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Although the COVID-19 outbreak is turning prospects grimmer than ever for small and independent fashion brands, not all hope is lost.

Just as the outbreak was spreading globally, a group of designers and entrepreneurs decided to go ahead with plans to launch their own fashion labels and enter the market. Despite bad timing, the new reality has pushed these companies to think differently — about sustainable and charitable initiatives — and embrace digital platforms even more to create brand awareness and maintain their business plans.

Here, WWD rounds up five direct-to-consumer fashion brands to watch.

IINDACO

“After working at luxury brands for quite some time, we started feeling overwhelmed by fashion’s frenetic pace, whose business model increasingly looked like that of fast-fashion [companies],” said Domitilla Rapisardi, cofounder of footwear brand Iindaco, which launched its e-commerce site on Feb. 11.

Cofounders Rapisardi and Pamela Costantini met in 2011 when they were working in the footwear design department at Roberto Cavalli. Their careers took different paths, with Costantini joining Givenchy in 2015 and Rapisardi freelancing for other luxury brands until a phone call between the pair in 2017 set the foundation for the sustainable and edgy shoe label. To mark Iindaco’s launch, the designers embraced an outdoor guerrilla marketing strategy, wallpapering Paris and Milan with small billboards ahead of a showroom-like presentation at Costantini’s apartment in Paris and before Milan’s Pitti-backed Super trade show, where they displayed the collection.

“We had already decided to embrace a d-to-c approach as our main pillar and to leverage selected retail partners to enhance brand awareness,” commented Rapisardi, noting that in the wake of current uncertainties the approach felt even more appropriate. “The ‘old’ wholesale model can tear you apart as a lot of intermediaries put a distance between you and the end consumer.” Despite this, Iindaco has already struck a deal with LuisaViaRoma for a capsule collection of limited-edition pieces that will ship between July and August, a few months later than planned.

Although the brand gained the seal of approval among international retailers during fashion month, orders have been put on hold and the two designers put most of their efforts into the e-commerce launch. “We didn’t expect much since the outbreak was freezing sales, yet we were surprised to see that online sales were thriving,” said Costantini. “With no presence of the brand at premium retailers, we had to develop marketing strategies to bank on what customers are looking for online: bargains,” she added, mentioning special sales for Easter and Mother’s Day, for example.

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A pair of Iindaco’s mules.  Courtesy of Iindaco.

“We couldn’t imagine how much we could learn in such a short time frame about online and digital strategies, in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak,” explained Costantini. On the digital front, the designers are committed to building a community around the brand, whose name refers to the “blue hour”: the period just before sunset when a woman transitions out of her daily routine and into aperitivo time. They collaborated with digital personalities, tapping, for example, designer Emma Rowen Rose and actress and content creator Marta Pozzan as muses of the footwear line.

With its fusion of architectural shapes, satin moirè wraps and quirky beaded disco heels, the collection has all the credentials to build a fashion following, but the two designers stressed their sustainable commitment is equally crucial. Leather nappa and fabric linings are biodegradable, other materials come from upcycled deadstock, while heels are made of recycled ABS resin. Additionally, the packaging — in a distinctive indigo nuance — is dyed using leftovers from the lavender production process.

Priced at between 300 euros and 790 euros, the line is manufactured by a company based in Italy’s storied footwear district of San Mauro Pascoli, which is helping the duo handle e-commerce logistics, too. “It’s entry-price luxury and although sustainability represents a cost for us, we wanted to keep our prices under control,” said Rapisardi. “Fast fashion is obsolete; we want to foster the desire of keeping a product and make customers understand the value of durability.”

KAMPOS

As the summer season approaches, Alessandro Vergano, a former Procter & Gamble and Swarovski employee, has launched Kampos.

The idea started to tickle last summer, stemming from a simple question: How to create the world’s best beachwear brand? The answer came out as approachable luxury with cool designs and an emphasis on sustainability.

The brand launched its e-commerce this month and Vergano sounded optimistic. “I’ve been asked a lot if I was sure to launch a brand at this particularly tough time, but to be honest, the current climate pushed me even further as I have the ambition to create an earthquake, showing the fashion world that customers want luxury to be sustainable,” he explained.

“Traveling around the world I could see how pollution has destroyed our coasts and environment, swarming with plastic waste,” said Vergano. “We’ve been very uncompromising with sustainability because after years working in marketing, I wanted to avoid any greenwashing.”

The brand, which offers swimming trunks and bikinis, as well as a children’s wear range and a lineup of uncomplicated resortwear designs, such as cotton T-shirts and chino pants, relies on a network of suppliers, which it directly audited. The bulk of its textiles are regenerated nylon yarns sourced from suppliers located within 56 miles of Milan. They include Aquafil’s Econyl obtained from plastic waste, such as discarded fishing nets, carpets and fabric scraps, and Dentis’ New Life yarns made of recycled PET plastics.

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A swimming trunk from Kampos.  Courtesy of Kampos.

The sustainable commitment extends beyond fabrics as Kampos avoids plastic packaging and allows customers to ship back worn garments to be recycled. It also pledges 5 percent of its revenues to One Ocean Foundation, a charity overseen by Yacht Club Costa Smeralda, Italy.

The COVID-19 outbreak has wreaked havoc on the brand’s time to market. “Despite being a start-up brand, which would usually run three to four times as fast as an established label, the crisis has caused delays. Now we need to start selling,” Vergano said, sensing customers are eager for authentic stories and brands.

To this end, ahead of its e-commerce debut, Kampos launched its social media channels, amassing 115,000 followers on Facebook and 13,000 on Instagram, especially among Chinese and Asian consumers. Additionally, the brand implemented a dedicated webzine on its site aiming to address environmental issues. “Education is integral to our brand’s mission; we’re not here to only sell at all costs,” said Vergano.

Although business might be impacted this year, Vergano sees 2020 as a training ground for the future. Kampos had already planned to debut a retail outpost inside Promenade du Port, a seafront retail complex located in Porto Cervo, Sardinia. Originally slated to open in mid-May, it will now make its debut in June.

“Our idea has always been to launch as a direct-to-consumer brand mainly because we want to have control over our brand identity and position the label as real luxury, albeit approachable,” he said. Partnering with retailers is out of the question, he said, as it would inevitably require higher prices to generate appropriate margins and account for the brand’s sustainable efforts.

THE ONLY JANE

A seasoned fashion editor, Jane Herman knew a thing or two about marketing a fashion collection. After becoming a mother two years ago, she decided to step back from her daily editorial duties and begin a fashion project, which after some pondering saw the light in late March. “I’d sold clothes in stores and online, I’d created lots of content for sites and social. It was time for me to design something. One thing. A complete look. It had to be a jumpsuit,” she said.

The Only Jane offers a single jumpsuit called Jump One in different colorways, retailing for $485. “I wanted to design something that would make women feel great and ready to do what they love to do,” Herman said from her house in the Hollywood Hills.

As California was gearing up to implement a statewide lockdown on March 19, Herman was ready to debut her fashion project, except she felt the timing was not suitable. “It didn’t feel right to launch something during those early days of the pandemic in California: Launches are big and celebratory, and this was not a time for that,” she explained. The project went ahead a week later, as Herman — self-isolated at home and surrounded by 300 jumpsuits — found a reason to celebrate: Partnering With No Kid Hungry, a U.S. organization that provides kids with meals. By allocating 30 percent of the purchase price of each jumpsuit to the cause, Herman has amassed $25,000.

“My focus shifted, I started seeing my company as a way to help people and I wanted to start as soon as possible. It took about a week to finalize my partnership with the organization and rewrite all of my messaging, redesign my web site, and shoot some of the content to support it,” explained Herman. “For me, the pandemic created a sense of urgency and also a need to be open and honest about my intentions and what my customers were getting when they shopped with me.”

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The Only Jane jumpsuits.  Courtesy of The Only Jane.

To this end, Herman also allows customers to get a refund based on the “honor system” to which customers can apply by either returning the jumpsuit or gifting it to someone else, and yet get their money back. “I did this to reduce the amount of stress on my customers and our shipping systems. Extreme times call for extreme generosity and trust,” Herman said. She also pivoted communication and storytelling in response to the pandemic, aligning her message to the quarantined life by producing, for example, a video directed by her husband, filmmaker Marc Webb.

Despite the outbreak, The Only Jane’s business has been thriving, with 230 jumpsuits sold already. Herman noted that “right now being an online-only business feels like a blessing,” adding that she has no plans to push the wholesale channel in the future. With her factory closed until last week, the designer is now facing difficulties in restocking, both for the jumpsuits and for the custom tote bags that come with each order, with a waiting list for some styles continuing to grow.

Herman is not pressured to scale her business. “I believe that people want what’s true. There is a lot of uncertainty right now. To speak truthfully about what I do and why I do it, that matters. And if I can raise money for charity and also give women something that brings them a bit of comfort, that matters, too,” she said.

GÉRALDINE LONDON

Alexia Genta, a well-known London designer who runs her Alexia Alterations couture alterations atelier in Knightsbridge, did not want to sit down and wait for the pandemic to wane. She had not only her business to preserve, but also the freelance jobs of her seamstresses who have helped her gain a reputation — hence Géraldine London came to light, a luxury headband label with a sustainable silver lining to it.

“The brand is all about the silver lining. We were in a difficult and painful situation and we made something beautiful and successful out of it. We make women feel beautiful effortlessly. While working from home, women are not dressing up, but the moment they put on our headband, they are instantly Zoom-ready,” explained Genta.

As per her main business with Alexia Alterations, which is on hold, Genta said it taught her “that resilience is everything, and this situation is no different. I have to fight for my seamstress and my atelier, and my weapon of choice is a headband.”

Four weeks in the making, the Géraldine London web site launched on May 1. Within two weeks the entire inventory of headbands sold out, with repeat purchases happening as well because the brand unveils new styles each Friday, allowed by a nimble business structure that was not impacted by the outbreak. “Challenges are big but so far manageable. I find that not being in the workroom where the headband is made is very challenging,” she noted, explaining that manufacturing is carried out remotely. Headbands are crafted from upcycled fabrics, making each piece almost one-of-a-kind, and the designer is also planning to allow customers to send garments in exchange for a discount and setting up partnerships with established London designers who provide their fabric remnants.

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Alexia Genta wearing one of her Géraldine London headbands.  Courtesy of Géraldine London.

Debuted in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, the brand launched d-to-c and although Genta did not rule online wholesale in the future, she feels it’s not right at the moment. She decided instead to leverage her new business as a means to support Women’s Aid, an organization that fights domestic violence, by allocating 20 percent of sales to the cause. “I think that business for business sake in these difficult times didn’t sit right with me. I then read an article about the increase in domestic abuse during lockdown and I immediately turned to my husband and thought to myself how lucky I am to feel safe at home,” she noted.

CONSCHES

Cornelia Lindner had no academic fashion training, but she’s always been passionate about clothing and wanted to provide women with an alternative to fast fashion. After a business degree and 10 years working in that field, last January she set the foundation for her eco-friendly label Consches.

The brand’s e-commerce made its debut on March 10, a few days before lockdown was enforced in Austria. “At that time the impact of this pandemic and the resulting consequences were unimaginable. Therefore, the question of postponing the launch was never raised,” the designer said, adding the d-to-c business model feels right “in order to remain agile and to be able to react immediately to new situations and customers’ feedback.”

Setting up her business, Lindner started questioning fashion’s seasonally discordant deliveries and was convinced that her current business model instead could let her be “much more flexible, independent and able to restock or develop new products within a few weeks; moreover, I do not have to follow seasonal sales cycles, trade show dates or retail and wholesale pricing and calculation requirements,” Lindner added.

Providing an alternative to fast fashion, the founder’s goal is to produce ethically and locally, in order to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and support Austrian manufacturers, a decision that proved beneficial as it prevented production delays during the pandemic.

The brand’s cotton dresses in bright shades or printed with floral and geometric motifs and its wrap skirts are crafted from sustainable fabrics or deadstock textiles and produced in limited quantities. Additionally, Consches avoids leather and other animal by-products and uses plastic-free packaging, shipping in Austria through the local mail service, which is carbon-neutral. “The vision is to make high-quality and sustainable fashion which empowers the women who wear it and the people who produce Consches’ products,” the brand’s founder said.

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A cotton dress from Consches.  Courtesy of Consches.

Lindner noted that business has been faring well in the first two months, which reassured her as she was worried over the typical uncertainties and fears brought on by stepping into self-employment — all intensified by the outbreak. “There are also positive aspects of this crisis: The current situation is causing us to question our buying behavior and is also increasing the value of local products.…In my opinion, this is also an opportunity for small labels like Consches, as trends like sustainability and regionality become even more important for our society,” Lindner contended.

“Consumers are more concerned regarding social and environmental causes; this is changing their buying behavior and is in favor of labels which are aligned with their values,” she added.

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