Sunday, September 6, 2009

Fashioning a New Future: The Olsen's Debut Menswear this Fall

It’s been a while since I’ve been excited about Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. While I loved watching them on television when I was growing up, I’ll admit by the time New York Minute hit theaters, I had lost interest considerably. Just goes to show you should never close the book on anyone completely (especially a pair of billionaire corporate moguls) because here I am, loving them once more. And I’m not the only one.
The Olsen’s fashion labels, Elizabeth and James and The Row, are gaining acclaim in dozens of fashion magazines and on sites throughout the net; a shocking feat for a celebrity-backed fashion line trying to grow its business amidst an economic crisis.
Fashion editors, store owners, buyers, and fellow designers are all heaping praise onto the twins for their womenswear collections. And why not? They're superb. But, I’m even more excited for the menswear collections, which debut in both lines this fall.
GQ’s August issue focused on Elizabeth and James, the twin’s less-expensive contemporary line for the young, modern customer. Of the new menswear line, GQ writer Will Welch says, “it’s actually good. Like, really good.” The line is minimalist with a worn-in feel, focusing on items like modern-fitting blazers, chunky sweaters, and wool pants that can function for both casual and dressy occasions. “Menswear is new to us, and we’re still learning,” Ashley says. “But we’ve worked every single day since we were 9 months.”
Details Magazine, on the other hand, reviewed the upcoming menswear line for The Row. While both Olsen’s are involved in the fashion brands, The Row is largely Ashley’s project, and she has become the de facto head of the label. The Row is a more luxurious fashion brand, designed for an older client who doesn’t care so much about “fashion” necessarily as they do about quality and attention to detail. It's a more quiet luxury, if you will. With prices ranging from $230 for a t-shirt to $3,200 for a cashmere overcoat, the clothing won’t be for everyone to buy for themselves, but will certainly be for everyone to appreciate. “Menswear right now is very fashion-forward,” Ashley says. “I want to get back to the roots of what guys wear every day. I just really enjoy making beautiful, wearable clothes.”
And what’s next on the agenda for the Olsen twins? While Mary-Kate still plans to focus on acting, Ashley says that she plans to cement herself to the fashion industry for a while. She told V Man magazine, “I’ve been transitioning from acting as a kid to doing something that I’m choosing for myself – to be a part of the fashion industry. That’s what I really want for my future.” And the future is bright. Not only is Ashley going to keep designing for her fashion lines, she would like to start looking into brand building, and aspires to own a holding company someday. She says, “brand-building is what I love more than anything. It’s everything I’ve learned up until this point [and] I have a different understanding of what works for a brand and what doesn’t.”
Personally, I can’t wait to see how the Olsen’s fashion lines expand over the next year, and I plan on checking out the clothes in person at Barney’s New York, the first chance I get. I’ll also be keeping my eye out for any more news about a new luxury group headed by the talented Olsen's (as it's my ultimate career dream as well).

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Slow Demise of Real Couture

The new season of The Rachel Zoe Project aired on Bravo last Monday, and already the world’s most famous celebrity stylist is running into some trouble. The show opens with Zoe in January 2009, just days away from huge award shows such as the Oscars and the Golden Globes, and Zoe doesn’t have enough gowns for all her clients – A-list stars such as Cameron Diaz, Anne Hathaway, Demi Moore and Eva Mendez. And the problem doesn’t stem from a lack of competency from the Zoe team, but instead from the lagging economy. Dealing with restricted budgets, designers have literally stopped producing haute couture gowns, in favor of pieces that have mass-appeal and stand a chance of selling amidst the financial downturn. The decline of couture, however, has a history reaching back much farther than the dawn of this modern economic crisis.
Many people today are unaware of what the term haute couture really means anymore. Often times the word couture is mistaken for “fashion” in the general sense, and then brands with deceptive names, such as Juicy Couture, propagate the misunderstanding. In reality, couture refers only to the construction of exclusive, custom-fitted clothing, made to order for a particular individual. Whether it is a man’s suit or a woman’s gown, the creations are always made from the highest quality materials and sewn with tremendous care and attention to detail. Furthermore, designers seeking to officially join the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture must also have a workshop in France which employs at least 15 people full-time and they must present a collection of at least 35 looks for both day/eveningwear to the Paris press twice each year.
With all of the requirements, it easy to see why many fashion houses have closed down their haute couture departments. While producing couture does lead to a more prestigious image for the brand and provides more exposure for the designer, the time and money spent making couture (and producing two additional fashion shows each year) often greatly outweighs the aforementioned benefits. Once upon a time, Versace, Lanvin, Pierre Cardin, Pucci, Feraud, Nina Ricci, and Yves Saint Laurent all showed couture collections. Today, none of them do, leaving the labors of creating true couture to only 15 fashion houses (11 French, and 4 foreign correspondent members), the better-known ones being Chanel, Dior, Givenchy, Armani, and Valentino.
While it is easy to focus on the designers who have stopped producing couture fashion lines, one has to wonder if they are not simply shifting to meet customer demands. Dana Thomas writes that during the 1950’s, over 200,000 women in the world wore couture, as it was expected as a part of everyday life for rich, society-women; by contrast, a mere 200 women buy haute couture today. With suits that cost upward of $25,000 dollars and gowns which start around $100,000 dollars (one-of-a-kind, custom-fitted Chanel wedding dress at $200,000) it is easy to see why even wealthy customers prefer to buy ready-to-wear. More than that though (as the ultra-rich population has really only grown in the last sixty years), haute couture has become a bit passée. Thomas quotes French-film actress Leslie Caron, who said that she “stopped buying couture, because, frankly, it was considered really old-fashioned… You can’t wear hats anymore, you can’t wear gloves or a bra, and you look really old-fashioned if you wear couture dresses.”

Sure, haute couture may be a little old-fashion. Yes, a bit impractical. And of course, terribly expensive. But the fact remains that modern fashion originated from couture, and if fashion detaches itself completely from its roots, then where is this industry headed? No longer will fashion be about design, creativity, luxury, and quality – instead it will be entirely about what sells and what does not. So, go ahead and poke fun at fashionistas as they complain about losing their frivolous and expensive clothing, but let’s see how you feel when your favorite actors and actresses trade in their haute couture for Juicy "Couture" tracksuits at the next big awards show. Joan Rivers wouldn’t even know where to start.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Faking It

Orgasms, British accents, smiles – people fake a lot of different things in life. Sometimes certain situations merit a little faking here and there, but for the most part faking is usually regarded as a bad thing. Especially in the world of fashion.
The allure of purchasing a counterfeit fashion good is undeniable. By their very nature, objects produced by high fashion companies are expensive, and finding authentic pieces at a discount is nearly impossible. Companies like Louis Vuitton establish their image by guaranteeing that their items never go on sale, so what’s a fashionista with a strict budget supposed to do? Turning to a world of knockoffs seems like a reasonable option. After all, big cities like New York are chock-full of places to purchase knockoffs and sometimes the replicas are indistinguishable from their authentic counterparts, sold on Madison Avenue for ten to twenty times the price. Clearly, you’d be an idiot NOT to take advantage of these cheaper alternatives!
Sadly, this isn't the case. In a world where customers are hooked on bargains, consumers are increasingly more intent on owning status symbols for a fraction of the cost, meaning they are more willing to purchase fakes to satisfy that craving. While buying the occasional counterfeit Versace wallet or Prada handbag might not seem like a devastation to the entire fashion industry, the World Customs Organization states that the fashion industry loses up to $9.7 billion dollars every year to counterfeiting. Louis Vuitton handbags, whose canvases are emblazoned with the noticeable and familiar LV monogram, have become the most relentlessly knocked-off bags in fashion history, with reportedly only 1% of purses in circulation being authentic. Some people assume that this widespread copying is a form of flattery, but the brands certainly do not. Giorgio Armani, who has been having trouble trying to eliminate the sale of knockoffs in China, admits that having his brand counterfeited “is flattering, because it means that you are doing the right thing,” but also proclaims that “it is a problem, and something is going to be done.”
The something to which Armani is referring is litigation. Brands like Kate Spade and Louis Vuitton have taken matters into their own hands by employing private investigators to find where knockoffs of their brands are being sold, then suing the dealers. A good example is the recent LVHM and Christian Dior Couture (segment of Dior not owned by LVMH) suit filed against in 2006 for “not doing enough to fight the problem of counterfeit items on the site.” Using their tremendous financial power, the brands usually defeat unlicensed retailers of counterfeit goods in court, however the process is arduous and time consuming, and ultimately fashion companies can only deal with a small fraction of illegal activity.
Perhaps you don’t feel bad taking a little money from the big-time fashion corporations. After all, they comprise a multi-billion dollar industry, and tycoons like Bernard Arnault (chairman of LVMH and the richest man in France) certainly need the money less than you do. Well, part of the reason that the real goods are so expensive is because of the conditions in which they are produced. The majority of luxury products are produced in the United States, Italy, and France, where working conditions are strictly monitored and employees are provided with a variety of benefits. Items produced on the black market (often in factories in developing nations like China, Vietnam, and Thailand) on the other hand, are not monitored and therefore workers are not guaranteed anything. Laborers are often forced to work in sweatshops, characterized by unsafe conditions, long hours (not 50 hours a week long - long, like 90 hours a week long) and child labor, sometimes by kids as young as 8 years old. Furthermore, the profits made by counterfeiters rarely see their way back to the workers, but more often fund more illegal activities, such as drug trafficking, human trafficking, and terrorism.
Lastly, there is the social stigma surrounding these products. The quality of knockoffs is often shoddy at best, with glue holding the seams together instead of thread, zippers that don’t easily close, and “leather” that sweats and wears out quickly. Often, your money is better spent on a quality, non-brand name bag sold at a legitimate retailer than on a fake. After all, think about why you want to buy a black Chanel leather handbag over a nondescript black leather handbag sold at JC Penny. Quality? Sure. Style? Perhaps. Status? Now that’s the one. And by buying a fake, you are faking that status. You’re pretending to be totting a $1,000 dollar handbag, when you maybe spent $50. In Sex in the City, Carrie Bradshaw goes with Samantha to buy a fake Fendi bag in LA, but upon seeing the bags, she decides against it. She narrates, "I should have liked them. But staring into that trunk, they no longer looked like elegant Fendi bags, they just looked cheap. And even if everyone else thought it was real, I’d always know my bag came from a cardboard box in a trunk deep in the valley. [At least when you] wait for the real thing, you know it’s one of a kind and special or something." So what does it mean when you care about status so much that you would buy a cheap, poorly-made, and morally questionable item? Well, it means that your designer brand-name obsession has gone much too far.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Very Furry Dilemma

One of my earliest memories is of my parents, my sister, and I going Christmas shopping in Union Square in San Francisco. The Christmas tree was up, lights hung on the trees and lamp posts outside, and all the department stores had the most beautiful winter displays, brightly lit in the front windows. Also in front of the stores however, especially in front of Neiman Marcus, were PETA protestors, waving signs with pictures of bloody animals trapped in cages, who were shouting at customers not to patronize stores that sell fur. At the time, my young idealism was fully intact, and I would often go up to the protestors to take a flier. I remember my mom grabbing my hand once and whispering in my ear, “Just keep walking, sometimes they throw blood on people!” This fact startled me and seemed unusually cruel to do at Christmastime, but nonetheless, these people were advocating for cute, furry animals who could not advocate for themselves and that made them alright with me. I was totally on their side.
Flash forward 15 years, I am shopping in Neiman Marcus with a friend. I’ve come down with a severe case of fashion fever which has not let up for three years now, and Neiman’s is now a mecca of all things holy and good. I walked straight up to one of the fur coats and felt it, commenting on how soft it was. A saleswoman approached me, smiled and said, “My, you have good taste. That is one of our finest Sable coats. The absolute best.” I glanced at the price tag – $45,000. I believed her. “It is extraordinary,” I said, “It’s a pity I don’t have a pile of money just laying around.”
As I walked out of the store, I couldn’t help but think how disappointed ‘young me’ would have been to watch ‘modern me’ chatting with a sales woman while caressing a dead animal. This controversy over fur is still being contemplated delicately in my mind, but in the outside world it’s more of a raging battle between PETA and its supporters and the International Fur Federation and the fashion houses using their product.
To quote an IFF advertisement in WWD, “unanimity may be in short supply among world leaders these days, but there’s virtually no disagreement among the world’s top designers when it comes to fur. In short, the consensus is that fur is fabulous.” Last season, many designers opted to use fur in their collections, including Dolce & Gabbana, Dior, Fendi, and Armani. Armani even took some heat from PETA, because he promised to abstain from using fur in his collections after the organization presented him with “the facts.” Although he called his decision ‘limiting,’ he said that he would abide by his promise. When the Armani Privé collection showed, however, the collection “included fur-trimmed skirts and coats, as well as jackets and even snowsuits for toddlers trimmed with rabbit fur,” according to a PETA ad (aptly captioned Pinocchio Armani). The organization then begged that celebrities attending the Oscars leave their Armani at home for the big night. Ultimately though, fashion designers keep going back to fur, calling it a “versatile and timeless” material, which has been used in the creation of clothing for hundred of years. So why not keep using it?
Many fashion houses such as Gucci and Fendi say they will indeed keep fur as an integral part of their collections, but many designers, such as Ralph Lauren and Stella McCartney, have shunned its use altogether. They have seen pictures of the cruelty and violence which takes place in the “fur farms” where mink and foxes are raised only to be electrocuted or drown so that their precious furs stay intact for a much longer life on the back of some wealthy socialite. Stella McCarteny goes even further and refuses to use leather as well (stated in her contract) and she even narrated a PETA video exposé about a United States fur farm. Model Janice Dickinson (who is said to be a little “old school” in her ideas about size and beauty) also got behind the anti-fur movement, leading a PETA campaign whose slogan read, “I’d rather go naked than wear fur.” It seems that rejecting fur isn’t unfashionable after all.
Ultimately, whether to wear fur or not boils down to a personal choice. Some find it to be the epitome of decadence and glamour; others find it repulsive, unnecessary and brutal. Some people, like myself, are stuck somewhere in between. And it’s hard to avoid hypocrisy. Charlize Theron came out with an anti-fur ad for PETA, and then became the new spokesmodel for a Dior campaign, a fashion house which used fur in its last collections. I present this example not to pick on Charlize, but simply to emphasize the fact that we can all find ourselves on different parts of the moral spectrum for different issues, and that for some of us, fur is just another one of those gray areas.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

From Suits to Underwear to Furniture: Armani Does It All!

The fashion industry today is dominated largely by publicly traded companies and large conglomerates. LVMH owns Louis Vuitton, Kenzo, Celine, Fendi, Marc Jacobs, Pucci, and Givenchy. PPR owns Gucci, Bottega Veneta, Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, and Yves Saint Laurent. Hermès and Burberry are publicly traded. With the heavy emphasis on profits, many family-owned fashion houses, such as Prada and Versace, have been tempted into giving up complete control over their companies and doing the same thing. One man, however, has never even considered taking his fashion company public or allowing ownership to fall into someone else’s hands; that man is Giorgio Armani.
Giorgio Armani and his business partner and boyfriend, Sergio Galeotti, founded the fashion company in 1975 with only $10,000 dollars of start-up capital, which they used to buy materials and rent a small office on Corso Venezia in Milan. He started off by creating unstructured suits for men and then later applied the same design tactics to his women’s wear line. Armani’s clothing quickly gained popularity by appearing in various films and magazines, and by 1982, Armani’s designs were being sold all over Europe and the United States with global sales hovering around $40 million.
Instead of going public or trying to acquire other fashion brands in the attempt to create another luxury group, Armani decided to use a business model called intra-brand expansion, where a company uses one name to sell a wide variety of products in separate lines. Giorgio Armani remained the signature label, which produced the most expensive and high-quality pieces of clothing geared towards adults, but other clothing lines were quickly added. Armani Collezioni provides classic pieces at a slightly less expensive price while Emporio Armani (the most largely distributed Armani line) offers more youthful, trend-inspired pieces geared towards young adults. Furthermore, the brand now includes Armani Privé, the haute couture line which only produces made-to-wear clothing; Armani Exchange, an affordable line of urban wear for younger customers; Armani Jeans, a denim line sold only in department stores; and Armani Junior, a collection of clothing for young children. In addition to his clothing lines, Armani has also created a high-end home furnishings line named Armani Casa and a line of make-up, perfumes, and cologne under Armani Cosmetics. More recently, Armani has associated his name with the construction of several hotels, vacation resorts, and restaurants. Some worry that overusing a name may result in a brand’s loss of status, but Armani’s unique business model allowed it to generate revenue upward of $2 billion in 2008 and the company continues to grow throughout its many brands.
Giorgio Armani’s brands have also done extremely well during the current economic crisis. Women’s Wear Daily reported in early May 2009 that Armani has shown resilience in the face of a tough economy, the result “propelled by growth across all brands and regions.” While recession and heavy investment depleted profits, Giorgio Armani SpA was still able to increase sales by 1.5 percent in 2008. At constant exchange, the sales increase rested at 2.4 percent, with revenues in Greater China rising over thirty percent, which offset the brand’s four percent drop in Japan. “There is no doubt that 2008 has been a difficult year for the fashion and luxury market,” said Giorgio Armani, but he continued to publicize his brand’s strength and the “solidity” of his company’s “successful business model.” Armani also said that he maintains his beliefs in the company’s vision, goals, strategic choices, and that “this belief encourages us to maintain a long-term view in any initiative we undertake.”
Today, there is much rumor and speculation about what will happen to the Armani brand in the future. Armani is almost 75 years old, and has been approached several times by fashion reporters with one question, “When are you going to retire?” There were rumors in July 2004 that Narciso Rodriguez was asked to take over upon Armani’s departure, but officially, the designer says he has no plans to leave anytime soon. He just opened up a beautiful Manhattan flagship store in the fall, and he recently showed his 2009 Resort Collection, which received rave reviews. Nothing is certain about where the label will be in ten years from now, but for the time being, Armani lovers have nothing to worry about! Keep impressing us Giorgio!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Luxury and Economic Recession

I recently finished writing my senior thesis for the Global Studies department at UCLA. The thirty-five page paper is entitled, Luxury and Recession: How the Fashion Industry Defies Global Economic Downturns. Because I have been working on this paper for the past 6 months, this blog has not been updated until very recently. Now, I have lots of new material to share, and I hope to make many posts throughout the summer months. Since I have spent so long thinking about how economic recession (something we seem to be hearing way too much about these days) and luxury are inexorably intertwined, I thought I would write about it here as well.
Despite the fact that high fashion has always been directed towards the world’s wealthiest customers, many luxury companies have direct historical ties with recession. Some fashion houses have even rose to fame specifically for how they handled their affairs during hard economic times. Right before World War One, a man by the name of Paul Poiret dominated the fashion scene in Paris, creating dresses for women that used large amounts of colorful, expensive fabrics which blurred the lines between art and clothing. When war broke out, these fabrics became scarce and his outfits became impractical for the generation of women who now needed to go to work in factories and in the fields in order to support their family while their husbands were at war. Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel perceived the need for a more simple and refined style, and she presented the world with the little black dress, which was easy to move about in and used far less material than Poiret’s ornate gowns. By adapting to difficult times, Chanel gave women their first “staple” item of clothing, and created an outfit and a fashion brand that has not gone out of style for nearly a century.
Twenty years later, during the 1930’s German Occupation in France, paper, cardboard, and other sorts of packaging became scarce and many materials became rationed for use in the war. Hermès, one of the few fashion houses that did not close shop during World War II, used the only color of packaging material that they had available: vibrant orange. Hermès used it for boxes and bags and almost overnight it became the house’s signature color, and it is still used to this day.
Again, almost fifty years later in 1978, Miuccia Prada took over her grandfather’s Italian luggage company and showed the world how design could defy economic downturn. Prada wanted everything that came out of her shop to be new: new in design and new in concept. In the early 80’s, the world was still recovering from the economic damage brought on by the OPEC Oil Crisis, and Prada perceived the need for a high fashion bag that met the needs of women of the times. She began looking at other materials besides the traditional leathers, which had been stigmatized as excessive and lavish by previous fashion houses like Chanel and Hermès, whose opulence did not seem to have a place during the economic downturn. She instead turned to a nylon parachute fabric, which was light and durable (and far less expensive than leather, crocodile, or silk) and she created the first high fashion backpack. At first, critics were skeptical at the deviation from the usual notions of luxury, but the nylon backpack ended up being a huge success and turned Prada into a household name. Since then, she has used the nylon fabric to create purses, messenger bags, wallets, and luggage, all the while keeping the fashion house as reputable and prestigious as her competitors.
It is always difficult to do business in a troubled economy, but for the fashion houses mentioned above, innovation during a time of crisis proved to pay off. This should be a lesson for designers and fashion houses today - remembering that creativity and originality will be handsomely rewarded, even during a recession.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

When East Met West: Examining the Japanese Fashion Market

While China has been the new obsession for fashion companies seeking new territory, Japan was the first Asian market to openly embrace Western luxury brands into their economy and it remains the country with the third largest retail spending in the world. When the Japanese economy took off in the late 1960’s, the large Japanese middle-class found that they were ready to start living a more grandiose life-style. In another country, one might have expected to see the construction of impressive mansions, but in densely populated cities like Tokyo, this proved to be an impossible feat. Instead, the Japanese turned to high fashion, dressing themselves in expensive silks and furs, and accessorizing with lavish jewels and expensive leather wallets and handbags. Japanese consumers claimed that they decided to buy luxury products for reasons of durability, yet researchers believe that a larger sociological mentality plays a bigger role in the Japanese obsession with high fashion. Japan is both a classless (85 percent of Japanese citizens believe themselves to be middle-class ) and conformist society, and the combination of the two makes them very receptive to brand marketing. Dana Thomas writes that, “by wearing and carrying luxury goods covered with logos, the Japanese are able to identify themselves in socioeconomic terms as well as conform to social mores. It’s as if they are branding themselves.”
With the Japanese focusing on logo-centric fashion brands, it is no wonder that Louis Vuitton is so successful in the country. Vuitton pioneered the Japanese market when it began retailing in five different Tokyo department stores in March 1978 and another in Osaka six months later. In the first year, those six stores sold 5.8 million dollars worth of Vuitton products and had doubled sales to $11 million by 1980. In 2007, it was estimated that approximately 2/5 of the Japanese population owned a Vuitton product. Vuitton’s success let countless other fashion houses, such as Prada, Gucci, and Hermès to try and get their products to Japanese consumers. Clay Chandler, journalist for Fortune Magazine, writes that even “after the ‘bubble economy’ burst, with Japan’s jobless rate hovering at an all-time high, stocks languishing, and bankruptcies raging - shoppers still can’t get enough $4,000 handbags and $1,500 shoes. The fashion industry is counting on shoppers in the industrial world’s sickest economy to keep it afloat.” Today, analysts estimate that 20 percent of all luxury goods are sold in Japan and another 30 percent to Japanese citizens traveling abroad, meaning that Japanese buy half of all luxury goods sold in the world today.
While the market in Japan has been historically important for the luxury goods industry, it may soon be giving way to markets like China, Russia, and India. The Economist reported in September 2008 that the Japanese star of the luxury goods industry may be losing its shine, as sales slid in Japan for brands such as Hermès, Gucci, Tiffany, Chanel and Armani. Pioneer brand Louis Vuitton experienced a six percent slide in the first six months of 2008, the first time sales have dropped for the company since its arrival in the country in 1978.
Many factors play into the decreasing demand for high fashion in Japan. Primarily, the weak economy and the steady appreciation of the euro against the yen in recent years have made it more difficult for Japanese customers to bring themselves to buy European luxury imports. Furthermore, the population of young, single, wealthy Japanese citizens still living at home with their parents (and subsequently, a large customer base for ostentatious purchases) is starting to age, leaving fewer fashion-crazed consumers in their place. Lastly, it seems as though tastes are starting to change in Japan regarding luxury purchases – there is more of an interest in craftsmanship and long-term value in each purchase, instead of simply buying logo-covered status symbols. The important question is whether Japan is an isolated example, or whether it signals a broader shift in consumer values, as explained earlier in the paper. If customers in other developed countries are no longer impressed by logos, will the big brands change their companies’ images or will they come to rely more heavily on fast-growing emerging economies, where the new rich will continue purchasing status and glamour at any price?