Can a brand be customer-facing and preserve its identity? Yes, but it takes skills — and patience — to balance the two.
Channeling a timeless style into a powerhouse business is a long-term strategy. In an age of intense pressure to produce attention-grabbing fashion and spectacular catwalk shows, it’s increasingly difficult for brands to manage marketing and consumer expectations and to keep their identity intact.
Even before COVID-19, the fashion industry had finally begun to recognize that it was no longer able to succeed in “transmit” mode anymore. It has switched to “receive” mode.
Customers are now fully engaged with brands, and firmly in the driving seat. Brands now have to listen, and actively engage with them, asking questions such as, “What do you want to see?” and “How are we doing?”
The pandemic only accelerated the changes that digital had started. So, as we emerge from lockdown to a fashion landscape, awash with stock and heavy discounts, the search for the engaged, full-price customer is on.
Data is now a significant consideration when brands choose what images drive engagement. Data can now help brands understand how customers react to issues on everything from fit, fabrics, and quality, to color.
Now, of course, the question of transparency, provenance and sustainability is becoming more important to consumers. It’s confusing for brands.
There are great examples of brands that have achieved a balance, harnessing feedback from customers without doing damage to their image.
On the other hand, many brands are trying to play the feedback game, but are then confused about what to do with all the information. They don’t have the systems in place to act on consumer reaction, the time to interpret it or to work out what is relevant.
How can you please everyone? You can’t, but with the right skills, you can improve and perfect over time. Skills and patience are what is needed.
Take Dries Van Noten, a shy and very private designer who has quietly and steadily built a powerhouse. He is a designer’s designer, and he is entirely customer-focused.
I have always admired that he has been able to “tune in” to a certain woman. He’s gotten to know her so well, understands what she needs and where she would wear his clothes.
His brand and use of prints and color are instantly recognizable, yet his aesthetic is a practical one. Given his conceptual catwalk shows, many might not understand how commercially clever he has been.
As a designer myself, I can tell you why I think it’s genius.
When I work with clients, I help them focus on the brand’s core fabrics. I ask them what their signature materials are. Dries took ownership of his key materials years ago and even though the collection may host new and innovative placed prints and jacquards, the core base fabrics do not change.
Collection after collection features the same silk twill, silk georgette, crepe, light high-twist wool and jersey. For those who understand the product, they are just the right weight, the right quality and finish. Dries then stamps his designer identity on the garments; a placed print here, a signature embellishment there.
What makes this genius is that he has come up with a commercial proposition that still has high creative integrity.
This blend is exactly what post-COVID-19 luxury shoppers are looking for, and will enable brands to navigate change in challenging times. If customers are going to spend their money at all, they want to know they are investing well in clothing that will stand the test of time.
Erdem Moralioglu, who is similarly known for print, has also cracked the code. Fit, fabric and finish have been finely tuned to cater to the Erdem customer.
His bestseller? According to the head of his store in Mayfair, it’s a three-quarter-length dress with a fluid kick hem. It features a three-quarter-length sleeve with a fluted cuff, a crossover detail on the bust and a flattering cut just below. Not exactly cutting-edge, yet these are the common requests of any woman who wants a dress that will last more than one wear. It’s feminine, flattering, and versatile.
What is intriguing is this: When you think of Phoebe Philo’s Celine, it was far more cutting-edge, far more desirable, more covetable as a brand than Dries or Erdem. Yet I’ve worn my Dries Van Noten purchases far more than any Celine ones.
The uber-cool Celine aesthetic was incredible. I longed to be that girl, but the investment was significantly more, and the pleasure fleeting. Apart from the fact that her collections, in my opinion, were designed for tall people (and I’m very petite) I found that even though she professed to create for women on the move, the product was ultimately impractical.
Oversized and drowning knitwear that looked amazing in photos, but so dense you couldn’t wait to take it off; shirts so tailored, heavy and constructed that you felt like they were wearing you, and not vice-versa. I wore my purchases a few times, then they remained in the back of the wardrobe and were subsequently resold.
Miuccia Prada also loves fabric extremes. Heavy wools for skirts, contrasted with the lightest chiffons. I know from experience as a designer how tempting it is to search for newness, even if it’s not so commercial. When selecting fabrics, I’m also attracted to stiff, luxury, high-twist fabrics, heavy couture jacquards, and gossamer silks. I love the extremes, too.
However, you can see social media pressure to reinvent for reinvention’s sake. Driving for newness sometimes misses the point with the consumer.
Brands that made that mistake will be paying a heavy price, this season in particular. The extremes of fashion will be languishing on rails, unsold at any markdown. COVID-19 has shown a distinct retreat from the frivolous, to wardrobe heroes.
Luxury designers often find that “in-between” fabrics are commercial, but boring. They can ignore that aspect, because for powerhouses like Celine or Prada, the focus is ultimately to sell the high-margin luxury accessories or licensed categories such as perfume, make-up, and sunglasses, rather than the clothes, which are costly to manufacture and are ultimately bought by a niche group of consumers.
Yet to remain relevant and exciting, most brands have to be able to grow their clothing sales and that is where the skill of creative leadership lies.
Maria Lemos, founder of the London showroom Rainbowwave, describes the fast-changing fashion brand landscape.
“I think everyone is influenced by social media, and there are two extremes: The brands that grow fast and rely on social media for rapid growth, particularly in the Asian and American markets, and the brands that grow slowly, organically, because of the creation of a unique and excellent product. Our world is much more polarized now, and it is the brands that are in between the two that are struggling,” she said.
I trained as a commercial designer whose job it was to create beautiful product, and I believe there are brands out there that are quietly finding their own following and growing fast.
Take, for example, a designer like Christophe Lemaire: His minimal style has garnered a huge brand following and landed him the job as artistic director of a new Uniqlo Paris R&D Centre, and designer of Uniqlo U because of his exceptional understanding of product.
Maria Cornejo’s collection Zero has shown resilience and longevity in a volatile market, which is a testament to her deep understanding of silhouette and fabrics.
Even more niche is Carol Christian Poell, who’s been quietly reinventing tailoring for two decades. He has lived and worked in Milan for many years and is seeing the renaissance of his brand. The late Karl Lagerfeld was a fan of his highly detailed work.
Lemos of Rainbowwave also names a few: “Arts & Science in Japan and Daniela Gregis in Italy are two examples of brands with hardly any social media presence, and a very healthy business that is growing year-on-year through word of mouth, and delivering an excellent product,” she said.
Being commercial does not mean you relinquish creativity. In fact, real creative genius comes from being able to remain steady, like the calm inside a tornado of external influences and pressures. It takes skill to judge what to take on board — and what to ignore.
“I think it is more important than ever for brands of today to be customer-facing,” said Lemos. “We are all surrounded by too much noise, and because of this, brand messages get lost. Better to choose the customer who one really wants to engage with, and then find the medium to do so well. Focus is key, fewer messages, better delivered.”
Joanne Yulan Jong is the founder of the strategic fashion brand consultancy, Yulan Creative and author of “The Fashion Switch: The New Rules of the Fashion Business.”