How do you get a slice of a global industry valued at £23 trillion? From designers through to savvy entrepreneurs, it’s not only the charismatic appeal of the fashion industry that continues to draw people to make riches from rags.
That London is widely recognised as the capital of fashion – valued at £28 billion – having produced the likes of Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood, and is also home to Savile Row no doubt helps the grassroots energy on our island.
The 3 trillion dollar question is, of course, how do you design fashion that sells? What’s the formula for success? How do you produce a bestseller? How can you consistently make clothes that people want to buy? And how do you shape future trends? Surely there’s a formula for success; a common denominator?
I was recently fortunate enough to listen to two highly respected and – more importantly – successful fashion designers at Pure London , one of the UK’s leading fashion trade shows. They each displayed a strong sense of individuality, firm conviction in their method and solid principles - while also following unorthodox routes to their success - no doubt key ingredients to bottling their respective brand’s DNA.
Dr Pam Hogg , legendary fashion designer, DJ, rockstar and artist was a keynote speaker at the event, where her unorthodox approach and rule-breaking path to cult status – she designed for the Brit Awards in 2016 – was shared with crowds of students, buyers and fashion press hanging on her every word.
Self-taught, unorthodox and famously hands-on, Hogg not only designed all her collections but made the majority of them too, while recruiting students to her studio. Initially wanting to be a painter, she harnessed challenges in dressmaking – fastenings, sleeves etc - in order to shape her designs, which emerged from free-hand sketches. Creativity doesn’t get much more hands-on than this! Given the scale of production and resources - no more than 10 units of each style were made in spite of demand - Pam’s brand retained kudos and prestige rarely seen in mass-produced fashion, her strategy of quality over quantity never compromising revenue. A fabulous raconteur, I was especially taken by a few chosen words she shared in her Expect the Unexpected delivery:
“ Make something new that customers didn’t know they want […] give the unexpected. […] How do we know what our customers want until we offer it to them?”
In her view, a successful fashion brand must “encourage customers to push boundaries, be excited and adventurous” . Indeed, she reiterated how fashion changes how we feel and can alter moods: fashion is “life-changing”.
And, when it comes to one of the most saturated markets in the world, how do you retain identity and stand out from competitors? “ If you stay true to yourself the essence of your identity becomes apparent”, was the advice of the designer behind the trademark catsuit and one -leg-garter, seen on the likes of Rihanna and Kylie.
After she left the stage, what continued to resonate with me was her bravery and fearlessness; her preparedness to be disliked before being adored:
“ The greatest gift we have is our individuality. I cannot understand why anyone would want to look the same.” Sage advice in the design studio, as much as in life itself.
Similarly refreshing was the contribution made by Henry Holland, who followed on the same platform the very next day.
Preferring the title of creative director of House of Holland , rather than designer, the muse behind the slogan t-shirt studied journalism and worked at Bliss magazine, before finding fame in fashion. As he said himself, there’s no conventional path to success, “ the rule book was ripped up long ago ”.
Following his 10th anniversary, a successful second collection with Habitat, and on the cusp of launching his own concept store in China, Holland is an ambassador for British fashion and is a product of Fashion East, a group that nurtures fledgling talent. Exploring topics such as the art of effective collaboration and the topical See Now/Buy culture, which he admitted is a “ challenge ”, it was Holland’s words on authenticity which really stayed with me. In a notoriously competitive market continually fending off saturation, his insights on challenging imitation and homogeneity were refreshing pearls of wisdom.
“My journey has been based on authenticity”, said the somewhat accidental designer. His journey to critical acclaim on the shopfloor of stores such as Browns Focus and Matches began with irreverent printed t-shirts for his ‘fashion groupie’ friends (namely Gareth Pugh and Giles Deacon). “Continuity is important for a brand”, he said. “Don’t try to please everyone or copy – stay true to your DNA, USP and identity. […] Personality and tone are important. I always go to great lengths to preserve the playfulness in my brand and that translates to the product”.
“Some traditional designers consider me an upstart, but I don’t waste energy tackling objectivity. The playful sense of humour and tone of voice is integral to my brand’s DNA”.
How do you create a winning fashion brand with both individuality and commerciality? “Challenges are opportunities. The rule book has been ripped up. […] There’s no formulaic path or single route to market”.
Addressing retailers, Holland’s advice was that “to engage the customer and really develop that shopping experience. It’s about theatre, environment and experience. There’s been a radical evolution in consumer behaviour […] there are a lot of unknowns out there right now and uncertainty affects how consumers behave”.
Following these unorthodox viewpoints and unconventional routes to success, I was then amused by an article profiling Europe’s richest man, Amancio Ortega, founder of Inditex (the fashion empire behind high street brands such as Zara , Pull & Bear, Massimo Dutti and Bershka). The humble octogenarian is estimated to be worth £63.2 billion. As business profiles go, the article was noteworthy not only for the founder’s signature low profile but also for the fact that Ortega made his billions from the rag trade.
So, in answer to the initial question ‘How to be a fashion designer’, his approach remains the same as when he set out his principles in 1975. Today, J P Morgan considers Inditex a “ structural winner ” due to its combined store and online services, its “ pull model ” — the way it draws ideas from customers — and its “ nimble supply chain ”.
Why was I amused? Because while an icon such as Dr Pam Hogg, who clearly knows a thing or two about designing clothes, advises delivering the unexpected – “ How do we know what our customers want until we offer it to them?” - the founder of Inditex set out with the simple aim of asking women what they wanted and then making clothes based on their requests. Inditex asks shoppers what they want and then designs products accordingly.
As Holland says, the rule book has indeed been ripped up. And long may the route to fashion success remain gloriously random, unpredictable and subversive.
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.