The business of fashion

Fashion; say what you will about it, and there is a lot to be said; from the good to the stupendous to the dark sides, but the one thing we know about fashion is that it is one of the most important unifier of cultures, identities both personal and otherwise. It is a multibillion-dollar industry and it is serious business. Fashion transcends boundaries, defines eras and everyone, no matter how rebellious you are, is into fashion in some form because its about; SELF EXPRESSION… What you wear, to paraphrase Miranda Priestly from DWP, represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and has been selected by the industry… it is what it is.

Getting into fashion is hard enough but staying in fashion from season to season and most importantly staying RELEVANT as a designer, is even harder; its almost akin to getting dressed and planning an outfit the night before. You know the look you’re going for, the shoes, the bag, the hairstyle, the works…but you wake up in the morning and something is wrong often it’s the weather and you have to start from scratch with very little time. What is your back up? The weather is the customer, she chops and changes her mind as often as she pleases and she’s feeling for something new…what do you have to satisfy her new needs? That is fashion for you; a constant sea of change and designers have to keep with these changes because one successful season, one beautiful outfit, is not enough.

Your innovation will set you apart but your business acumen keeps you in the running and that acumen comes from understanding the layers of your business, the vastness of the industry, how far you want to go and cultivating successful habits from lessons learned from the industry at large. You have to have gumption and the power of conviction in yourself and in your brand. Nothing about this is easy. The CFDA, the BFC etc are established bodies that exist to protect our fashion industries even if they exist in different continents. In the words of Diane von Furstenberg president of the CFDA, at the 2012 CFDA Awards, “the mission (of the CFDA) is to promote and protect American Fashion.” And “promoting Leading British Designers” is part of the mission statement of the BFC.

Fashion designers need protection and promotion and of late it has become very apparent just how much; designers being ousted from their namesake brands and the money men coming in and taking over with whomever they see fit. Fashion is much more than sitting front row or playing dress up… before a trend becomes a global phenomenon it has been carefully orchestrated by designers; hours and hours of planning and cutting and drawing, reworking, re-fitting, before presenting it to the public for approval and if it falls flat on the runway, the very best of them, will try, try, try again until they get it right.

For all the pretty dresses and lovely shoes, fashion is first and foremost a business and businesses need to make profit; in concession to the money men, no one ever did enter into a business arrangement to make nice. If you want to make nice please take up knitting. As a new designer especially, getting a backbone will take you a long way. But this is where the likes of these bodies come into play for the industry at large, by working with designers and business partners who are interested in becoming fashion partners, schemes for fashion awareness, internship, mentorships etc. As fabulous as the industry is, the work that goes on behind the scene is thankless. A pretty dress can get you noticed but a robust bottom line will keep you sweet with the retailers otherwise there are million new labels that are waiting to fill that precious spot on the shop floor. Not every businessman will be like Founders Award recipient Andrew Rosen who, as long-term friend Kenneth Cole informs us, during his presentation speech at the CFDAs, is content with a minority stake in young companies because he wants the designers to understand that their brand is their business and his role is to provide support. But there is hope for the next generation, for more like him.

It takes drive and guts to make it as a designer and even when you do, the work is never done. You have to be able to create a signature, embrace your talent; in the words of Scott Schuman; move towards your talent, “Instead of becoming the next Armani, I became the first me.” Harness your talent and with your vision, set yourself apart. Find your feet, know your niche and most importantly, keep your consumers coming back.

Consumers today don’t just buy a garment from a brand; they buy into the lifestyle of the brand so, as a designer you need to create such a lifestyle that defines your brand intrinsically and appeals to your customers significantly. Manage your brand expectations or else someone else will do it for you. New designers, most especially, need to understand how to manage such expectations hence one of the many important reasons why we need bodies like the BFC and the CFDA. They need education and an understanding into the business of their brands. Going by the speech from Diane von Furstenberg at the CFDAs, we have come a long way from the days when fashion designers were anonymous, today, designers have become celebrities, and we cannot separate the talent from the person. Whilst your creative flares will define you, that talent should make you bankable too. And your bankability comes from your business savvy.