through with novel designs priced from $250 up to $1,000. Most keep prices low by selling a majority of their products directly to consumers.
Their aesthetics are equally rooted in whimsy and practicality. Many photograph friends and employees in their designs, casting an approachable mood over their brands’ online personas. Bags are neither too large, nor too small — each offering a unique design proposition. Shoes are fabricated in uncommon colors (patent bubblegum pink, marigold satin), with manageable heel heights and comfortable foot beds.
While high-end designer shoes and handbags currently retail for an average of $700 to $2,500 and more, these new designs often cap off at $500. Special items retail for around $800 to $1,000. The intermediate brands are not reliant on department stores or advertising campaigns; their Instagram pages, e-commerce sites and small production runs are what leverage their coveted nature.
This puts them in direct contrast to the model of most major American accessories brands. Before the emergence of these designers, there were the luxury labels, mainly European — which set trends — as well as American middle-market megabrands like Coach, Michael Kors and Tory Burch, and then a lower tier that emulated both. Midprice, smaller labels with their own distinct style were a blank space in the U.S. market.
“I grew up here in the U.S. and shopping for shoes — even for my look books — it was obvious that I could go with something that was a copy of something else, or go with the real thing. There was no in-between,” said Rae, who added shoes to her ready-to-wear assortment for fall 2015. The category has doubled her business’ overall sales — with styles like marigold satin mary-janes (priced at $345) selling out of stores.
Rae claims that this intermediate category — with sleek designs and an attainable price point — was readily available in Europe, but less so in the U.S. “In traveling to Italy to manufacture our ready-to-wear, just walking around the stores I found so much more available at a $200 to $400 price point that didn’t necessarily look like anything else. It’s what made me feel like we could be original,” she said.
Designers say selling the majority of their products direct-to-consumer helps keep their prices down while still delivering healthy margins, ultimately developing trust and building a community with their consumers.
The growing category reflects changes in consumer culture: a shift away from brick-and-mortar retail, increased awareness of manufacturing practices, a sophisticated price-value evaluation and a growing disaffection with widely distributed brands.
“I think people were more into name brands before. People are moving away from that now maybe because they want to be a little more discreet,” said Carolina Santo Domingo, whose namesake handbag line — made in Italy and priced under $1,000 — is set to launch this spring.
Santo Domingo helped herald the earliest stages of this upsurge in niche labels in 2015 in designing the $350 Bissett bucket bag for Los Angeles-based label Staud, which sold it online. The Bissett became a cult item for those in-the-know, and repeatedly sold out. Had the style been wholesaled it would have been priced substantially higher.
In 2015, Maison Kitsuné launched a range of European-made loafers and heels that were priced under $500. Maison Kitsuné chief executive officer and cofounder Gildas Loaëc said of the brand’s strategy: “It’s about being more respectful to the customer, in terms of the margins we are working on. The general philosophy is good-quality product at a good price. People have so many options today.”
Loaëc acknowledged a new mood in the market. “I think there is a trend, I hear it from my friends, people feel that expensive product doesn’t feel very chic right now, weirdly,” he said.
Among the brands capitalizing on this new sentiment is shoe label LOQ. The collection is designed by Los Angeles-based Valerie Quant and Dimapur, India-based Keren Longkumer. They design remotely from one another, and periodically meet in Spain, where their collection is made. This spring , the label — founded in 2015 — will ship to more than 50 stockists worldwide. The brand’s neutral-toned boots, heels, mules and sandals are all priced under $500.
Said Quant: “Our price point is a big part of why stores are taking on the brand. We are not competing against a real designer price point, we are bringing something to stores that they needed — it’s this price point that they have been looking for.”
The champion retailer of this accessories movement is fashion e-commerce site Lisa Says Gah. The company shoots its own imagery, styling apparel and accessories on staff members and petite, pretty girls amid California scenery. These vistas have created something of a personality for the site, providing it with a visual identity even without a bricks-and-mortar location. The low-budget, yet impactful shoots are posted to the site’s Instagram when new product arrives, dispatching “buy it now” notices to a following of nearly 90,000.
The site, based in San Francisco, stocks Maryam Nassir Zadeh, LOQ, Martiniano, Suzanne Rae and other similar brands.
“It’s about creating a community, not based on how much money you have, but about what you do with it and where you spend it. With the political climate so heated, people are voting with their money and we want to make sure our company provides something for everyone,” said Lisa Says Gah assistant buyer Gabriela Pelletier, who also serves as the company’s face.
“I’ve seen this intermediate category grow — brands that are doing their own thing,” she said. “People are willing to pay for something different if it has a narrative. It’s about being part of a club and being part of a story.”
Santo Domingo, now on the cusp of launching her own line, said that brands need to reevaluate their relationships with their consumers. “I think it’s more about making sure there is a trust — you don’t feel like you are paying for someone’s marketing campaign.”
Pelletier concurred: “I think there is distrust right now. Everyone loves high-end brands but they’re not attainable. It’s this big, anonymous corporation that you are not able to connect with. People want to know who they are buying from. They do their research and want to know what inspired you. They want to be able to relate to the brands, people like Suzanne Rae showing what they do and why they do it.”