Forget the lifestyle brand with all of its categories, add-ons and promises to define every facet of one’s day: This is a moment for laser-focused specialization.
This story first appeared in the June 14, 2017 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
In a crowded and fragmented market, brands that excel with one star product are breaking through the clutter. That could be the best bomber jacket or the best plaid shirt, the best knit or the best denim — or as close to it as possible.
Being good at one thing has its advantages. It’s easier to focus production around a single type of product and it’s easier to affix a brand in the mind of a consumer if it screams one very specific thing.
That kind of workaday focus can even elevate products to high fashion.
Demna Gvasalia, founder and creative director of Vetements, famously collaborated with 18 brands for the brand’s spring 2017 collection, which included styles produced by Levi’s and Canada Goose. “We wanted that great jeans jacket; we wanted the best puffer,” he explained.
Other makers tapped for the seasonal project included Eastpak, Mackintosh, Dr. Martens, Reebok, Church’s, Champion, Schott, Comme des Garçons Shirt and Brioni.
“When you work on a mono product, you can concentrate all your skills, and everything you invest on to that product,” Gvasalia said. “Which means you can master it much faster; you can perfect that product much faster than the company who does the whole range of different lifestyle products, perfumes and the like.”
Gvasalia called the mono-product approach “quite prosperous, in terms of quality. It’s not so much fashion, it’s more product-oriented.”
And perhaps that’s why it works.
Lifestyle propositions have been diluted by the Internet juggernaut, influencers and short attention spans — and diminished by a generation of consumers looking to help shape brands themselves, to participate in the process and to mix and match, jumping from mass to chic in an instant.
The trend toward very focused businesses that can navigate the market today returns branding to more of its core: a guarantee that goods will be made right, with some aesthetic purity mixed in.
It’s enough now to be very good at one thing. Look at the Elder Statesman in knitwear, JCRT in plaid shirts, Blaze Milano in blazers, Monographie in cotton shirts and Raleigh Denim in jeans.
Some of the companies on the forward edge of this approach have gotten there by staying right where they’ve been for years, or even decades.
Alpha Industries started making the MA-1 flight jacket for the military in 1963, but chief executive officer Mike Cirker is helping to give the classic look a fashion flair.
In addition to Vetements, Alpha industries has collaborated with Bathing Ape, Opening Ceremony and others. “These brands are coming to us to partner or make for them,” said Cirker, whose grandfather started marketing the MA-1 to civilians through Army surplus stores in the Seventies.
Authenticity’s become a touchstone for brands wanting to carve their own image in a digital world of endless replication and a retail market with inexpensive, quick turn goods that are heavy on style, but low on quality. Alpha’s seen as the real deal in a sea of bomber jackets by virtue of its background and Cirker’s focus on the company’s core.
“Alpha was born of purpose and never left,” he said in an interview. “It’s in our DNA to build jackets that have purpose and have quality and durability.”
The goal now is to design keeping past and future in perspective, bringing both trend-right touches and heritage construction.
“We are focused on our core business,” Cirker said. “These brands that are head-to-toe with accessories and all this kind of stuff, that’s wonderful. We really believe in doing just a few things very well. Every brand right now has a bomber jacket, so how do I stand out because authentic heritage, that is my competitive advantage, so that’s where I need to stand out.”
Cirker said he spends a lot of time on company culture, calling the conference room the “ready room,” for instance, and lets the attitude filter down to everything Alpha does, from customer service calls to product.
Alpha jackets use flight nylon that based on the original military specs and feature tiny details derived from their initial purpose in the cockpit, such as pen caps that come installed in the pen holders on the left sleeve.
“These kinds of details, as individual details, they might not make a lot of noise,” Criker said. But as part of the broader context, they can become very powerful.
“If you tell these stories to the right people, it will resonate,” he said.
And starting out narrow can open a broad world.
“We aim at keeping the uniqueness of our roots and of our brand,” said Moncler chairman and ceo Remo Ruffini. “We were born as the first down jackets of great quality and this distinguishes us in the luxury world. We work on other categories without distorting or betraying the roots of the brand.”
Those roots have proven to be strong. Moncler’s revenues rose 18 percent last year to 1.04 billion euros.
A mono focus, whether by design or necessity, has been an asset for many companies starting out.
Victor Lytvinenko cofounded Raleigh Denim with his wife Sarah Yarborough in 2007, setting out with an intense focus on denim that shaped the company and ultimately provided a platform for growth.
“For small brands or start-up brands, being hyper focused is efficient, it’s a way to make something that can actually compete. It’s hard to do a whole line off the bat,” Lytvinenko said.
“In the beginning, we had pretty broad ambitions to design lots of different things and have a bigger line and all this, but thought that if we could start and be super focused and make something the best, that would allow those other opportunities to unfold,” Lytvinenko said. “That’s actually how things have played out.” Denim remains the company’s largest business and shaped the business model and image, which heavily emphasizes the production process reliant on “non-automated jeansmiths.”
Investors have taken note and are paying extra attention when brands are able to connect with consumers through specialization.
“Product specificity and customer loyalty and community around specifics products is very appealing right now,” said attorney Douglas Hand, who has a long list of fashion clients at Hand, Baldachin & Amburgey. “It’s certainly a shift in focus of a lot of investors to now be recognizing that brands that have a narrow, but loyal customer and community of recognition and expertise are really gaining traction, as opposed to brands that investors feel can be positioned as lifestyle brands.”
It’s a shift that recognizes the sophistication of consumers, who are armed with more information than ever and know what’s core to a brand and can see “behind the veil” of branded products produced under license, Hand said.
While for years young brands have started narrow and sought to go broad, adding categories and licenses to grow their presence in the market, this new emphasis leaves businesses that were halfway to lifestyle propositions in a tough spot.
“It’s difficult to pivot,” Hand said. “It starts to look like contraction when it’s focus, so I think being in the middle is a tough place to be. It’s hard to sort of unbroaden yourself because it starts to look like failure.”
Gary Wassner, chairman of Lee Equity-backed investment house InterLuxe and head of fashion factor Hilldun, said, “Today, particularly until you have really perfected this one product line that you’ve launched with, you shouldn’t even think of extending to other product collections.
“Look at shoes,” Wassner suggested. “Who are the biggest shoe designers out there? Christian Louboutin? They’re not the designer show brands that began with ready-to-wear and expanded into shoes. Ralph Lauren is not a big high-end shoe brand.
“There’s something to say for specializing,” he said. “You look at the success of Louboutin, they own the market at that price point. I don’t think the public really cares whether Christian Louboutin has ready-to-wear or not. If he launched ready-to-wear, the consumer at first would probably be hesitant to buy it.”
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