Hibernation, coma, mothballed; however you want to label it, fashion would have been in a very deep sleep before all of this is over. Even if we’re being optimistic, and life returns to a sense of normality in the spring, it would have been nearly a full year of disruption. Fashion would continue to be affected well into 2021, without fashion and trade shows in at that time to show AW22 and and we would be not fully back to normal until spring 2022 at the earliest, when the fashion cycle would have resumed.
Left - Sleeping Beauty woke up to something good, but what about fashion?
In the classic fairytale, when the princess was cursed to sleep for a hundred years she was awakened by a handsome prince, but what will be waiting for ‘fashion’ and what state or style will it be in?
Let’s recap where we were at the beginning of this disaster. All the Kering brands - Saint Laurent, Gucci, Balenciaga - were flying. Gucci was slowing but still steaming ahead and was hopeful on becoming the world’s largest luxury brand. Bottega Veneta was gaining momentum and hype was translating into sales.
At LVMH, Louis Vuitton was still the major cash cow, Dior seemed to be doing well in sales rather than critical success and Celine was doing a stealth commercialism which, I’m sure, was being reflected in sales and exactly what Slimane was hired for and what he did previously at Saint Laurent. The main style was a mix of Gucci’s dress-up maximalism and embellishment and contemporary sportswear based on fugly chunky trainers and overpriced loungewear.
So, what can we predict for the future?
It might be worth casting an eye back in history. We’re told by the Bank of England boffins that this will be biggest recession in 300 years. Based on the bank's own best estimate and historical data, the coronavirus crisis could push the British economy into the fastest and deepest recession not seen since the huge economic slump of 1706 and the Great Frost of 1709. This was a baroque period at the beginning of Georgian Britain when fashion designers became more recognisable and fashion magazines appeared for the first time. While we’re too far away to know the minutiae of hemline changes, but it was certainly the beginning of a new era of British style and design.
The most popular comparison has been with Spanish Flu in 1918-19. After that came the Roaring Twenties, one of the most modern and dynamic decades of the 20th century. After WWII we got Christian Dior’s New Look. And while it was a feminine look back, it propelled fashion forward into the next decade and was hugely influential.
The troubles of the 1970s gave us punk and the recession of the early 90s was reflected in American Grunge.
The most recent 2008 financial crash was all about the rise of China, and, undoubtedly, the growth in billon dollar brands and the associated logos and status.
Right - GDP growth of the world's three biggest economies - USA, Japan & China
While this is all simplistic, it offers some form of hope.
During the 20th century many economists cited the 'Hemline Theory'. It being the current fashion’s skirt length are a predictor of stock market direction. According to the theory, if short skirts are growing in popularity, it means the markets are going to go up.
Probably lucky everybody is wearing tracksuits right now.
And then there’s the ‘Lipstick Effect’, which is when consumers still spend money on small indulgences during recessions, economic downturns. For this reason, companies that benefit from the lipstick effect tend to be resilient even during economic downturns.
Market research firm Kline found evidence for the lipstick effect through four recessions from 1973 to 2001. Though during the financial crisis of 2008 lipstick sales dipped disproving this theory. Add a face mask and it doesn’t look like lipstick sales will be picking up anytime soon...
So, where does that leave any predictions post-COVID?
1) China will dominate even more. GDP Annual Growth Rate in China averaged 9.23 percent from 1989 until 2020. China’s gross domestic product expanded by 4.9 percent over the third quarter of 2020 on rising trade and consumption. According to the Wall Street Journal, it is “putting China’s economy back toward its pre-coronavirus trajectory half a year after the pandemic gutted its economy.” Brands are using China and Asia to currently support their businesses and as such more products will be tailored to these markets. China will fuel the growth in ‘Power Brands’ owned by the big groups and events like the Christian Dior, Designer of Dreams exhibition opening in Shanghai, following its success in Paris and London, will help to further educate and create this branding magic within this market.
2) Fashion will be more woke when it wakes, but the progress we were making on greening fashion will slow as many firms fight for survival and any expensive new initiatives will be put on the back burner. This is a fight for survival so we’ll see inexpensive greenwashing.
3) We’ll see a whole raft of new start-ups in the middle of next year, to launch later on that year, or in 2022. Many will be kitchen table brands with a strong and individual personality behind them.
4) Local will continue to be a focus and we’ll see more ‘luxury’ Bond Street type brands consider smaller stores in affluent neighbourhoods and design them in a less international and generic style and more of the locale.
5) They’ll be a slower reaction to the bad quality of most ‘luxury’ fashion, which will further fuel ‘fast fashion’.
On a purely aesthetic level, will people continue to want the escapist approach from brands like Gucci and what we saw during the glam 1970s downturn, or will we see a more austere and minimal look mirroring the rise in unemployment and shrinking of people’s disposable incomes? Well just have to see. Whatever happens it can't be too literal or obvious. The consumer is more sophisticated than that.
Fashion is too big now to follow the dictatorial approach of hemlines and lipsticks theories of the previous century. But, what is positive is the desire for consumption. That hasn't gone anyway. While remaining, big brands will try and monopolise for a while, we’ll see fast growing start-ups, from the most unexpected of places, give them a run for their money in a less competitive landscape which will have plenty of scope for growth due to brands disappearing.
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We’re often bombarded with marketing speak talking about “local”, but it’s mostly just that, speak. Remember when HSBC used to refer to itself as the “The world’s local bank.”, it meant nothing more than operating in lots of different markets and countries. Local became more about geography than anything else. It joined the group of words, such as luxury, modern and sustainable, that get used all too often, but have become meaningless.
Trying to balance the idea of a much loved local, independent retailer and the scale of a larger chain is the dream of any contemporary brand or retailer. According to CACI Consulting Group’s ‘Location Dynamics” engine, 75% of the UK high streets have the same brand profile. They say “The concept of clone towns is well known, but we believe clone stores are the real issue.”
Left - Welcome to clone town - Can brands decentralise and empower its people on the ground to make decisions?
It’s boring and in a saturated market many cookie-cutter, anonymous chains are no longer appealing to consumers and as such we’re seeing those with too many stores close or reduce their footprint.
“In a market where consumers are seeking localisation and engage in brands that mirror their values it is essential that a store is part of the community in which it sits.” says Alex McCulloch and John Platt, Directors of CACI Consulting Group.
“Customers can buy generic product sold in a uniform way online, they seek out stores for the personal, curated, local and engagement. Brands that therefore dictate homogenous stock and store fit out regardless of the local customer will not deliver that experience and as a result fall away.” they say. “The brands that trust in their people on the ground, invest in them and empower them to know their shopper as well as supporting them with forensic data analysis on what sells, what doesn’t, which marketing worked etc are the ones that will succeed.”
“Data alone cannot fix the problem, but nor can people. Good brands leverage both. A great example of this is Waterstones, finding a similar one in the fashion sector is a challenge – typically independents lead the way here. One fashion brand that doesn’t shine in this area is M&S, which serve up the same store, stock and fit-out regardless of market, and have only just entrusted their store managers to know their own P&L; the antithesis of employee empowerment.”
The type of store finding it hardest to adjust to modern retail was, originally and ironically, the most localised. Nearly every town and city had their own individually named department store up until quite recently. It was only in the early 2000s that John Lewis, with the exception of Peter Jones and Knight & Lee, which is now closed, rebranded each store to the company umbrella name. Tyrrell & Green in Southampton, Bonds in Norwich, Trewins in Watford, Jessops in Nottingham, Bainbridge’s in Newcastle, Robert Sayle in Cambridge and Cole Brothers in Sheffield all disappeared. They were all recognisably John Lewis because of the store interiors and branding, but retained their historical monikers into the 21st century and the affection that each town would have for them.
DH Evans on Oxford Street was re-branded as House of Fraser in 2001 along with many other well known names such as Rackhams of Birmingham and Kendals of Manchester. (It will be interesting to watch House of Fraser’s next rebrand to Frasers in 2020, back to the original Glasgow store’s name, with a new store in Wolverhampton’s Mander Centre following the exit of Debenhams. “Frasers of Wolverhampton” could have quite the ring to it?)
Up until 2018 the Newcastle based department store chain, Fenwick, had individual buyers for its 9 department stores. In order to save costs they centralised their buying last year saying, ”Fenwick has today announced a proposal to modernise and reorganise the business, moving to a functionally led structure while retaining our local focus.
“These proposals are part of a broader strategy to modernise the business and to invest in both Fenwick’s multichannel offer – including IT upgrades and ecommerce – and its flagship Newcastle store.” Previously each store ran autonomously.
It is understandable the desire to have everything centralised under one name and buying team. It saves costs and doesn’t confuse the customer. It also makes more sense because of the internet and having one unified website, but it loses the personalisation and affection that people had for these brands and nobody wants to think that their town or city is the same as everywhere else. (In out-of-town shopping centres it doesn’t matter quite as much because their isn’t so much ownership of place).
Right - Do clone towns need a pop-up Banksy store like this one in Croydon?
This reblanding doesn’t take into account British idiosyncrasies or quirks and our love of personality. Many chain stores want bland boxes. The historical nature of the fabric of many of these older brands and their buildings have been looked at as a problem, money pit and not conducive to modern retail rather than embracing their uniqueness. It’s only poor and long term under investment that has let these retailers down. Liberty of London wouldn’t be the same if it was in another building. The building is the brand.
"There is a fear that localised = expensive. It doesn’t need to – you know a Waterstones when you go in it and the branding is universal, but each store manager has autonomy over the look and feel of the product, what is on promotion and maintains local charts etc.” says McCulloch and Platt, Directors of CACI Consulting Group.
"Chains need to trust that their staff on the ground can make decisions on how they sell and give them space to do so within the brand framework. Equally they should be able to use POS data, online sales data and customer data to inform the manager on which lines have worked, which initiatives drove sales and how to better them.”
Engaged employees make better employees especially if they are personally invested in decisions. It’s the opposite of automation and the robotic attitude to manual shop employees.
“By trusting in the people on the front line, educating them, training them and supporting them through data will you also likely see key staff retention increase because staff will be empowered in their roles.” says McCulloch and Platt.
Is the design of stores an issue here and how can design catch up with consumer behaviour? “I’m not sure design is at fault here, there are many truly innovative stores and spaces in the market. The issue is more typically underinvestment in stores and a homogenous approach to stores. A brand can tailor its social ads based on geography and consumer (a 20-year-old single male in London will get served a different ad. to a 28-year-old mother of two in Liverpool) but don’t consider the same approach and nuance with their stores.” says McCulloch and Platt.
Facebook has been putting ‘Beacons’ into stores to send consumers personalised ads and to track their movements. Retailers also need to work backwards from this and tailor the stores to the people who are frequenting them. They could find out this information from peoples’ Bluetooth being turned on and then change the buy of the store according to the breakdown of the consumers and visitors.
Obviously, not each and every store is identical. Stores are different in size and can accommodate different levels of ranges. Some chains specifier different product for different locations, but, it’s more a mindset and preconception that they’re all the same which is the main problem here. People want to be pleasantly surprised. “I’m-not-going-to-go-in-there-because-I-already-know-what-they-sell-and-I-can’t-be-bothered” is the modern attitude to many chain stores. The more individual or local they were perceived to be, the more often you’re likely to take a look. If you want anonymous and clinical you’ll shop online, it’s about pride of place.