For the want of a fashion story —
We've had a fashion industry in New Zealand for a while now, yet it still struggles to globalise on the scale we often see coming in our direction. When you look at luxury brands such Armani, Ralph Lauren and the like, one marvels at their ability to take their fashion across the world with a set of unrelenting disciplines. Why is it we can’t do the same in reverse as successfully. Some of it comes down to ownership intentions of course in that some designers do not want to tramp around the world. When you consider the cheapest tent for one week at New York's fashion week is US$18,000 and the average runway show is US$150,000, it’s clearly a long grind.
The cornerstone of a great fashion brand is its unique story, or better still, its ability to tell stories. Designers create characters through the clothes, much like the writers created through words. They take us on journeys and offer us a form of escapism. Fashion is an exploration of ideas, of imagined people, places and things. Ralph Lauren, doesn't sell clothes he sells little pieces of an ideal world. Gucci unashamedly Italian and more particularly Roman is expected to be classic and almost decadent.
The book with a strong story can change you, just the same as fashion can transform the way you view the world. One uses words, the other runways and elaborate store displays. It's not as if we don't have the talent in New Zealand, it's probably more the disciplines I suspect in wanting to globalise. Developing a strong back-story and sticking to it over time is key. Avoiding the perils of diversification as opposed to focusing on going narrow and deep with a fashion line is always the temptation. I remember pointing this out to Trelise Cooper and Owen Glen [a potential investor] at the time they were considering Children’s wear which subsequently bombed.
In the early years of Icebreaker in advising Jeremy Moon, I well recall talking Jeremy out of entering the work wear market with Merino, in that he hadn't even scratched the ‘Soft Adventure’ surface at that time. Orca another client on the world stage in triathlon clothing have made a similar error in taking their eye off the excellent ball they began with. Some would say sports wear is different to fashion but for me the same principles apply. Of course hindsight lessons are easy for me to comment on, and I do respect the enormous energy in the New Zealand fashion industry by a number of notable individuals, we have advised. Brands like Zambesi have been true to their story for over 2 decades and deserve their following. I have to say, advising fashion entrepreneurs is a difficult task. Navigating the egos and focusing on the business of fashion as opposed to the fashion is extremely difficult.
Beyond the fashion hype many of our apparel businesses lack systems, in store design and merchandising disciplines. Their stories seem to change from year-to-year making it difficult and often unnecessarily expensive to globalise in any consistent way. The stories themselves lack a unique backdrop and foreground personality. Donna Karan is unashamedly New York, as is Vivienne Westwood British with a touch of Scotland.
When you look into the backdrop of our fashion stories you see elements of plagiarised values and few central themes with a unique thread, from season-to-season. Rather, the stories are more incidental PR and mostly focus around the individual fashion entrepreneur, as opposed to building a wit and discourse with the customer who identifies and learns to love the story. Creating lasting expressions on the world stage of fashion is not easy, but when done well the effect is amazing and the return on investment enormous. Despite the recession Ralph Lauren after 40 years continues to gallop through difficult times with sales growth at 14% and income growth at 18% this past year. As he says himself “I don’t sell fashion I sell dreams”.