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Is The Fashion Biz In Danger Of Going The Same Way As The Ad Industry?

Gill Linton explores the fashion industry's current obsession with marketing.

Gill Linton
Gill Linton on November 22, 2010.

Ralph Lauren’s 4D technology.

The ad business is particularly good at two things. 1. talking in marketing clichés and buzzwords while saying nothing/new; 2. tactics masquerading as brand strategy.

Looks like the fashion industry has become as obsessed about talking and marketing its marketing as the ad business has been since Mad Men days, (how’s that for a clichéd cultural reference). I can guarantee however, that I will never encourage you to dress like a Mad Men extra)). The talk is that they’re adopting a more sophisticated and strategic approach to marketing. Sharing the inner workings of the business and marketing of fashion is pop culture these days, behind the scenes interviews, makings of, documentaries, buy from the runway etc.

Cleverly marketing the marketing of fashion in consumer culture, or, an industry talking to itself?

The ad business has lots of conferences about itself, mostly about what’s broken, (and also to dish out awards, of which there are also many.) In my experience, it’s not that often that the ad ‘therapy’ conferences offer up genuinely new ideas. For the most part, it’s the same old debate, different organizer/speakers, depending on what the buzz word/theme of the time happens to be. Crowd sourcing, branded content, digital strategy, for example, is heralded as the new world order. Yet, we’re still banging on about the distribution of media and not the brand idea. Not the creative idea, the brand idea. Although I really believe they should be the same thing, but that’s another article entirely.

Anyway, it struck me that the fashion industry is going the same way as the ad business. Lots of conferences, lots of ‘the business’ seeping into pop culture:

1. Talking in marketing clichés and buzzwords while saying nothing/new:

All very interesting until it starts to smack of an industry talking to itself in marketing buzzwords with hollow application. I know this is an old one, and hats off to Ralph Lauren for being a digital pioneer, but their 10 year celebration of “merchantainment” at the IHT Heritage Luxury conference was, for me, like winning a game of marketing buzzword bingo – it was fun the first time.

Because at the end of the day, it was an event/ for a long image based ad/ that got lots of tweets, (delete as appropriate.) If my experience of it not loading online has anything to go by, I’m curious about its impact on the business long-term. Having made a few ads in my time, I have a rough idea of how many millions it probably cost to produce. Wonder how many Polo Shirts til break-even?

[On the subject of buzzwords, I would officially like to suggest ‘edit-commerce’ – for true ‘editorial based e-commerce’ that is highly curated (of which there ain’t much. Just saying.) Do you see what I did there? House!]

2. Tactics masquerading as brand strategy.

I’m a big advocate of quality and heritage as an antidote to fast fashion. For one it saves the planet. 2. Stops us all looking the same. And the one I’m most passionate about, 3. Creates a more discerning, progressive and less mediocre culture. So naturally I followed the IHT conference about heritage luxury and the many articles featured around heritage, as it relates to the “millennial generation.”

This from Suzy Menkes – whose wise words I’m reading in The Fashion Conspiracy by Nicholas Coleridge, that 20 odd years later is still very relevant, (frankly could have been written this year) and I urge everyone in the fashion business to read it.

Is there a future in the past? That is the question being asked from R&B lyrics to boardroom discussions by luxury moguls. Everything that the millennial generation has embraced––smart phones, texting, digital photos, music downloads, Facebook, haul videos––is about the here and now. “Fast” fashion has made the entire concept of heritage––the idea of actual or emotional links with a brand’s past––seem as outdated as that once powerful symbol of Great Britain: a bowler hat.

(Apparently, done right, bowlers are kinda good these days, but I get your point Suzy.)

Reinterpreting tradition for a digital age is the challenge for luxury brands: how to link past and present in a more meaningful way than the concept of classic design and historic crests?
In the luxury world, brands have rushed to create a digital makeover. This can come in the form of a quickly assembled backstage video to post on the website. But at its best, it is deep-rooted and authentic, such as Burberry’s involvement in technology from its wired London headquarters, to its pro-active online initiatives; or the experimental live-stream filming and compulsive Twittering from the late Alexander McQueen.

I’m not sure how Burberry’s involvement in technology is ‘deep-rooted and authentic.’ Tweeting aside, Lee McQueen’s last full collection, Plato’s Atlantis, had an idea behind it – a social narrative and commentary beyond the clothes themselves. He would have made an awesome strategic/creative planner for today’s new hybrid creative agencies.

When Charles Darwin wrote The Origin Of The Species, no one could have known that the ice cap would melt, that the waters would rise and that life on earth would have to evolve in order to live beneath the sea once more or perish. We came from water and now, with the help of stem cell technology and cloning, we must go back to it to survive. When the waters rise, humanity will go back to the place from whence it came. ‘But then again, I’m no Nostradamus…’ – Alexander McQueen

Make no mistake, this is not sci-fi, this is evolution. Alexander McQueen takes his signature engineered print to new technological heights. Every print is unique, engineered specifically for each individual garment.

Obviously I’d be an idiot to knock Burberry (anymore than I already have) who announced a 43.5% rise in profits this week, and was anointed luxury British brand of the year, but what’s their social narrative? What’s Ralph Lauren’s? And maybe given their success it doesn’t matter, right now. Depends what kind of luxury brand they’re building.

McQueen made a cultural statement in everything he did, without the heritage of Burberry or Ralph Lauren. His collections and the ideas to promote them were “deep-rooted and authentic” because they communicated his subversive point of view about culture and it was obvious in everything the brand did from design to advertising.

He used technology to tell his story. Technology wasn’t the story in the same way it is for Burberry and Ralph Lauren. Tactics vs strategy.

Then there was this from The New York Times:

The industry is acutely aware of the problem of rebooting a heritage or replacing aging designers…..Mr. Marzotto, who is resuscitating the house of Vionnet, selecting it for the clear and distinct codes established by its founder Madeleine Vionnet: drapes, asymmetry, geometry. He then asked Rudy Paglialunga, his chosen designer, to be “respectful” of the codes — but to reinterpret them. He said he urged the designer to “always start from something” and not to “invent, but go through the brand history and try to build up an idea.”

Brands, fashion or otherwise, either have a heritage or they haven’t. But eventually they will – if they play their business cards better than their bingo card. Building and/or preserving a unique brand heritage is one of the most important things they’ll ever do. Because it creates longevity and because when you’re consumed with building your heritage, you stay relevant.

Vionnet then and now.

When he talks about ‘building up an idea,’ I suspect Mr Marzotto is talking about design. What I’m taking about is a ‘strategic’ idea, an interpretation of a brands attitudinal point of view and role in culture beyond the drapes, asymmetry and geometry. Beyond the trench and the horses. Heritage or no heritage.

Thinking...