All Keyed Up – The End of Fashion Retail As We Know It

Attention, attention, world of fashion commerce, you have 30 minutes to make up your mind about your future. That is all. It’s no secret that a vast number of cultural and economic systems are at worst collapsing or at best mutating. Retail fashion is, of course, just as seemingly chaotic and unsettled as everything else right now, as hundreds of companies, entrepreneurs, and financiers try to “best guess” their way to riches and influence. In the absence of long term data and faced with still developing technological platforms and mechanisms, history shows that most of the billions of dollars that are being doled out will be lost on companies that last a decade or less. In the face of such a sobering rapidly on-rushing future reality, how can the industry tell what to do and which horses to back?

story by Seth Friedermann
photo by Boris Marberg

Attention, attention, world of fashion commerce, you have 30 minutes to make up your mind about your future. That is all. It’s no secret that a vast number of cultural and economic systems are at worst collapsing or at best mutating. Retail fashion is, of course, just as seemingly chaotic and unsettled as everything else right now, as hundreds of companies, entrepreneurs, and financiers try to “best guess” their way to riches and influence. In the absence of long term data and faced with still developing technological platforms and mechanisms, history shows that most of the billions of dollars that are being doled out will be lost on companies that last a decade or less. In the face of such a sobering rapidly on-rushing future reality, how can the industry tell what to do and which horses to back?

John Rocha Spring 2012 Collection, photo by Boris Marberg

With all apologies to my boyhood hero Mr. Holmes, it is impossible to apply deductive reasoning when there is an absence of facts. Instead, investors must simplify and use the powers of reduction. What is known about the industry of fashion that is fixed, immutable and permanent? The answers, thankfully, are multiple and time tested, and any commercial enterprise that violates them will have to quickly change or they will not be with us for very long. They are all of equal importance, so read carefully oh ensigns of industry who are bucking for a promotion…

  • You cannot shorten the length of time it takes for luxury goods to get to market. Real high-end fashion items are labor intensive and made by highly skilled craftspeople. The current order to delivery cycle has been in place for a long time and is set in stone. Shortcuts equal degradation of product. Therefore, anyone who claims they can get you your dress, “before anyone else,” is deluded and on the whole will fail to do so.
  • Designers get hot, but most don’t stay that way. Most of the time when there is a sudden explosion of press and hype regarding a designer, that coverage and exposure has been paid for, is 100% artificial, and will not be sustained. The mainstream fashion press and even many of the supposedly underground publications cannot be trusted. I understand that in today’s, “now, now, now”, short attention span world there is great pressure to create heat. Don’t. Build a proper foundation based on the designer’s artistic development and you will help create a label that will last decades, at least. Save that marketing money to give the designer another season or two to actually succeed.
  • Distinctiveness and innovation is more important for long term commercial success than following trends. Designers and the industry as a whole need to shift their approach and the attitudes that underly it to more accurately reflect the fact that fashion has a predictable cycle. A designer or group of designers innovate, the public is shocked out of their doldrums and buys it like mad, then everybody copies or derives (poorly) until it’s watered down and loses momentum. Lather, rinse repeat… STOP it. Let the designers innovate and experiment all the time, make the environment one that encourages designers to take calculated risks. Cease telling them it has to be more accessible, wearable, understandable, market savvy, or whatever euphemism you use for bland and predictable. Predictable isn’t sustainable in this business.
  • Nothing will kill a fashion business faster than bad business management. It’s not the designers and their collections that backers should be worried about, it’s those that make lousy financial, employment, and marketing decisions. The collapse of brands is brought about usually by a failure to clearly see what is happening internally rather than market reaction to a particular season or even multiple seasons. Build a healthy foundation for the house in which communication flows and respect is rampant and you can easily weather the odd bad design decisions.

One final key element that must be understood and honored moving forward is that the days of exploitative labor in impoverished nations is obviously coming to a close. Because of this constantly expanding your profit margin based on decreasing labor costs will not be a long or even medium-term solution. I predict that in the next 50 years that practice will no longer be tolerated to any large degree. The Arab Spring has proven once again that when the general populous is abused for the betterment of a few, those few end up inevitably in exile or dead. Couple that with rising consumer awareness and the growing number of nations that support living wages for all citizens and this vile system, which came as a byproduct of a warped understanding of free markets, will not survive.

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