LONDON — The young generation is becoming more and more mobile because of the Internet, social media — and budget airlines.
In the fashion world, this has opened up a big opportunity for new labels to gain easier access to an international audience and build global businesses from their hometowns, be it Istanbul, Beirut, Budapest or Warsaw.
Creatives no longer need to have a presence at one of the big four fashion capitals to attract the attention of the right retail partners and luxury consumers worldwide: They can interact with them on Instagram and fly back and forth to meet them.
“We see a lot of brands, including those just starting out, using social media very cleverly. Nowadays, word can spread so fast via platforms like Instagram and a large following can influence consumers in a positive way. It allows brands to tell their story visually and create a world that the customer can buy into,” said Lisa Aiken, Net-a-porter’s retail fashion director. “Handled well, small brands can achieve cult status, regardless of where they are based.”
Case in point: Warsaw-based designer Magda Butrym saw her business transform in the last two years, after her romantic ruffled dresses, vintage floral prints and clinging knits got in the hands of the right influencers. “I was very lucky to get the attention of wonderful girls who then very generously spread the news further via their social media,” said Butrym. “I never paid them, they just liked the clothes. But the impact was tremendous and helped attract the attention of all the right people.”
Butrym went on to build a global retail network that includes the likes of Net-a-porter, Lane Crawford, Baymen, Neiman Marcus, Montaigne Market and Tsum, among others. Her clothes have been worn by influencers like Caroline Daur, supermodels Karolina Kurkova and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and actresses like Alicia Vikander, while last season Butrym added footwear and jewelry to her offer, which were warmly received by all her retail partners.
Hungarian label Nanushka also credits its growing digital presence for its ability to establish itself globally in the last year.
Founded in 2005 by Budapest-based designer Sandra Sandor, the label faced numerous struggles and almost folded in 2016, having failed to expand internationally. It was only when it amped up its digital presence that it managed to start a new chapter, with its sporty puffer jackets and vegan leather dresses gaining cult status among fashion insiders.
“When we started this we were very local, but social media gave us the chance to create global appeal and have this dialogue with our customers. It made us realize that there is actually a huge demand for what we’re doing. But if you try to do this locally, without a global digital presence, you will suffer,” said Peter Baldaszti, Sandor’s partner in business and life, adding that the brand’s strategy has been focused on creating long-term strategic partnerships with influencers who share the brand’s values.
Nanushka has been utilizing the digital buzz it has garnered to partner with key retailers such as Net-a-porter and Mytheresa.com, as well as open its own store in its home of Budapest, alongside a pop-up space in Los Angeles that made its debut in May.
Being based outside a fashion capital can also lend designers a refreshed perspective, helping them carve out their niches.
“It’s exciting to work from a city outside the fashion circuit,” said Petar Petrov, another emerging name who built his business out of Vienna and became known for his modernist take on tailoring and playful use of color. “I think the city reflects our work in an emotional way. Vienna feels like an old lady that’s not fashionable but wild at heart. It’s also great to work in a fast-paced manner while in a tranquil city and have the space to be more focused and create our own ideas.”
Petrov added that recognition might have come slower, but by staying true to his aesthetic and working to evolve his product, he eventually succeeded in reaching the right buyers and growing his stockist list, which includes Liberty London, Moda Operandi, Matchesfashion.com and Boutique 1.
In an oversaturated market, lesser-known names with a less recognizable design sensibility have proven to be retail gold, both in the ready-to-wear and accessories departments, as customers want to buy into unique product and feel like they are in the know.
Aiken said Net’s buy team has increased its traveling schedule to include “at least eight fashion weeks” — such as Sydney, Seoul, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Tbilisi and Berlin — in order to answer to consumer demand.
“There is a huge appetite from customers and it’s growing,” added Aiken. “Take bags as a category, for example. It’s never been cooler to be carrying a lesser-known brand like Staud [from Los Angeles], Boyy [from Bangkok] or Gu_de from Seoul. We’re really getting behind them and our spring 2018 buy was up 70 percent versus the season before; they are directional, competitively priced and high-quality.”
Many of these international labels are also able to work with artisans in their locales, in order to offer highly crafted pieces at more competitive prices, giving them another point of differentiation and a more solid foundation, from which to scale their businesses.
“Being based in Warsaw allowed me to build an amazing studio of tailors and seamstresses. They are full-time with me, we are like family and this gives us the luxury to really experiment with my ideas,” said Butrym, explaining that by working with local artisans she can push the boundaries in terms of the craftsmanship of her pieces and ensure that she has full control over the quality of her work. “Our clothes are made by hand, in front of my eyes, every single day.”
Lebanese-born Sandra Mansour is another international name who has been utilizing the resources in her hometown. Not only does “the organized and unorganized chaos” of Beirut serve as a driving force of her creativity, the young designer has also been working closely with local tailors and hand embroiderers to create her collections, which are largely focused on dreamy, elaborately embellished evening wear and have resonated well with the high-net-worth clientele of retailers such as Moda Operandi.
“Everything that is done by hand can be made right here in Beirut, which allows me to experiment creatively in ways I might have been limited to elsewhere,” said Mansour. She added that the city, which is filled with women who love dressing up and are in constant need of one-off gowns for social occasions, has also helped her build a private clientele for bridal and custom orders, which enables a better cash flow in the business.
In the accessories department, a number of handbag labels based in Istanbul, which is known for its thriving leather manufacturing sector, have also been making themselves heard on a global level. Among them is Mehry Mu, best known for its accessibly priced structured totes.
“I started in Turkey because I saw a need in my local market. There were no handbag labels apart from the really high-end ones and thought that there was a big possibility to get the local artisans to good use,” said founder Gunes Mutlu, adding that having an established production line gave her a much-needed boost when she started expanding her presence in London, through partnerships with the likes of Browns and The Shop at Bluebird. “We have volumes in Turkey and we are sold in the best stores, so we were able to sustain our international expansion and finance the business. Producers are also willing to work with us because we are so established locally, they know that I will be able to pay them and that we can scale the business together. It’s also much easier when we want to create custom styles, exclusives for stores and arrange repeat orders.”