Tuesday, 19 March 2019 12:51

ChicGeek Comment Limiting References

Michael Jackson Louis Vuitton glitter gloveWhen Virgil Abloh devoted his latest AW19 Louis Vuitton men’s collection to Michael Jackson he never could have thought that the whole thing was going to disappear so quickly. Paying homage to the ‘King of Pop’, the entire show was inspired by his Billie Jean video with its light-up paving stones and litter-strewn New York street.

Left - Those famous Jacko sequinned gloves reimagined for the, now, cancelled AW19 Louis Vuitton men's collection

The designer and brand presumed that it would be as uncontroversial as the icon from the first collection, under his creative direction, Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz: her glittery red shoes being replaced by his glittery gloves. In a collection brimming with references to Michael Jackson, it was a celebration of Jackson the stage performer and musician.

All good, until the release of the recent documentary, ‘Leaving Neverland’, which focussed on the allegations made by two men who say Jackson had abused them as children. The energy around this film reignited the controversy surrounding Jackson, reminding people of his potential darker side.

Michael Jackson Louis Vuitton glitter glove

The Louis Vuitton damage limitation machine kicked in and released the following statement: The documentary ‘Leaving Neverland’ featuring two men who allege they were sexually abused as children by Michael Jackson has caused us the greatest pain. It is important to mention that we were unaware of this documentary at the time of the last LV FW19 Men’s Show. “My intention for this show was to refer to Michael Jackson as a pop culture artist. It referred only to his public life that we all know and to his legacy that has influenced a whole generation of artists and designers." said Virgil Abloh, Men’s Artistic Director.

Right - Billie Jean trash can

“I am aware that in the light of this documentary the show has caused emotional reactions. I strictly condemn any form of child abuse, violence or infringement against any human rights.” added Abloh.

The collection, due to hit stores in July, has been stripped of any of the Jackson references and the label confirms that it will not produce any of the pieces that include Michael Jackson. Fortunately for Louis Vuitton, it was easier to cancel the collection in March, before too much had been expensively manufactured, and they were left with product they couldn’t sell. To cancel it before production was the safest option in a environment where brands are frightened to upset people or be controversial. 

So, where does this leave us as an industry in relation to references? 

The fashion industry is a huge business with a never ending conveyor belt of ideas and products needing copious amounts of references and inspirations. One minute it’s rainbows, then unicorns, then llamas, and whatever next, and who knows where these images come from and what they mean to different people.

In an era of ‘Cultural Appropriation’ and ‘Blackface’ controversies, brands will, now, always err on the side of guilty. This is guilty until proven innocent and a way of limiting the social media outcry and killing the thing stone dead. It’s just not worth the hassle.

Michael Jackson Louis Vuitton glitter glove

From Katy Perry’s shoes to Prada’s figurines to Gucci’s roll-neck, we’re now clear on what should definitely be erased from the design vocabulary. But, won’t this limit the scope of references at the disposal of brands and designers and lead to boring collections frightened to reference motifs and cultural imagery? Won’t it be a case of collections designed by lawyers to satisfy the small print and devoid of anything challenging or different? Every moodboarded person will be researched and investigated in a Stasi-like, 1984 approach into finding anything controversial in their background. You just wonder how Coco Chanel gets away with it.

Dries Van Noten, the Belgian designer, famous for this Indian embroidery and ethnic motifs, told Business of Fashion in 2017, “For me, other cultures have always been a starting point. But I never took things very literal. Quite often, we take one element that we like...and mix it to be something very personal,” he said. “It’s like layering. Indian- or African-inspired or ethnic-inspired...it has to be clothes people want to wear now. Clothes that are used to express who they are. To me, that’s the final goal.”

Left - Louis Vuitton menswear referencing The Wiz, the sequel to the Wizard of Oz, which starred Michael Jackson and followed Abloh's first collection with Dorothy was the main inspiration

“I look now more to the art world, for several reasons, I still make elements and references to ethnic things, but it has become more difficult now.” In response to Cultural Appropriation he said, “The only ethnicity I could look at is Belgian folklore.… It’s not that I exactly copy them and it's not that I want to hurt people by using certain things,” he said. “It’s the alphabet of fashion, which I use to create my own things. Sometimes, especially with menswear, you have to work with recognisable things. You have to make things that men know.”

His latest collection references the Danish designer Verner Panton, but what if Panton turns out to a few skeletons in his closet? For example, imagine you created a collection around the much loved Beatles’ song, Penny Lane. Referencing the fireman, the banker and nurse selling poppies from a tray, but then somebody points out the famous street in Liverpool is named after James Penny, an eighteenth-century slave trader. It’s knowing when the line of history needs to be drawn or how far back you investigate the reference. Rather than seeing people celebrating these things, many are seeing it as a hijacking, and limit people to only use the culture they identify with; making a very boring and restrictive design vocabulary.

Michael Jackson Louis Vuitton glitter glove

The world moves forward and things change. Everything needs to be judged on an individual case-by-case basis and the decision is an informed and instinctive knowing when something isn’t right, appropriate or we’ve moved on as a society. We’re all learning this, all of the time. 

Different cultures think differently about things and being frivolous or decorative about things with deeper meanings should be used with caution.

Right - Pixelated Michael Jackson on Louis Vuitton accessorises

Brands make things to sell, not to upset anybody, but won’t our oversensitivity limit the references we have at our disposal. We’re in an era of seeing the negative in everything and blowing it up on social media and it could lead to a very bland and beige period of fashion.

Thursday, 14 March 2019 17:39

ChicGeek Comment Time To Buy?

Anya Hindmarch up for saleSome of Britain’s best known, mid-sized fashion brands are up for sale. French Connection, Pretty Green and Anya Hindmarch are all rumoured to be looking for new owners. Put LK Bennett into the mix, which recently when into administration, closing five stores and making 55 redundancies, and you have a slew of established British brands trying to forge the next chapter of their existence.

While Anya Hindmarch is more in the luxury pricing category, the others are all premium high-street; asking consumers to stump up more cash for their products in a mid-market squeezed between fast-fashion and ‘luxury’ brands. This is an area that has suffered the most over recent years. Hooked on sales and discounts, many of these brands operate an unsustainable retail network, flabby business model and have suffered due to the demise of the traditional department store.

Putting themselves up for sale is timely. If you’re a foreign investor, British companies have never been so cheap, due to the weakness in the pound and Brexit, but there’s also a watch and wait attitude for most of the retail market at the moment, with many companies, particular private equity, being burnt, over the last few years, and only investing in strong, bankable billion dollar brands.

Left - Anya Hindmarch bag with her quirky sticker designs, but does the brand need to make more conservative product?

French Connection has been on the block for a while now. A brand that reached its zenith in the late 90s, thanks to their provocative and attention seeking FCUK slogan, it had lost its way. It recently went into the black, thanks to an ambitious store closure programme. Recently reported, French Connection made a slim profit of £100,000 for the year to January 31, 2018, compared with a £2.1million loss the year before. Revenues edged up 0.2% to £135.3million but its same-store sales fell 6.8%. French Connection said it will continue to close stores, having shut down more than half of its sites in the past five years. Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct has a 26% stake in the business with founder Stephen Marks, who is also chairman and chief executive, owning almost 40% of it and they say talks were “ongoing” with several potential buyers.

French Connection has done the correct and drastic decision to close the majority of it stores and department store concessions. Truly international, it is not wholly reliant on the UK market, but needs to remind people of their USP and make people feel good about paying more. It needs to decide what the sustainable size of the business is.

Liam Gallagher’s menswear brand Pretty Green, which is named after a song by The Jam, has called in Moorfields Advisory to help look at options for the company. Founded in 2009, Pretty Green channels British Mod culture into branded basics, linking the brand to music heroes and a strong Made-in-England feeling for its more premium ranges. The company said that it was “not immune to the challenges currently facing the UK high street as customers migrate from purchasing in store to online.”

It currently has 14 standalone UK stores and numerous concessions within House of Fraser department stores. The brand lost £500,000 when House of Fraser feel into administration in August 2018. “The growing overall demand for the brand, coupled with a strong online customer base, position the company well to navigate these changes and we are therefore considering all options,” they said with regards to a sale. In the 16 months to January 2018, turnover at Pretty Green rose to £38.2 million and pre-tax losses narrowed to £1.5 million following a £5.6 million loss the year before. Private equity company, Rockpool, invested £11m into Pretty Green in 2017 for a minority stake.

Pretty Green up for sale Liam Gallagher

Pretty Green has a very distinctive British look, and, while it has its core Mod audience, it needs to develop and reintroduce itself into the larger men’s market. It has to define what it sells and make men more aware of this. Its small retail network will probably be trimmed further and it’s good they are starting to narrow their losses, but they need to tap into that rich vein of cult British style that Fred Perry and Dr Martens do so well. This cool also translates internationally. Any investor would probably want Liam Gallagher to have a more prominent role at the brand and increase his visibility in it.

Right - Liam Gallagher in Pretty Green

The British luxury goods brand, Anya Hindmarch, has been put up for sale. Mayhoola, the Qatari royal family’s investment fund, which also owns Pal Zileri, Balmain and Valentino, has decided to sell the brand it started buying into in 2012. The fund has grown its stake from 39.9% in 2012 – Mayhoola bought a controlling stake in the company for £27million - to at least 75% by the middle of last year.

Founded in 1987, Anya Hindmarch has become known for her quirky and colourful designs. The brand lost £28.2 million and reported a 10 percent decline in revenue to £37.2 million for the year in 2017, the latest year for publicly available accounts. The selling decision is said to be “mutual”.

Anya Hindmarch has plenty of fun ideas, but, they, as a brand, just need to establish who the customer is. It has a lot of potential, but, unusually for a leather goods company, it needs to focus on more conservative product. Sometimes it’s hard to find a plain, elegant black bag, which means they are missing out on a huge amount of sales. The prices are premium, so the high-fashion, seasonal and quirky fashion product has a limited audience, while more classic and trans-seasonal product would sell well too. 

Their £40 stickers were a surprise hit, but, as an example, their candle range has a strange disconnect between customers. I don’t think many of the older women carrying the bags want cartoon eyes and rainbow decorated candles on their coffee tables. It needs to balance the fun with the sophisticated.

This brand would sit well with Burberry - there are rumours they are looking to buy something - or maybe a Mulberry, and drill down into that affordable luxury market more. I think they will have plenty of interest, possibly from the Americans - Tapestry, Capri Holdings - growing their brand portfolios.

If retailers can survive 2019, there is a strong chance they’ll be okay. Investors will want to see that losses are stabilising, or reducing, and there is a clear strategy for the future. Skeleton retail networks, offering enough brand awareness while pushing people online with good product will be the future for these brands. Being less reliant on the department store model and taking your quality product direct to consumers will be the only way to make these brands profitable. You need a point of difference to make people pay more and a feeling they can’t get what you offer anywhere else. The days of chucking huge amounts of money at growing brands is over and private equity will opt for more realistic, tidy returns rather than huge growth.

These brands have that problem of being too big to be nimble and streamlined, while not big or glamourous enough to catch the eye of the big investors to take it somewhere big. Mike Ashley can’t buy everything. Or can he?!

Read more of TheChicGeek's expert comment here

best men's loafer shoes chain bertie surbitonThe snaffle loafer was over, I was busy gushing over Tom Ford’s chain loafer, last summer - here - and the high-street was playing catch up. Now, their versions have hit the shops and Bertie has this ‘Surbiton’ version and it is far from suburban. The suede square toe loafer in this rich brown is in an elegant, tapered shape with the chain making this an update of this masculine classic. Get in the Good Life!

Left & Below - Bertie - Surbiton - Brown - £110

best men's loafer shoes chain bertie surbiton

best men's loafer shoes Baudoin Lange made in englandNot since the Mr Hare brand disappeared have I seen such elegant loafers. These Made in England loafers were a welcome discovery at the recent Pitti Uomo in Florence. Delicate and well made, they are by Baudoin & Lange, a new shoe brand on me.

Left & Below - Lusitanias Dark Brown Loafers - £305 - www.baudoinandlange.com

Baudoin & Lange was founded in 2016 by Allan Baudoin and Bo van Langeveld. Allan Baudoin, a computer scientist and Apple alumni turned self-trained bespoke shoe maker, designed and handcrafted the first ‘Sagan’ - their classic loafer - in 2014. After hundreds of prototypes and two years of development later, the brand was born.

best men's loafer shoes Baudoin Lange made in england

When he and Bo van Langeveld, an ex-racing driver turned financier who was tired of suffering in his formal office shoes, met - they together developed the idea of a modern shoe brand that would combine the best of both worlds: comfort and style.

TheChicGeek says, "These are those delicate type of loafers that look almost like the male equivalent of a ballet pump - and just as comfortable. With tailoring starting to return, we should see a return to more formal shoes. These could be good for those who have spent their life in trainers. They are also a reasonable price for made in England."

Ray Kelvin resigns Ted Baker bully allegationsTed Baker CEO and Founder, Ray Kelvin, has resigned from his position at the British company following an internal inquiry regarding alleged harassment of staff. Kelvin had been on an indefinite leave of absence since December, when the initial allegations were made, but won’t be returning to the business.

Left - Ted Baker, Founder & Former CEO, Ray Kelvin

Ted Baker was founded in Glasgow in 1988 by Kelvin, initially selling men’s shirts and later expanding into womenswear in 1995. Ted Baker’s huge success, a yearly turnover of £590m and nearly 500 stores worldwide, is undeniably down to Ray Kelvin’s individual hand. On his resignation, Kelvin said, “The past few months have been deeply distressing and I’ll now be taking time privately with my family to consider what my next adventure will be. Bye for now, Ray.”

Whether you like the brand or not, you can’t ignore its growth and consistency over the past 30 years. Kelvin’s hard work, attention to detail, quality control and quirky aesthetic has amassed a huge global fan club. While the majority of people wearing Ted Baker would never have heard of Ray Kelvin, they have definitely experienced his overriding vision and eye. It’ll be interesting how the brand maintains that momentum without him.

Founders are very important to fashion companies and they are seldom as exciting after the founder has left. Fashion businesses need strong people with personality and a determined vision of the direction they need to go in. Arguably, fashion needs these people even more than other industries because it is such an instinctive industry. It’s unpredictable and data often won’t help. You need to follow the leader’s instinct and feel for things if you are to react quickly and timely. Design and decisions by committee is often more conservative and slower and why many companies quickly flounder.

Kelvin’s long-running desire not to be photographed or uncover the fact he’s the real Ted Baker can be twisted to make him look like he was trying, or had something to hide. Ted Baker, up until recently, didn't advertise and had a distorted relationship with the press.

This is not to condone anybody’s negative actions and anything illegal should be prosecuted, but when does a dominating character become a bully? One person’s clash of personalities is another person’s intimidation. One person’s eccentric way of greeting people, or “banter”, can be another person’s sexual harassment or racist allegation. The line of unacceptability is subjective and often blurred.

Whether it’s Philip Green or another titan of industry, people are, rightly, responsible for their language and actions and companies have to be seen to take any allegations seriously. Nobody is untouchable anymore. Good. We live in an age where you can’t have any element of doubt. If in doubt, then you are automatically guilty. Which puts potentially innocent people into a indefensible grey area and they are shown the door. You shouldn’t or can't hold onto people at any cost, even if they are the founder, and it’s a verdict of guilty, instantly.

Ted Baker had a tsunami of allegations following a petition signed by 200 staff and it’s very hard to accuse somebody that doesn’t appear to have anybody to control their behaviour. Nobody should feel like they are being bullied or pressurised into anything they aren’t comfortable with. It creates a toxic environment and may explain a high turnover of staff. People make a business' culture, but it needs to come from the top down.

The shift in society is, rightly, now, controlling these people and losing their positions of power is what will be their biggest loss. This isn’t a gender issue. This isn’t about men. It’s about people in positions of power abusing those positions. It’s that feeling of knowing people have to do what you say and pushing that into a different and negative dynamic. This abuse is what is a shame, as it’s the same energy, when positive, which makes these companies great. It’s the energy of trying something new, sticking your neck out or pushing a few different buttons. Again, particularly important in the fashion and creative industries.

Whether it’s Ted Baker or Arcadia, you wonder whether these companies’ successes could be replicated as big and as quickly in the #metoo era. You have to break a few eggs to get ahead and often upset and disagree with a few people on the way. Fashion businesses need strong and successful characters to make things happen, but it doesn’t mean they can do whatever they like.