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.
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.