The Shift in Gear
Fast food; Slow food. Fast fashion; Slow fashion. It can be hard to stay in sync with the pace of life. High gear has been substituted with high standards, with the speed of production proving to be a major signifier of consumer attitudes, values and behaviour. There is no question that this shift in gear from fast to slow reflects a new age in conscious consumerism, in stark contrast to our ever growing demand for instant gratification. Nowhere is this more apparent than in fashion, where the philosophy of ‘buy less, buy better’ has acquired a popular kudos; a far cry from the elitist sub-set to which ethical choices have previously been confined. We've accepted the prioritisation of Wellbeing in our lifestyle choices - you only need consider active-wear with its green juice accessory - , so it's only natural that other sectors follow. Fashion has always had activism in its DNA, so it was only a matter of time before the industry made steps towards coming clean, especially following the Rana Plaza disaster and similar events. We want Slow Fashion. And we want it Fast.
And, for the socially self-conscious cynics out there – unsure whether embracing virtuous options might compromise their cool-rankings or, heaven-forbid, their Instagram followers – get this: that High priests of hedonism Liam Gallagher and Harry Styles – and popular icons from two culturally powerful generations – profess to ‘being good’, we know that good has become cool. The 1D heartthrob recently told BBC Radio 2 that “I don’t drink much”, while the Mancunian music legend – following his session at Glastonbury this year – told Jo Whiley that “I’m taking care of myself nowadays […] and I’m feeling good”.
Anyway, back to fashion. The fastest growing conscious consumer sector, which grew by 72% in 2010, ethical fashion only continues to pick up pace. “A fabulous beautifully made jacket is not going to disappear out of fashion next year” , says the premium British designer Amanda Wakely. Meanwhile, Safia Minney MBE, founder of People Tree , a far more accessible clothing brand, and a leading campaigner on changing trade policies, is also the author of ‘Slow Fashion: Aesthetics meets Ethics’, now considered a bible for the Slow Fashion movement.
The Fashion Revolution
If fashion buyers were to ask for tip-offs on SS18 trends, they may well be surprised. “Sustainability or responsible innovation is by far the biggest trend in the industry right now,” says Eva Kruse, chief executive of Global Fashion Agenda, which organises the Copenhagen Fashion Summit.It was Sir Martin Sorrell who coined the phrase “doing good is good business” back in 2010, a prophetic statement from a man who understands the consumer.That London ethical based brand Gandys – founded by the Forkan brothers under their ‘Orphans for Orphans’ initiative - recently launched its first womenswear collection, to sit alongside menswear and its signature flip flops, is also revealing.
All of this will be good news for stockists of Braintree Clothing – recently rebranded to Thought Clothing , The Drapers Independents Award-winning sustainable fashion brand Braintree’s founded by CEO John Snare.
“Our new name is built on our celebrated ‘thoughtful clothing’ message and we feel gives us a fresh confidence while reflecting our philosophy about ethics and sustainability”.
The new name builds on Braintree’s existing strapline, “thoughtful clothing”, and is designed to better communicate the brand’s ethical values, which it does.
“In recent years we’ve really evolved our collections and we believe a new name will allow us to edge further into the contemporary fashion space and build on what we have already established.”
It also coincides with the brand’s move upmarket. Over the past 18 months, Braintree has been repositioning with the aim of sitting alongside more contemporary brands such as Toast and Mint Velvet, another indication of the shift of ethical fashion from niche to mainstream.
Total ethical spending in the UK is now worth £54 billion (2017) and represents around 7% of all UK consumer spending, which is more than we spend on cigarettes and alcohol, combined. The value of overall ethical sales grew by 8 %to £38 billion in 2015, during a period when inflation barely rose above 0.5 %, according to the new Ethical Consumer Markets report.
Looking at fashion specifically is fascinating. The industry, which contributed £28 billion to the UK economy in 2016 – a figure predicted to rise to £32 billion by 2020 – is one to watch. Even if this figure is only vaguely accurate, given current Brexit uncertainty and Westminster shenanigans, the British Fashion Council’s positive stance is crucial. Throughout 2017 the British Fashion Council has been celebrating Positive Fashion best practice, creating a dialogue and providing a platform to tell good news stories that help facilitate change. Oh yes, Pantone colour of 2018 will surely be a shade of green.
The militant ethical activism of figures such as Vivienne Westwood and Zandra Rhodes has filtered down to the ever-demanding Gen Z, now buying into H&M’s ‘Conscious Collection’ , albeit sometimes unwittingly, which arguably is just the point. As a language and mindset, sustainability is one in which the next generation is becoming fluent.
For a long time, the conscious consumer has felt frustrated by the lack of choice on the high street thwarting their efforts to buy fewer, but better clothes. ‘Why must ethical, affordable and fashion be mutually exclusive?’ seems to sum up the widespread grievance. The raw reality for well-intentioned retailers is this: shoppers buy on design and style first. Sustainable fashion needed to catch up and the demand needed to be there.
Now it seems that the needs of the conscious fashion-set are being met. There are signs that people are buying less but buying better – Mintel found this was true for 69% of women aged 25-44 – but even so, saving up for a piece from, say, Stella McCartney – however beautiful and ethically-made – is beyond the budgets of most people, which is why the democratisation of ethical fashion is such a fabulous thing.
The Green Generation
Of the large online fashion retailers, ASOS has demonstrated some great leadership. Partnering with SOKO Kenya to produce the ASOS Made in Kenya collection , and maintaining the partnership since 2010, is pretty ground-breaking for a major retailer.
So, who among us is buying into the ethical market in terms of demographic? Well, apparently it’s the Millennials and a good fistful of folks either side.
A report on the shopping habits of Millennials says 70% indicate a willingness to spend more with brands that support ethical causes or operate using business models that align and resonate with their own values. In his book Who Cares Wins: Why Good Business is Better Business , David Jones, former advertising CEO for Havas and founder of non-profit One Young World, argues that the Millennial demographic "the most socially responsible generation that ever existed" and dubs this influential, marketing savvy set as "pro-sumers".
What I find especially interesting here is two things. Firstly, how going green has gone mainstream and cloaked itself in coolness. It’s quite likely that a blazer or dress that catches your eye in store, for its on-trend appeal, will be made from organic cotton, hemp or recycled leather using a zero-waste design. Moreover, the organic, ethical fair-trade whimsical purchase you make is less likely to be a shapeless, over-sized tunic dress (the standard a few years ago) or hand-dyed t-shirt than it is an off-the-shoulder blouse or tailored blazer. This has certainly been the case for contemporary womenswear brand Skunkfunk , family owned and designed in Bilbao and distributed to UK retailers by Love Brands Ltd . Their collections, 50% ethically sourced and 100% directional fashion, bring technical outerwear and innovative fabrics to womenswear, even involving regional artists to design original prints. Besides tracing their supply chain back to the source, this GTOS certified Fairtrade fashion brand uses a unique pattern cutting processing which aims for Zero Waste. The fashion fascist no longer needs to compromise on aesthetics to be virtuous.
But the real point here really is that we want to do this. We want to be ‘good’. Being ‘good’ has become something of a status symbol. Importantly, it’s also become an affordable desire to satisfy. We no longer need to drive a Prius or own a Canada Goose parka. What we are seeing here is a far cry from the cynical greenwashing of fuel companies. It’s an authentic and commercial decision made by retailers who are responding to consumer demand. How exciting is that?
This leads me to the second striking detail. Not only has ethical become affordable but the availability, supply and choice is fuelling the increased demand. Keith Weed, Unilever’s chief marketing officer, says: “Our research shows that 54% of consumers are on the tipping point of purchasing sustainably. There is a huge economic opportunity for businesses that are able to build brands with real purpose which consumers care about”. It’s a point reiterated from the marketing perspective too, as Kevin Chesters, chief strategy officer at Ogilvy & Mather London says that ethical retail is “driven more by the purse strings than the heart strings. The shift has definitely come from consumers demanding more transparency and more responsibility from retailers”.
Of course, pace is only one quality of the ethical movement, which has shed its hippy status, been endorsed by celebrities ranging from Leonardo di Caprio to Emma Watson and is now manifesting itself in directional fashion. There was a time when only the premium brands were singing this tune, but now we’re all humming along and conscious clothing has become very catchy. Given time, it may just become a No1.
Ever since the ‘boyfriend jean’ and the ‘boyfriend blazer’ entered fashion’s lexicon, menswear has been flexing its muscles. Right Said Fred should really re-release their 80’s triumph. If it’s not the soaring sales of traditional menswear retailers such as Moss Bros (like-for-like sales for Q2 up by 5.5%), the increased profile of London Collections Men (LCM) or the fact that GQ covers have rarely featured more tailoring and less torso (insert optional sad face emoji), then it’s gender neutral collections. which are revolutionising the industry’s traditional female bias.
To top it all, last year saw the coronation of menswear within the industry’s royal court - a man at the helm of British Vogue . Edward Enninful, a 45-year-old Ghanaian-born “super stylist” will take the fashion bible’s throne in August which, while unrelated to menswear’s growth, is somewhat fitting with the growth of menswear.
London remains the home of menswear - from the bowler-hatted civil servant, spiky-haired punk in bondage trousers and dandy in his blazer, boater and spats, to the pinstriped stockbroker and today’s Mods. It always has been and always will be. The tailored suit was born and bred in Savile Row, a street that remains the envy of designers, brand custodians and retailers the world over. As Dylan Jones, editor of GQ says: “London continues to confirm its place as the home of menswear, a hub of creativity showing the very best designers to a global audience. The menswear market showing in London incorporates not only internationally acclaimed brands but also luxury tailoring and emerging talent” . Today, London is home to a whole host of young, energetic designers and also some of the biggest menswear brands in the world, including Paul Smith , Alexander McQueen , Ted Baker and Burberry .
Following the advent of LCM in 2012 and the £40 million the event brings to the capital, London now sits firmly at the top of the pecking order of fashion capitals and this is something which all buyers and brands should draw upon.
Retailers have gotten wise to a growing demand for menswear, having identified a gap in a market set to grow by 30% to £15bn by 2021.
One of the advantages for retailers is that men, while often buying less than women in terms of volume, are typically less price-resistant and will repeat buy the pair perfect of trousers (or a t-shirt in seven different colours, as I have seen myself), thus offering retailers a high degree of loyalty and a customer worth courting.
According the Verdict Retail, the UK value clothing market will grow by £3.2 billion by 2021, equating to 23.6 % growth on 2016, with menswear expected to “spearhead” the growth and outperform womenswear.
Michael Shalders, co-founder of fashion distribution agency Love Brands Ltd , whose business strategy is very opportunity-driven, says: “All the market indicators show that menswear sector growth will outperform womenswear in the next 5 years. We’ve spoken to several industry figures who suggest this will be the case and then there’s the market research which backs this up “. For Love Brands Ltd, which has traditionally represented womenswear, menswear will be an entirely new project.
Verdict Retail’s UK Value Clothing Market 2016-2021 report reveals that menswear will be the main driver, outpacing womenswear with its forecast growth of 29.2 % by 2021. They state that male interest in fashion and personal appearance has increased and retailers have starting to respond to male consumers’ growing demands. To the soundtrack of Carly Simon’s ‘You’re so vain’ , designers and retailers have had to up their game after years of neglecting ‘Him’ in favour of ‘Her’. Indeed, our Bond-esque style icon Tom Hiddleston even says that Ilaria Urbinati (his stylist), is “one of the best things ever to happen to me” . Imagine!
Studying the high street's evolution is fundamental for retailers. At last year’s Drapers Fashion Forum , delegates learned from New Look menswear director Christopher Englinde that tapping into modern tribes and having a clear brand message are key factors in accessing the booming menswear market, which is set to reach almost £15bn by 2021 - a growth of 30%. Englinde described how the tastes of the evolving male consumer is based in “modern tribes” that fashion companies and retailers can tap into.
“In 1998, if you wanted to target men, you could start a suit company and that would be it,”
said Englinde. “Today you have to look into the market a little bit more. There is far more potential than just suits - millennials want to be unique, but they still want to belong to a group or ‘tribe’ that share their values.”
Kate Ormrod, senior analyst at Verdict Retail, said: “Over the past decade, menswear has taken a back seat as value retailers have been focusing on enhancing womenswear offers. However, as male interest in fashion and personal appearance builds, retailers are starting to respond to male consumers’ growing demands for more choice, style, and newness.[....] The likes of H&M and New Look have an opportunity to make significant share gains, but they must drive destination appeal and loyalty among shoppers.”
So, what do male customers want? What’s driving these preening peacocks? We know that shopping in itself is not the attraction, so it’s down the clothes. As buyers prepare to open their order books, they might reflect on the words of the talent that was Alexander McQueen:
“Menswear is about subtlety. It’s about good style and good taste”.