Several weeks ago I saw a magazine spread for the latest collaboration between Uniqlo and former Hermès designer Christophe Lemaire, which got me thinking.
Ever wonder how the Disney machine is able to systematically crank out one after another megateen star, who for a seemingly brief moment, is able to capture the hearts of millions of teens and pre-teens? Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Miley Cyrus, Zac Efron, etc., you name it. Where do you think they got their “big break”? Is it really because of Disney’s uncanny ability to predict star quality? Perhaps, but I think the answer is slightly different than simply picking an ace out of the deck. And therein lies the change that is about to hit the world of fashion — or more accurately, the world of fast fashion.
Disney has succeeded by being able to place a large amount of relatively small bets. Every season, they bring fresh new faces to their audience — betting on their newly discovered performers to shine with the audience. If they are successful, they quickly build on their success with sequels and prequels (“High School Musical 4,” anyone?) and if they are not, they yank them off the air (“Good Luck Charlie,” “A.N.T. Farm”). Disney’s real advantage is in having an established asset base (brand equity, their own media outlets) and a captive audience that has been trained over generations to breathlessly await the next heartthrob they can call their own.
Now, let’s think about fast fashion. Many of these companies now have an established asset base (established brands, retail and online stores) and a captive shopper who is addicted to looking out for the next trendy thing to show up on the shelves. They lend themselves perfectly to placing a large number of small bets, capitalizing on ones that work and cleaning out the ones that don’t. All they need to perpetuate a repeatable success model is a new crop of stars that can become the face of the company — designers who can become the next “in” product, who can become the actual brands that sell their merchandise.
Let’s talk about Project Runway, now in its fourteenth season. While other talent shows like American Idol and even Top Chef have had a reasonable track record of discovering stars and producing legitimate brands, why hasn’t Project Runway been as successful? Because unlike the changes that have happened in the movie or music industry over the last decade or so, so far, the world of fashion has demanded that its star designers earn their recognition the hard way — a combination of arduous work and waiting to be noticed. The lucky ones have the opportunity to apprentice under an acclaimed fashion house, and the really lucky ones someday make it on their own. But I believe this is about to change.
“Fast fashion, meet fast designer.” This is a perfect match just waiting to explode. I’m expecting a whole new crop of product lines that will feature designers as brand names, particularly for fast fashion. And in turn, fast fashion will soon learn that there are much easier ways for them to place a large number of relatively small bets without cannibalizing what they do with their in-house talent, which may be formidable today, but very hard to sustain. Young designers thirsty for attention and admiration, even for feedback and criticism, would jump at the chance to have their own “show,” albeit knowing that it may be only for one season. Even designers who are climbing the traditional career ladder, apprenticing at famous fashion and luxury houses, will see this as a no-regrets opportunity to fast-track their odds.
What are the chances of this happening? It seems inevitable to me, but here are three items to take into consideration.
First, fast-fashion companies will need to start developing a whole new capability for discovering and grooming stars. The question is, can they do this? In light of the Disney model, I don’t see why it would be so difficult.
Secondly, the designer-as-brand model doesn’t necessarily only apply to unknowns. But would the already-famous or semifamous or waiting-to-be-famous designers risk their high fashion and luxury creds by entering the world of fast fashion? Stella McCartney didn’t think it was a bad bet (a cool million bucks for reportedly collaborating with H&M certainly could have helped).
Lastly, will the implication of exclusivity conferred by designer-as-brand mean that the industry as a whole will suffer, because customers will no longer desire luxury brands and their oh-so-ethereal designer merchandise? Maybe. However, spending data shows that more and more people who pay luxury prices also bargain hunt at fast-fashion haunts — more than one might imagine. The dichotomy of the fast-fashion shopper could not be more evident than a sighting of Jennifer Lopez, who has no qualms risking her super-orbital status as a fashion icon when she pulls off a $10,000 Hermès Birkin bag with, wait for it, a $25 pair of culottes from Forever 21.
And after all, doesn’t David Beckham shop at H&M?
Adheer Bahulkar is a partner with global strategy and management consulting firm A.T. Kearney, specializing in strategy and operations in the consumer and retail sector. He is based in Washington, D.C.