The Lesser Known Challenges of Running A Fashion Business

December 19, 2019

by Gracia Ventus

It has been a few years since I began working on ROSEN. Along the way, I have learnt some important lessons from my personal experience and also from observing my peers and competitors. In the beginning the challenges were focused on products - from fabrics to design to construction - that works in tandem with the marketing strategy. In a world where everyone have more choices than ever, clothing that command a higher price tag have to stand out among the crowd with a mix of creative marketing and appealing product design.

“Clothes are expensive. You have to buy them, and to buy them, you have to believe in them.” - Jean Paul Gaultier

As my business grows, the challenge shifts from product-based issues to operations. The sustainability of a clothing business on an upward trajectory depends on the relationship built with raw material suppliers, manufacturers and logistics, especially in China. In the past I have written about the unique relationship approach that is commonly found when working with Chinese businesses.


Much of the garment manufacturing industry is still somewhat inflexible - one is either a large scale manufacturer, or a tailor who works on conventional designs. There are much fewer sample manufacturers out there who may be willing to work on small scale productions continuously. The same goes for fabric suppliers, some of whom would occasionally ask me why I am only buying their existing supply instead of ordering a 500-meter bolt. In this in-between spot, business relationship becomes more intimate and have to be taken care of properly, especially when the operation involves constant design changes, custom sizing requests and pattern manipulation. As a small business owner, I have to provide incentives for makers and manufacturers to work on difficult requests, and often a harmonious working relationship is as important as monetary compensation, if not more, because loyalty is highly prized in China.

Maintaining harmony within a network of small business owners is not dissimilar to getting along with distant relatives. The world of modern fashion design romanticises late nights spent in the studio with coffee and cigarettes. No-one speaks of the difficulty in managing human emotions; the clashing egos that get in the way; the sensitivities that might cloud one’s judgment; and any adverse life situation that a party you deal with is in. Fashion business guides speak of the importance of finding a reliable manufacturing partner, and they’re right to mention that. What is often missed out is the difficulty in maintaining a good business relationship that goes beyond the formalities of contracts, the misunderstandings due to failure in communication, or the frustration of not knowing what can go wrong, until it goes wrong. Vendor relationship management is a soft skill that can hardly be taught in school. It only comes from the experience of dealing with people over the course of time.

Another issue that I have observed amongst my peers near and far and within my operations is the challenge of staying relevant. A singular vision is no longer sufficient in this volatile market. Oversaturation of an aesthetic or a logo or any recognisable feature of the brand will push the brand out of favour fairly quickly. The next strategy would either be to acquire new market - which in some cases can be very costly - or evolve, even if it means compromising one’s vision.

With the exception of fast fashion and luxury brands that has cemented the power of their logos, a clothing brand has to remain steadfast to its DNA while avoiding being called a one-trick pony. When a brand is forced to evolve, it raises the question of what accounts for its essence, be it construction, fabrics, silhouette or even graphic elements. Every brand has to navigate these treacherous waters effectively; veer too far too quickly and it risks alienating existing fans, like Damir Doma after 2011. Change too slowly, and there will be no reason for existing fans to buy another product that is similar to what they already have in the closet. We can see that Vetements interpretation of anti-fashion and marketing gimmicks disguised as ironic wink-wink you-only-get-it-if-you-are-part-of-the-tribe symbolisms is losing its popularity in the last couple of years.

What makes this business endeavour even more complicated is the rise and fall of trends. Brands that bank on a narrow, single aesthetic will fall out of favour when it refuses to move on as the trend itself is dying. Back in the late noughties, the goth ninja trend spawned many fans and brands. But as time passes, the crowd who appreciates it grew older. Life gets in the way and eventually clothing purchases mattered less. The brands who did not adapt to stay fresh in the minds of younger demographics, or evolve to suit the needs of the existing maturing market will see their business shrink and eventually fall off the radar. Rick Owens, who was one of the most lauded designer by this crowd, steered clear of irrelevance by constantly reinventing himself - from drapey luxe-grunge to refined space warriors to alien rock stars - at the same time retaining the essence of his brand through the use of signature materials and Brutalist silhouette. The younger crowd loves his unapologetic, sexually-charged and borderline absurd shows, while the older crowd appreciates the craftsmanship of his garments.

Rick Owens addressing the crowd at the 'art orgy' organised with Centre Pampidou, 2019

There are of course a multitude of other challenges that exist in running a fashion business. Many young fashion brands struggle to attain traction and attention in this saturated market. And in many cases, attention does not necessarily lead to sales, as consumers are becoming more fickle, thanks in part due to fierce competition across all price points. Consumer confidence is also affected by global economic and political uncertainties looming over the horizon.

There is no magic formula in building and running a successful fashion brand. The year 2019 might be remembered as the year of bankruptcies, from Barneys, Forever 21, Roberto Cavalli, Sonia Rykiel, Charlotte Russe to Payless. This industry is adept in creating smoke and mirrors that hide the true health of a business. Every good-looking model hides a struggling team, a designer clueless about cash flow and bottom line, or an unethical manufacturing network. Fashion is never glamorous, but it is very good at pretending otherwise.

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Where Will We Go After Faking Sponsored Contents?

September 20, 2019

by Gracia Ventus

The Atlantic loves to report on current trends of Instagrammers, which is frankly quite eye-opening and often baffling. In one such news, an article titled "Rising Instagram Stars Are Posting Fake Sponsored Content" explores the recent evolution in social behaviour, mainly from three perspectives: the wannabe influencers who "fake it til they make it" at great time and personal expense; the brands who both benefit from free promotion and are harmed by the lack of control they have over the content; and the professional influencers who have experienced a marked decline in their revenues as Instagram is overrun by these aspiring competitors.

Before Instagram, before social media, before the Internet was conceived, Theodore Adorno spoke of Kulturindustrie – or Culture Industry - in which popular culture disseminated by the media, corporations and ruling elites becomes a tool to pacify the masses, ultimately making them resort to easy pleasures and standardised consumption in order to forget the challenges of real life. Published in mid 20th century, Adorno was only talking TV. He hadn't seen anything yet.

By fostering a virtual, global market by which a minority of users are sponsored to advertise relevant consumer products, the very identity and business model of these influencers relies completely on the Kulturindustrie to operate. The formula to regurgitate influencer content is a simple one: mix one part lifestyle, two parts graphic aesthetics, sprinkle in a positive caption and finish with a question to prompt comments to artificially propagate awareness via Instagram's increasingly fickle distribution algorithm. Following this method is not only easy, it also feels "right". The more this formula is repeated, the more accepted it gets amongst consumers (which is a well-documented cognitive reaction called mere exposure effect), until it evolves to the next big thing. Which brings us back to an important aspect of the Kulturindustrie, ie. rewarding conformity. In our capitalist system, the more conformist the masses, the less effort, time and resources it takes to sell an idea or product.

[ Read: The toxicity of celebrity culture ]

Lightly touched upon are the various influences that might motivate this behaviour. At face value, there is always the financial incentive. But realistically the chance a company will want to pay someone to wear their products is about as probable as the average video game addict being chosen to become a pro-gamer. What also may lurk in the psyche of the aspirant is the validation of the purchase itself. That expenditure could be wrote off as content that could be used for their Instagram. To others, being sponsored could be a kind of social "flex" on their peers – which the article has highlighted as becoming one’s way to win the popularity contest in school - justifying their purchases in a highly visible and quantifiable way. Not only does this enforce the idea that materialism would enrich one’s social life and increase likeability, it also validates the notion that it’s acceptable to resort to crafting fraud in order to make it to the top.

[ Read: Consumption should be the tool that assists us in doing the hard work of finding our authentic self and caring for our physical, mental and emotional health ]

As a passive audience, we are visually bombarded with all manner of sponsored contents throughout the day online and offline, and we probably have a friend, acquaintance or relative who has postured their purchases on social media. Remember the fake wedding proposal to get brand sponsorships? For those of us participating and consuming this content day in and out, at what point does it become too much? We have reached a time where we can no longer have faith in journalistic integrity will we then arrive at an age where we doubt our peers and families?

Comme des Garçons Ribbons Coat

Wearing my favourite Comme des Garçons ribbons coat, now into its seventh year


Androgyny and Elimination of Gender Codes in Fashion

August 24, 2019

by Gracia Ventus

Rad Hourani and his trademark androgynous silhouette

Ever since I discovered the likes of Rick Owens and Comme des Garçons many years ago, I started developing an awareness of fashion that subverts gender binaries. I wrote an essay three years ago on this issue, arguing that androgyny is not simply men putting on skirts and women donning the suit to be manly. Having made unisex clothing for some time, I would like to revisit this topic with an additional technical perspective that I have gained in my trade, namely the visible differences between the male and female body, and ultimately presenting my argument that there is a negative correlation between androgynous fashion and sexuality.

As someone who participates as a consumer and producer in the global fashion industry, I am writing from the perspective of mainstream fashion that have proliferated in the 21st Century which is predominantly Anglo-American, due to a combination of centuries of colonialism and globalisation of cultural norms spearheaded by Hollywood and American media in the last fifty years.

What Androgyny Is Not

Many fashion articles that highlight androgynous clothing often put women in men’s clothing, such as in t-shirt and jeans or suitings, or anything that is oversized and boxy. I have argued that this was pseudo-androgyny because the clothes are simply moulding women to fit conventional masculine tropes. The same applies to men squeezing into leggings or mini skirts. Neither leggings nor a skirt is inherently feminine, but exhibiting the curves of the human body is closely linked to femininity, which I will address in the next section.

Pitti Uomo, where women appropriate classic menswear. Photo: Adam Katz Sinding

When fashion plays with narratives of gender, it would be more appropriate to call it gender bending. Gender bending fashion is an adoption of aesthetics of the opposite gender through manipulation of physical appearance in order to appear more masculine or feminine. A man may put on a pair of five-inch heels that create a conical shape down to the toe while pushing the derriere up and outwards, and a woman may put on a structured suit with full canvassing and power shoulders, which is deeply entrenched in masculine signifiers. Contrary to making them look androgynous, this fashion approach further highlights the differences in gender norms.

What It Is

True androgyny lies in the absence of gender binaries and its associations. Designers that have managed to create androgynous clothing are typically the ones who erase masculine and feminine physical differences. Bonus point if they can converge feminine and masculine design language in a single garment. Often this is done by taking cues from non-Western aesthetics that are more nuanced and less obsessed with the explicit expressions of sexuality.

Any rule-breaking endeavour requires an understanding of said rules. In order to deconstruct gender codes in clothing, we must first look into the physical differences between men and women and how clothing caters to those differences, as well as the sexual connotations between male and female dress that is deeply tied in our biological imperative to attract a mate and procreate.

1. Human Physique and Differences in Gender

Before we can create a gender neutral silhouette, it is important to understand the typical differences between male and female anatomy. The primary differences lie in the relationship of shoulder width to waist and hips, and where the waistline lies on the body.

In general, the widest part of the male and female body is the shoulders and hips respectively. Of course this can all be modified to a certain degree depending on any intensive physical activities or excess fat deposits that a body undergoes. A competitive female swimmer with broad shoulders have a similar body shape as an average male, while an overweight male may develop larger breasts, hips and thighs that are akin to a female body on the larger side.

A comparison between typical male and female physique

Men and women's waistlines fall at a different place relative to the entire body. The waistline on the female body is higher than that of a male, which means that for two people of the same height, a woman's upper torso will be shorter than a man's. This is also the reason why women are more 'leggy' than men. In terms of clothing construction, jackets tend to be shorter for women than it is for men of the same height. Trousers for women also have a higher rise in order to accommodate the longer central torso from the crotch to the natural waist area.

2. Sexuality Signifiers in Men and Women and How They are Translated through Clothing

It is hard to ignore the role that sex plays in fashion. Being perceived as sexually attractive is often the primary goal of dressing, regardless of the gender of the target audience. Popular culture is the perfect reflection of current aesthetics norms especially today in our influencers and celebrities-obsessed society. Clothing that is considered sexual by mainstream standards tend to exaggerate physiological differences and gender roles between men and women. It may be 2019 but we have not really learnt to uncouple our sexual preferences from our biological imperatives. The more we highlight our gender differences, the easier it is to advertise ourselves as a biologically viable mate. This behaviour is often carried out on a subconscious level due to the implicit gender norms and societal pressure that everyone grows up with, even if we don't wish to procreate or have the desire to mate with a member of the opposite sex.

Much of menswear is still hung up on clothes that are structured, protective, and armour-like. Menswear suitings remain a symbol of power and responsibility since the Industrial Revolution; it sculpts the body to give the appearance of strong upper torso and lean legs; outerwear takes its cues from military uniforms, be it the trench coat or bomber jacket. Male dress is tied with the masculine role of being the protective figure and head of the household, harking back to the days when men had to die in battles and steal women from the next village.

Women’s femininity on the other hand is deeply entrenched in fertility and vulnerability; fertility as a mother, vulnerable as a member of what used to be the weaker sex. Throughout history, women depicted as mother figures or symbols of beauty were either naked and voluptuous, or swathed in long flowy robes. Within the circle of European high society, the Georgians loved an exposed neck and breasts, the Victorians tiny waist and comically large behind. French Rococo dresses were so wide at the hips that women had to go through entrances sideways. Italian Renaissance loved a round soft stomach. Despite the ebb and flow of fashion throughout centuries, female dress places emphasis on the curves of the body. These bodily curves - where fat deposits tend to occur on women - are biological markers of fertility; they provide visual cues indicating that a woman has enough body fat to sustain life within her and continue to nurse a newborn after birth. There has never been a time when females with broad shoulder and strong muscular back is associated with femininity, even when many of them had to till the farms and perform hard labour.

18th Century Female Fashion

Gender norms of the past continue to form the basis of masculinity and femininity in aesthetics today, which in turn influences clothing construction. Masculine Western clothing relies on tailoring to create structure, while feminine clothing often use draping which creates a soft and flowy silhouette. However, it is important to note that today’s designers are relying on spandex in womenswear as the demand for tight-fitting garments increase. Despite covering the body, tight-fitting clothing continue to strengthen conventional feminine tropes in fashion as it aims to highlight the curves of the body more than providing substantial protection.

Fashion Nova - the most googled fashion brand in 2018 in the US

Deconstruction of Biological and Sexual Gender Codes

The search for gender neutral clothing is not as simple as men putting on women’s oversized parka, nor women putting on men’s trousers. This is especially difficult when it comes to structured clothing with plenty of seam lines that can fall at the wrong places. Male regular rise trousers are closer to women's low rise, and also made with smaller waist to hips ratio. Women’s jackets are cut with narrower shoulders and shorter sleeves. It also ignores the nuances of clothing construction that can be overly rigid, or overly drapey. The instances of men and women being able to swap pieces in which they don’t look oversized or wearing other people’s clothes are uncommon, especially when it comes to tailored clothing.

Genuine androgynous take on fashion distorts and sculpts physical proportions of the human body - either through structure, draping or both - to create a gender neutral or exaggerated non-human silhouette. There is more emphasis on concealing the shape of the human body or adding space around the body. Non-Western dress such as Japanese hanten, Middle Eastern kandora and Mongolian deel are some examples.


Rigidity and fluidity in garments are important aspects of design in manipulating silhouettes to create an androgynous look. Rigidity constricts the body to diminish curves, and fluidity softens its hard edges. A poncho is the perfect example of an androgynous garment because it combines both the rigidity of the protective fabric with how the garment drapes gently over the body. Issey Miyake comes to mind as a designer that consistently played with exaggerated, non-human silhouettes. He used the kimono as a starting point of his design to make clothing that creates space around the body, in contrast with Western aesthetics that contours the body to an idealised shape. By bringing Japanese sensibilities to the runway, he had inspired young designers to look at fashion aesthetics from a non-sexualised point of view. More examples of designers' works that play with gender neutral silhouettes can be found here

Issey Miyake, captured by Irving Penn

Issey Miyake, captured by Irving Penn

Issey Miyake Plantation

Issey Miyake Homme Plisse

Issey Miyake Homme Plisse

Androgyny Exists in A Spectrum

Tilda-SwintonTilda Swinton and her predominantly Haider Ackermann outfits

Androgynous fashion is not black and white. On its most basic level, it is the kind of clothing that can be worn by any gender, but it is not necessarily absent of gendered codes. Tilda Swinton is the perfect example of someone who consistently plays with androgynous fashion. On the left, her outfit feels more feminine because the waistline is visibly much higher on the torso while her body is wrapped in soft, flowy drapes of fabrics. On the right, what could be construed as androgyny on the surface actually has a more masculine slant due to the strong shoulders. As we go towards the center, she appears more gender neutral in clothes that combine both rigidity and drape. It downplays her feminine figure without accentuating any signifiers of masculinity. Like the two examples in the middle, true androgyny is rigorously austere and absent of ornamentation. Rigid androgyny is reminiscent of robots, while fluid androgyny is ascetic, much like monks and priests.

Considering that I am writing this topic in 2019, it is interesting to note that there seems to be more examples of menswear designers experimenting in gender neutral silhouettes. Judging from the demographics of my customers, it seems that the group more likely to wear androgynous clothing is men. Womenswear was going through the same movement, spearheaded by Phoebe Philo's Céline in the early noughties when she made minimalist androgyny appealing to women. Clothes were loose and comfortable. Women felt less pressured to show off their bodies. But that has now taken a backseat as more women are increasingly embracing their femininity through overt sexualised dressing.

It is possible that menswear is just catching up with what women have been experimenting with in the last twenty years. But as micro-trends evolve faster than ever, it will be difficult to ascertain where we are headed next.

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The Growth of Made-To-Order Business Model

July 18, 2019

by Gracia Ventus

Vogue Business recently published a piece on the rising popularity of made-to-order business model.

It is also important to note that the conventional fashion business model is falling apart at the seams.

As buyers, we have never had such a vast array of fashion options than today. Booming e-commerce trade and second hand markets open up avenues for consumers to satisfy their sartorial needs and desires. Buyers are becoming more educated and picky in making their purchasing decisions; their tastes are also getting more diverse, not to mention constantly shifting. As a result, stores are finding it harder to predict what sells and what doesn’t.

When major retailers struggle in sales, they shift business risks as much as possible to the designers. There is a longer delay before designers will see the money that retailers owe them, and often they have to deal with returns of unsold goods, both of which are detrimental to cash flow and profit margins of any business, especially independent designers who often operate on minimal capital. Everyone is losing, except maybe the factories.

This is the problem with the current business model. It relies on building inventories and pumping more products into an over-saturated market. Burberry was burning unsold goods. H&M has accumulated US$4 billion’s worth of inventory throughout their stores and warehouses worldwide.

Retailers often resort to deep discounts to reduce inventory, but consumers are not as easily persuaded as they used to be.

The made-to-order business model avoids this inventory problem. Money that is not wasted on making goods that people do not want to buy can be invested in marketing and product development. Aside from avoiding the inventory problem, the made-to-order business model comes with many perks. The designer gets to interact with customers directly. I personally love seeing how my clothes are used in different contexts, environments and activities. I often receive valuable feedbacks from my customers who tell me what they love about the clothes and fabrics, as well as the areas to improve on. In return, my customers receive clothes that are tailored to their body and can tweak the designs however they want. Rather like haute couture, but for everyday clothes.

The challenges that I often face in this business revolve around the constraints of time. Roland Mouret and Prabal Gurung both commented on the extra time required to produce customised garments, on average spanning 2-3 months. On a normal production time, it takes a week or two to make a piece of clothing. But when I am swamped with designing new collections, shooting editorials and visiting tailors, the turnaround time gets slowed down quite severely.

Despite the difficulties however, this business model, when handled properly, can be the key to sustainable growth. Designers that are backed by external sources often worry about not meeting sales quota or scaling up quickly. Fortunately I have no one to answer to but my customers. Maturing slowly and organically is the antithesis of startup culture, but it’s the path that I have picked. Slow growth leaves room for learning, fostering lasting relationships with customers and manufacturing partners, as well as maintaining financial independence because that growth can be funded by profit that is internally generated by my business.

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The Kardashians Have (Probably) Fooled Us Once Again

July 3, 2019

by Gracia Ventus

Kim Kardashian is like a Supreme box logo t-shirt. Take away all that hype and there's very little that is offered, although one could argue that at least t-shirt protects one's modesty.

Her wealth is built upon milking the hype machine, and once again we have probably fallen for one of her tricks.

Just a few weeks ago she announced that her new shapewear line would be called Kimono. Initial amusement aside, I was rather skeptical that she would make such a big gaffe in an era of political-correctness-gone-mad. After all, she - along with her mother and husband - is one extremely competent marketer. This was the woman who made use of all the social connections she could seize with her two-inch long manicured nails, then allegedly leaked a sex tape, or in Kanye's words - "home video", that propelled a multi-million dollar reality tv show. I refused to believe that she was that dense.

And of course the Internet reacted. Social media bubbled and frothed like a swarm of angry bees. The haters hated, her followers defended, everyone had something to say about cultural appropriation, diversity, and lack of respect on her part. Just as expected, she decided to drop the name a week later following the backlash, which also included a letter from the mayor of Kyoto urging her to reconsider the name. Along the way, she has created a slightly upward tick on Google trends, gained an even bigger notoriety for being 'insensitive' or 'brave', depending on one's sentiments, and most importantly, introduced her new business venture in the most explosive manner one can think of.

The fact that we are paying attention to this marketing exercise is a testament to our misplaced energy - it is perhaps easier to direct our anger at Kim K than the various injustices of the world, even if the latter are more detrimental to our existence. The Kardashians understood very well that the most important currency today is our attention. There's no pulling punches in order to stay relevant. If one's existence is built on perfected images of one's appearance (who on earth wakes up with a fully contoured face?), with the entirety of its appearance itself having been carved up and sculpted by invasive surgeries, disseminating a calculated sham is another trick in the book of publicity stunts. And yes the irony that I'm directing more attention to her is not lost on me.

Theodor Adorno warned us about the effect of tv culture in mid 20th Century, that we would be unable to discern what is real and what is fake. It seems like that age has dawned upon us. Our reactions to events are so predictable that it is becoming easier to manipulate us by spreading information that may not be true nor sincere in order to get the desired effect.

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Madame B

June 20, 2019

by Gracia Ventus

First published on October 15, 2015

Issey Miyake Madame T

Bov left the house shortly after her husband had departed for work. It was a chilly morning but her iridescent blue Issey shawl cocooned her in its warmth. The occasional gusts of wind caused it to ripple majestically like an ever-changing sculpture. She was off on a deplorable journey that called for discreetness. Her flamboyant choice of dress was inappropriate for the occasion, not that she cared.

She was tired of hanging about with that milksop Len. It was nice to get away from the godawful sleepy town, that much she could admit. But if she had to listen to him yap one more time about the next upcoming writer penning another piece of existentialist philosophy, she swore she'd smack him square on the lips with a giant trout.

It wasn't always like that, Bov reminisced bitterly. Three years ago she had fallen head over heels for Len. The romanticised version of him, that is. They were both young and starry-eyed, a perfect match for their idealistic selves that probably would not stand the test of time. Young people never cared for that sort of thing; not in this century, never in the last one either. Chemistry first, real life later. But Bov was also wedded to a prim and proper doctor whose reputation she was reluctant to jeopardise. So Len, being the wimp that he was, did not aggressively pursue Bov and left her for the big city soon after. Had he sent a dozen roses, some Comme shoes perhaps, she'd have cracked.

As it turned out, some years later the planets were aligned in her favour and Bov got lucky for the second time. While in a jazz concert with her husband, they met dear old Len. He was done with school and most importantly, not as wimpy anymore. Her bosom heaved above her Yohji corset. Clearly Len could see what she wanted, even if her husband was blind to it. It was thus arranged that their affair would take place outside of her small town, away from prying eyes under the guise of taking 'ukulele lessons'. At this point it is perhaps necessary to mention that Bov had come to the conclusion her husband was denser than mercury. She had no fear of him ever finding out.

Issey Miyake Madame T

What she did not suspect was how quickly she would get bored of Len. All those years studying law only to end up living a middle class lifestyle. Why wasn't he going to any fancy parties which she could invite herself to? She didn't learn to read about the bourgie life to be stuck in the rut like everyone else; wearing off-the-rack clothing any wench could afford.

Bov spotted Len's cheap scruffy boots from the distance, the boots he donned outside of work. I think they were from uhh.. Asos or something, she recalled. She put on a half-hearted smile as she approached him.

"So what's the plan today?"

"I thought we could have a pleasant tête-à-tête over coffee this fine morn, my poppet, before taking a saunter by the river."

Oh great, Bov muttered under her breath. If he mentioned focken Foucault again he'd better wish that there isn't a rock hard baguette within reach.

Issey Miyake Madame T