Joanne Yulan Jong has seen it all — the lumpy warts and beauty spots — of the business, and now she’s laying her experience bare in “The Fashion Switch: The New Rules of the Fashion Business” (Rethink Press). Part confessional, part self-help book, it underlines just how many fashion businesses are still seat-of-the-pants operations, and aims to help designers and brands that are looking to make sense of — and money in — a consumer-driven market. It’s set to launch on Amazon on Nov. 27.
Jong, who’s been designing clothes since she was a teenager, has long been switching between left- and right-brain thinking: A graduate of Edinburgh College of Art and the Royal College of Art, she spent much of the Nineties and early 2000s working in Italy as a creative consultant for big manufacturers including Ittierre, Miroglio and Marzotto before joining Giorgio Armani as head of the Collezioni business.
Later, she worked for Missoni before launching her own label Yulan, which she had to shut because it was losing money. “It was well conceived and well received, but the nuts and bolts behind the scenes weren’t in place. I had this thought that it would just work out somehow, because my aesthetic was just so amazing,” said Jong wryly over a cup of tea in London’s Soho. “It took me about a year to get over the pain. When you close your business down, it is just horrendous.”
She returned to consulting with Yulan Creative, which helps brands rethink their business strategies for the digital age, a time of great transparency, online competition and consumer — rather than designer — power.
“Business has suddenly switched from transmit to receive. Designers, traditionally, would be sketching in ivory towers, dictating the clothes their assistants would wear or what color cups their coffee would come in. I mean, they were very dictatorial. But you can’t behave like that anymore. Yes, there has to be personality and that personal vision, but for companies to succeed today, that’s no longer how it works.”
She said digital made the fashion business snap, “and we all ignored it. It went from analogue to digital, and made the customer so intrinsic to everything. They are in the driving seat and we, as an industry, have to listen very carefully to what they are saying. They are moving faster than the brands.”
In the book, a 170-page manual for fashion creatives and managers at any stage of the business, she points to research from Ericsson Mobility Report 2017, saying that in 2016, of a population of 7.4 billion, 3.5 billion people were digitally connected. By 2021, the forecast is of a population of eight billion, seven billion of whom will be connected.
“That’s seven-eighths of the population who will be able to engage and have an opinion, so the book is really about why the fashion business has suddenly blown apart, and why it will fragment into seven billion pieces, by 2021. All of a sudden the usual channels that were used to communicate or sell no longer function.”
Jong believes the independent brands in the middle are under the most pressure, the ones who don’t have the money or resources of Armani, Gucci or a Max Mara, or the digital know-how of “lean and nimble, fun, savvy,” young brands. “They have a following, but they don’t know what to do with this new environment and they can’t just churn stuff out hoping it’s going to stick somewhere,” she said.
Her advice revolves around telling them to wake up, take a step back and focus on crafting an authentic brand message and a distinct visual language. They also need to work on innovation, consistency and building trust with customers.
A strong financial framework always helps. “I’m filled with dread when I ask business owners about turnover and margin and I hear a reply such as: ‘I’ve no idea! I leave the numbers to my spouse. I’m just the creative,’” Jong writes.
The book spotlights a host of winners — such as British high street label Ted Baker, a London stock market darling and a company where everyone can distinguish between what’s “Ted” and what’s not; Orlebar Brown, the men’s swimwear brand that went from zero to more than 20 million pounds in sales in 10 years, and Me+Em, the women’s contemporary brand that Jong helped on the business and fashion sides. She created their Breton T-shirt that the Duchess of Cambridge has been photographed in scores of times, and helped to build Me+Em into a 6 million pounds business.
Then there are the failures: She points to Austin Reed and Jaeger, which recently fell on hard times (the former is no longer trading, and the latter has been sold and downsized). “Their stories serve as clear examples that today, no one can afford to have some parts of their businesses working and others not,” she writes.
It’s not just the high-street brands that come under the microscope. Jong’s old friend and former colleague at Giorgio Armani, the designer Graeme Black, has his own mea culpa moment in the book. Black talks about launching his eponymous collection in London, which he admits was too big, too dispersive and too expensive to produce. It showed during London Fashion Week for a few seasons and was one of the most polished and luxurious collections the city had ever seen.
“If I were to launch my label again, I would do just one product category, and concentrate on that. And be known for that. Understand the price point of that. That’s what’s working today,” Black is quoted as saying.
Jong would agree. During the interview she argued that as a brand, “you cannot be a friend to everyone, don’t try to be. You have to be ‘niche.’ So many brands are in a place of fear as the market is sliding. They are trying to befriend everybody to stop figures from falling. They are discounting, changing the range. It’s all a downward spiral.” She said they need to “take the time to back off, rethink and be strategic. Feedback is working so fast nowadays that you can create small capsules to test the market. It’s not like you create enormous collections and wait to see what happens anymore.”
Looking ahead, Jong said there will be hundreds of brands that will reach a turnover ceiling of $10 million, while other brands and retailers will disappear. “There is a lot of opportunity for brands that are savvy, and if they get this right they can pierce the white noise and find a voice.”
She said she sees the rise of many smaller brands, “and I would imagine that the big groups, like LVMH, will have to implement more entrepreneurial thinking, get back down to listening at ground level, and get out there looking for smaller companies to grow. The brands with $5 million to $10 million turnover will be the ones who are cherry-picked, but they won’t have been a catwalk success overnight. That’s not what it’s about.”