Styles from the All Birds San Francisco store.

Looking good isn’t always enough anymore: To grab attention, coax open pocketbooks and take market share, many brands are finding they need to be functional as well as beautiful.

Welcome to the new age of usefulness.

While function can mean tech — the Everpurse x Kate Spade New York bags charge cell phones — it can also come from some decidedly low-tech qualities.

Take Untuckit, a brand of button-down shirts meant to fit properly when untucked. Started in 2011, the company raised $30 million from Kleiner Perkins in June and is set to open its 25th store next month — on its way to 50 next year.

Also among a growing array of products with a functional product promise are: Allbirds wool sneakers that can be worn without socks; Rhone activewear-infused business casualwear, and a series of styles, including the No-Yank Tank, from the workwear-minded retailer Duluth Trading Co.

Function is also all over the assortment at Uniqlo, which was last week featuring at the top of its web site “amazingly warm coats that ward off winter weather” as well as “block-tech” fleece hoodies, lined pants and chinos that are crafted to block wind and rain and Heattech items made of a moisture-wicking fabric that retains heat. The company has taken the customer’s lead when it comes to adding functionality, and “greatly expanded” its Heattech range to include turtlenecks, trousers and even scarves and gloves. Uniqlo launched its Ultra Light Down jackets as an outer layer, but found they were popular as an inner layer, leading to a new vest assortment. (The company also found that guys tended to lose the carry pouch so the men’s styles now come with attachable pouches).

A Heattech turtleneck from Uniqlo. 

Expect more of the same, particularly from brands trying to be heard above the din.

“If all you have is just cool-looking sneakers, it’s really tough for people to get engaged,” said J.B. Osborne, cofounder and chief executive officer of Red Antler, which helped establish Allbirds. “When you have a functional innovation, all of a sudden you have a story. When it’s true and connected to a human need, I think it can be incredibly powerful because it’s not just about how something looks, it’s, ‘What can it do for you?’”

For years there’s been talk about how Millennial shoppers want to be involved in the design process and it’s an impulse that’s led to brands that are more connected to their base. Allbirds, for instance, launched with one pair of sneakers and repeatedly tweaked its design based on consumer feedback before finding just the right style and fit.

It looks like inviting more people in and listening to more ideas during the design process leads to products that are more than pretty. “Traditional fashion brands have basically taken an approach where…it’s all about art direction and lifestyle curation,” Osborne noted. “It’s never been about product innovation. It’s always been about ‘brand,’ which is really aesthetic.”

Osborne said companies like Allbirds had to find a story to cut through the clutter.


A look from Allbirds.  Courtesy

And consumers are looking to simplify.

“We live in an increasingly complex world, where time is our biggest luxury,” said Fiona Dieffenbacher, fashion design program director at Parsons School of Design. “Consumers want to simplify their dress options and the decision-making process around the act of dressing itself, often reverting to a functional ‘uniform’ that can transition from work to social life. We don’t have time to think, so duplication as a buying strategy is the norm and accommodates our fast-paced lifestyle. A consumer finds a brand that fits their taste, aesthetic and price point, and they purchase a combination of key items or multiple sets in varying colors.

“We expect more from our clothing than we did in the last century — moving beyond aesthetics, we expect our clothes to behave in certain ways and embody certain characteristics that align with our fast-paced lives,” Dieffenbacher said. “As global citizens, we are traveling more than ever and clothing calls for wearable, breathable attributes that support the transitions across hot-cold climates. In essence — they need to think for us.”

Rapid shifts in the branding world have also helped open the door to function.

Ryan Cotton, a managing director in Bain Capital’s consumer, retail and dining business, said brands appeal to consumers by providing some kind of distinctive performance, or by standing for a set of values or emotions the user wants to advertise to the world.

So, Canada Goose, a Bain investment, stands for warm, while Chanel stands for luxury and Converse stand for rock ’n’ roll, Cotton said. (He also pointed to “search brands” that historically helped customers make buying decisions by connoting quality: think the Jolly Green Giant).

“Technology and the transparency it affords is shifting this brand landscape very quickly,” he said. “Online customer reviews and advocacy on social platforms allows end customers (consumers) to communicate the functional benefits of the products they love and lets brands with real functional differentiation rise above the fray,” Cotton said.

“It’s harder to be an emotional brand and the value of search brands is obliterated, [so] the last remaining place to earn a real ‘brand premium’ is in function; that’s why most successful brand launches today compete in this space,” he said.

At its core, the move toward more functional looks helps brands give customers just a little more.

Nate Checketts, cofounder and chief executive officer of Rhone, which sells business-casual styles infused with activewear traits, said: “You shouldn’t have to sacrifice function for fashion and vice versa. Really, it’s kind of performance all the time and style when you need it.”

The brand’s “commuter pant” has a hidden “media pocket” of stretch mesh to hold a phone, as well as articulating knee darts, flex-knit fabric and a cut that allows extra mobility.

The Rhone commuter pant.

The Rhone commuter pant. 

“I don’t think anybody goes for a run or does squats in our commuter pants, but they might run to catch the next train or come home and get on the ground to play with their kids and not have to change,” Checketts said. “Your clothing shouldn’t be a distraction from having a great workout or spending time with your friends or going into daily commute. That really fades into the background so you can engage in your life more.”

Function might be something that fashion at large is just waking up to, but it’s a selling point that’s been well understood for some time in Belleville, Wis., at the headquarters of Duluth Trading.

The retailer describes its offering as “high-quality, solution-based casualwear, workwear and accessories for men and women who lead a hands-on lifestyle and who value a job well done.”

Duluth’s No-Yank Tank for women has extra length to avoid overexposure and a snug fit to make it easier to layer. It’s a simple idea that Duluth has gotten behind in a big way, supporting it with $2.7 million in TV advertising in the first quarter alone.

The retailer also offers its Armachillo briefs, which feature a nylon-spandex blend embedded with microscopic jade to feel cooler on the skin, and Dry on the Fly Pants that dry quickly after a drenching. On the men’s side, Duluth has its Wrinklefighter shirt and Ballroom Khakis.

“What it means is that we’re fulfilling our promise, if you will, to our customers to be of service to him no matter what his lifestyle, no matter what the end use or an occasion might be,” Stephanie Pugliese, ceo of Duluth Holdings Inc., told investors earlier this year. “Wrinklefighter shirts come with Duluth’s DNA. They have larger buttons. They have underarm gussets, and they’re built for…different fits.”

Historically, fashion has favored form over function, but that stance seems to be softening across much of the market.

Gary Wassner, chairman of fashion investment house InterLuxe and a lender to many designers through his factoring firm Hilldun, said it’s not enough for brands to just provide fashion for Millennials today.

“It’s clear that they want other components of value,” Wassner said. “What they consider value isn’t the fact that it’s expensive, or the fact that it’s branded, or the fact that it’s some cool designer. They’re looking for added value in terms of, ‘Yes, this is going to make my life better’ — not just, ‘Am I going to look good?’ but ‘It’s going to add value to my life.’”

That thinking informed InterLuxe’s April investment in Canadian outerwear brand Mackage, which focuses on warmth and style. (InterLuxe also has investments in Jason Wu and ALC).

“Mackage, the whole thing is fashion and function,” Wassner said. “They’ve got the two concepts, [including] incredible warmth, lightweight. That’s a big component of how they market.”

And doing more is picking up steam.

Looking at fashions added to U.S. e-commerce sites in the third quarter, waterproof styles are up 33.7 percent compared with a year earlier, while the number of windproof looks increased 15.7 percent and pieces introduced with wicking properties rose 8.2 percent, according to retail analytics firm Edited.

“We’ve gotten quite used to have stretch, wicking and rain-proof qualities in our fashion items,” said Katie Smith, senior fashion and retail market analyst at Edited.

Smith said brands are using function to stand out in a mass-market and fast-fashion landscape that’s flooded with “product that doesn’t differentiate from itself.”

She said the question is: “What product can look like they’re fashion first, but also be hyper-useful, carving out a premium niche within a market that’s heavily oversaturated.”

Function, though, is not enough on its own.

Liz Salcedo, founder and ceo of Everpurse, which develops phone-charging tech for purses, said style remains a must.

“What we’ve seen from customers and the market is that, it often starts with a need for it to do something more, maybe it starts with function, but it’s definitely not enough to just be functional,” Salcedo said.

“There are a lot of things we buy that are purely functional, but the real value is in being fashionable and beautiful and aesthetically pleasing,” she said. “Function has to be paired with beauty. If we just simply take the concept of a bag that charges your phone and put too much emphasis on the function, then you get things that look like what you could buy at a gas station that’s not what the market responds to best. It doesn’t replace fashion in any way, it almost extends the relationship that you have with fashion.”

Everpurse X Kate Spade New York

Everpurse x Kate Spade New York  Josh Ohms

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