What If Fashion Brands Did… Less? A Conversation.
Featuring Brand Assembly’s Hilary France.
This pandemic forced many businesses to their knees, but the fashion and retail sector fell particularly hard. For an industry constructed out of floss and glitter, that quite literally sells a fantasy, the repercussions of so much global uncertainty — a terrified consumer base, reluctant to spend money or leave home; factories that couldn’t operate without endangering workers; a glut of products that were suddenly only appropriate for a lifestyle that had ceased to exist — swept away whatever smoke and mirrors were left. However, the rarely spoken reality is that the fashion industry had been in decline for a long time prior to COVID-19. Success stories were dwarfed by horror stories: Once-ubiquitous retail institutions forced to declare bankruptcy, past indie darlings attempting their third (fourth? fifth?) comeback, innovators and “disruptors” whose big-picture dreams were ultimately betrayed by their inadequate management.
All of this has contributed to the fact that over 13,000 stores have closed between January and September 2020 — that’s already 50% more than in 2019. But, it’s cynical to see what’s happening as merely a correction for how bloated the industry had become. And yet, after covering the post-2008 recession industry, that’s exactly how I’ve been led to think because of everything designers have told me through the years. The pressure to grow, to produce, to flood the market, and scale at breakneck speeds is unsustainable. So many have confessed they feared that the industry’s rapid metabolism would eventually cripple them. For creatives, the prospect of killing their business because of numbers is a particularly difficult demise to accept.
So — a thought exercise. Instead of fashion companies swelling themselves to death, what if they did... less? What if the industry helped support creatives who made one thing well, and encouraged consumers in seeking out high-quality products that were made to last? What if we produced only as much as we needed?
To talk this through, I reached out to Brand Assembly’s Hilary France, an industry oracle who helps emerging fashion brands figure out how to survive as a business. We chatted about the root cause of the problems plaguing fashion, how to incentivise smallness instead of largeness, and why the industry — which, at its best, should serve as a cultural mirror — was too distracted and ill-equipped to meet this moment.
As few, if any, of us want to return to the days of sewing all our own clothing, we’ve got to rely on the brands, labels, and stores to produce the products with which we adorn ourselves. With that in mind, here’s the beginning of a conversation about how consumers might one day interact with the industry:
Connie Wang: I've been thinking a lot about what would happen if fashion brands just did less — what problems would it solve? Would it be a net-positive?
Hilary France: I started working pre-recession, so I saw this industry at its height. Post-recession, we began chasing our own tails. We had to provide the inventory to get the product in the store, but it wasn’t selling at full price, so it had to [be] mark[ed] down just to get those revenue numbers. We began second-guessing whether any of this was sustainable.
There was — there is — too much. There was too much of a sense of like we just need to feed this industry. Why do we create in the first place? Most want a creative outlet that hopefully becomes a business. Most don’t want to create in order to have more stuff.
Connie: Something I've always wondered about is if a brand becomes famous because of one thing that they do — like DOEN with dresses or Cult Gaia with the Ark bag — why is there pressure then to expand into all of the different categories? The natural inclination seems to just go wide really, really quickly? Where is the compelling pressure to do that coming from?
Hilary: That pressure can be internal. You find success with something, and you want more. But in most cases, brands have investors they’re beholden to. These investors want to expand, and you can’t just do that through one product and sales channel. If they’ve tasted success, you have to expand. But at what point is it just okay to be? And to exist in that single point?
When I was working on the brand side, we’d have a best-seller and we’d chase ourselves to make a 100 more. And 99% of the time, we would never sell through those extra units that we raced to produce. When is it okay to be like, “All right, that sold out, that’s awesome, let’s move on to the next thing?”
Some designers want to make big money and cash out. But I’ve met lots of designers, especially recently, whose goal is just to reach a certain point where they can sustain a lifestyle.
There needs to be a separation of those mentalities, especially on the investor side.
Connie: Are there even options right now for designers to seek out investments that don’t require unsustainable growth and scale?
Hilary: Fashion is a cash-poor industry. You have to pay to manufacture goods before you actually get paid for selling them. There are some new and simple creative financing tools that are out there to address that. I just came across this company that helps you pay your bills that you can't pay by credit card. It gives you a little bit of padding to your cashflow.
Connie: Something I see as key to fixing this is to lower the barrier to entry, since making that first-ever product requires so much energy compared to making the fifth or sixth product. In a sense, doing that also lowers the barrier to exit, and makes it easier for brands to decide they’re going to shut the lights off now because they’ve done what they wanted to do. All that initial investment prompts this feeling that you have to keep going, even if you feel like you're done.
Hilary: Production has always been the biggest challenge. When you're smaller and you only want 10 items of a single unit, that cost per unit is higher typically than if you produced 250 of them.
In the very beginning, smaller brands have to get footing because their margins are so much tighter than when you’re larger. I don’t know how to fix that problem, but I think if designers realise that that is the case and price things strategically from the beginning, that could eliminate that scariness of how much to invest early on.
It also affects consumers. Emerging designers are forced into pricing their products at £500 versus £350.
Connie: To fix that seems like it means not only changing how consumers think about pricing but also why things cost the way that they cost, because like we just don’t have the capabilities to manufacture at a certain level in the United States without paying more for it.
Hilary: Consumers’ mentalities are changing. I think more people are abandoning this more, more, and more mentality. Now they’re asking, “What do I really need, and what's the purpose behind my purchase?” I'm a huge advocate of local production and sustaining and creating opportunities.
Connie: On face value, it’s terrible to design something in the United States, produce it in China, and ship it back to the United States to sell. But the simple fact is that it’s not only cheaper to do it, but also the quality is higher because China’s manufacturing technologies and production capabilities are much more advanced. To me, it seems like a huge problem that designers can't make products in the amount they need, at the quality they need, and at the price they need, while utilising resources that are closer to home.
But when you look at China’s workforce, there's a future there within manufacturing. I mean you look at who is in manufacturing clothing here in the United States, and everybody is over 50 years old, you know?
Hilary: There’s no apprenticeship or teaching of the trade. There does need to be more workforce development in the industry on the production side.
Connie: Unlike the 2008 recession, I feel like there's no rhyme or reason to the companies that are failing right now. They’re big and small — mission-driven and mission-less. And they're failing in such sad, undignified ways. Whether it’s cultural or financial, you hear more bad stories about retail right now than you hear good ones.
Hilary: I'm glad that you actually brought that up because I think that goes back to this whole idea of how many products need to be produced, the tens of thousands of units each month that have to be produced to service stores, or even operate a direct-to-consumer business.
All it took was a month at the beginning of COVID [to destroy a company]. If you need X amount of sales to keep your people on staff, and to develop and produce, it’s this hard hamster wheel that has to turn. Most brands can’t afford to lose a month, which is tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. That’s a critical miss. The wheels fall off real quick in a situation like that.
Connie: I know that your job is to ensure that brands live and that they have a long life. But what happens if we shift our thinking to make it easier to pull the plug? Are we disincentivized to shorten the lifespan of a brand, and are there pros and benefits to making that process easier?
Hilary: As a founder and CEO myself, since COVID hit, I've been through the seven stages of grief like seven times over with just my own company. Doing in-person events was the lion’s share of our revenue. I could try to stay above water and grasp at every possible revenue event, or I could sit back and conserve cash for when I can step on the gas again.
Having the flexibility to experience ebbs and flows with your own business is crucial. That includes pulling the plug.
Connie: I have a metaphor: I feel like we’re in a moment where we have the literacy to expect a very diverse amount of content from our television programming. Some TV shows only need to be web-based. Some TV shows become part of our daily habits and are real necessities: News programming, for instance. Some are relevant for a decade-plus. And then some only need to be around for one season — we celebrate them because they shine really bright and tell a full, complete story. And everyone is excited that they end when they do. And the creators of that really one successful season move on to other projects, and we consider their careers to be successful.
Currently, the industry is set up to facilitate that entire breadth of content and diversity of output. Can we think about fashion products that way? In a sense, they’re pretty similar to TV shows. They're creative products that are, for the most part, wants not needs. They speak to people who are looking to find themselves or see themselves reflected or mirrored in their consumer choices.
Hilary: It’s a good point. There’s this Netflix mentality now where we’re all consuming something at the same time, and then we’re done with it, and we move on. It ties back to what your question was earlier about how a brand can die with dignity. It ties in with trends, too. Like, I want these TV shows or these collections to stand out because they say something, instead of because somebody is telling you that you have to wear it.