This is my last column for the FT – after 11 years and approximately a million words, I am embracing that thing so beloved of the fashion world: change. It’s not nearly as easy to do as it is to watch on the catwalk every season but if covering this industry for the past decade-plus has taught me anything, it’s the value – literally – of new perspectives.
Much noise has been made about various British brands attempting to take on the American market, and the difficulties many (Tesco, Marks and Spencer) find therein. Not that it stops anyone. The latest brand to make a big push for a bigger slice of the pie: Boden.
Yup – the catalogue known for its brightly coloured kidswear and mummy-wear. Funny, right? After all, the UK brands that have been most successful in the US, from Burberry to Topshop, have had a definite fashion edge, which is not a concept normally associated with Boden.
Louis Vuitton is unveiling a new group of celebrity “ambassadors’ today via their web site, and it’s not who you might expect: instead of actress Michelle Williams, who currently fronts their women’s bag campaign, or Angelina Jolie, who has plugged the heritage line, we have a star-studded line-up of… Atiq Rahimi, a French-Afghan author and movie director whose book, “the Patience Stone” won the Prix Goncourt; Tom Reiss, whose biography, “The Black Count:” about the “real” Count of Monte Cristo just won the Pulitzer; political consultant Felix Marquardt (who has advised the Presidents of Colombia, Georgia and Panama) and Dr. Gino Yu of Hong Kong Polytechnic university and Lourenço Bustani, CEO of Mandalah, who is spearheading the cultural planning of Brazil’s 2016 Olympics — all photographed at the most recent World Economic Forum in Switzerland. So here’s the question: is this a super-clever new way of thinking about marketing, or a velvet rope that will prove too much of a barrier to entry even for the insiders?
The on-again/off-again love affair between private equity and fashion seems to be heating up again, what with Blackstone taking a minority stake in Versace, Permira courting Cavalli, and, as of today, a new swain in town making its move on Opening Ceremony. According to WWD, Front Row partners, which was launched earlier this year by Glen Senk, ex-CEO of David Yurman and Anthropologie in conjunction with Berkshire Partners (who threw in $350million) to target “innovative, high-growth retail and consumer businesses”, has taken a minority stake in the hip downtown retailer. The amount was not disclosed, but still: Can you hear the heavy breathing? Anyway, it seems to me this marks the resurgence of the relationship, which has been abandoned in recent years as luxury brands from Prada to Ferragamo, Michael Kors, and Brunello Cucinelli turned to IPOs instead of PE. So what changed?
I have a dream. Not the Martin Luther King kind, I admit; more the nightmare-at-2am kind. In my dream, I am out and about reporting, reviewing or otherwise working, when I discover something big – something I have to tweet or write straight away, like that the Marc Jacobs IPO is set for next week (not really) or that Apple is appointing Hedi Slimane its creative director (also not true; these are just examples of what would make urgent fashion news) – and my BlackBerry (yes, I have a BlackBerry, and I like it) goes kaput. Runs out of juice. You know the scenario. And whichever smartphone you depend upon, I would bet you’ve had the same dream.
uch concern in New York last year post-election about whether new Mayor Bill de Blasio would be as much of a FoF (friend of fashion) as former Mayor Michael Bloomberg – especially given de Blasio’s stated goal to even the economic playing field in the city. Turns out, however, this refers not just to the income gap but the manufacturing gap, and in that fashion and the mayor’s office have found common ground.
So Mulberry interim executive chairman Godfrey Davis, still lacking a CEO and Creative Director, has announced a change in strategy: they are going more accessible. You’d think maybe they would wait until those two leadership positions were filled to discuss this sort of thing, but hey – a brand’s gotta do what a brand’s gotta do, at least when speaking to financial analysts about profit warnings. And generally, I think this is move in the right direction. After all, with Benard Arnault charging full-bore at the top end of the market with his stable of brands, wherein also resides Hermes, Chanel, and Bottega Veneta, and Ralph Lauren announcing his plans to go luxury, it’s looking pretty crowded up there. On the other hand, ask those analysts the Mulberry folks were talking to about the success of, say, Michael Kors, and they will site the fact that Mr Kors was smart enough of take advantage of that great open high middle that Mr Arnault and co had left vacant. The space is still unpopulated enough that Mulberry may be able to find a home.
And this is how a fashion rumour gets started: A few days ago Page Six, the New York Post’s gossip column, ran an item saying John Galliano was no longer being considered as a possible creative director at Oscar de la Renta (pictures above, with former NY Mayor Bloomberg; and if you ask me, given their joint experiment in the design studio a few seasons ago is a good thing; their aesthetics did not mesh), and as a result de la Renta was looking for a replacement. Now the Telegraph in London has picked the rumour up, and the Business of Fashion website has picked up their story, and soon it will be gospel. But it is actually true? According to a source in the inner circle of the brand: No – at least not officially.
Maud Lescroart, the CMO of Sophie Hallett, the family-run French lace maker that seems to supply – well, pretty much everyone in fashion – is in New York this week for Wedding Week, and stopped by the office the other day to discuss her company’s life since the royal wedding (Hallett supplied the lace that covered the bodice of Kate Middleton’s Sarah Burton Alexander McQueen gown). Between four key factors: 1) the spotlight cast by the palace fairy tale; 2) the focus on the hand-made and heritage as key to luxury’s appeal; 3) the growing attention to CSR and the desire to control all parts of the supply chain; and 4) and the imperative in the luxury industry to ensure a reliable source of key materials, which has seen big groups buying up skins houses (LVMH and Heng Long; Hermes and Tanneries d’Annonay) and cashmere specialists (LVMH’s purchase of Loro Piana in 2013; Chanel’s purchase of Barrie knitwear in 2012), they have gone from behind-the-scenes player to suddenly very hot property.
So Alexander Wang, left, is the latest runway designer to team up with H&M in their high/low limited-edition strategy for creating buzz and best-sellers. He’ll be the first American to get the gig. The news was announced yesterday by Mr Wang via Instagram, which was seen as very cool, while at Coachella, which is even more cool. The message being, of course, that he is just cool, and this project is going to be super-cool. Except it always seems to me the appeal of the H&M collaborations was they took names that weren’t cool – they were haute, and generally unreachable – and it was the combination of unlikely bedfellows (the high street and the high fashion) that was actually the cool part. This one seems to indicate a slight switch in strategy.