Building a brand: business models

Globally respected fashion educator and International Woolmark Prize judge Linda Loppa shares insightful advice for emerging fashion brands

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The spectacle of fashion was at its best during Paris Men’s Fashion Week this January. Scenography, lighting, sound, atypical models and extremely well chosen locations made the autumn/winter 2016 shows a highlight in menswear history, some of the sharpest and most memorable in the last few years. Paris, of course, is used to offering its most precious locations to fashion designers. Over the years, Dries Van Noten has been seen in so many locations in Paris that, with thanks to his shows, we discovered many little corners, markets, museums and passages throughout the city, such as the Palais Garnier.

Van Noten was recently awarded the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres for remaining one of the most innovative fashion businesses of the latest 30 years. The designer might be the perfect example for the six designers I had the privilege to coach and to judge in Florence this January as part of the International Woolmark Prize for menswear. Contests for young designers have very emotional impacts on all the players involved. After the initial excitement of being chosen as a participant, designers must then perform and invest for the second or final round. Sometimes the contest overlaps with their runway collections and day-to-day business, and all of this can be very demanding when there are only two or three people in the team.

Through the International Woolmark Prize menswear final, I had the privilege of talking to six designers, winners of the prize’s six global regions representing, Australia, Asia, the British Isles, Europe, India, Pakistan and the Middle East, and the United States.

Without giving direct advice, which I always find to be the wrong strategy, I could understand the struggle of a designer’s company with only a few years of experience. First, there is their personal style that they’ve developed thanks to a certain experience, usually as interns at a famous designer’s company after graduation of a fashion institute, and from slowly starting their own collection, and with all the struggles that come with that, such as finding fabrics, making the patterns and prototyping, opening a website, and the most difficult part, finding a showroom or a distributor interested in bringing their designs to buyer. Price setting is another difficulty, because inevitably a young designer collection is too expensive because of the small amount of production capacity.

All of that said, I never got the impression that any of these six designers were in any real trouble; they were organised, stimulated, and ready for a great challenge, presenting their work to a very high profile jury. But what now? How are they finding the path between success and strong visibility and the counterpoint after the presentation in Florence? Selling a collection to buyers is one thing, but managing cash flow problems, so as to invest in fabrics, deliveries and the next collection, is challenging.

The trend for slowing down the rhythm of fashion is in contrast with the very demanding pace of seasons today, comprising pre-collections, capsule collections, collections to be sold on e-commerce and the prestigious collections for the windows of Saks Fifth Avenue and others. More and more, we see womenswear silhouettes during menswear shows as a preview of the next collection, and haute couture becoming high-end prêt- à -porter. Confusion is the word for 2015 and beyond because of many designers leaving famous fashion houses such as Dior, Lanvin and, perhaps, Saint Laurent (following the gossip from the front row at the shows). The unbelievable success of Georgian designer Demna Gvasalia, coming from Maison Martin Margiela and Louis Vuitton, and especially known thanks to his statement brand Vetements, has been a positive note for young designers, for he has managed to catch the attention of the press and the business managers of the most famous design houses, and therefore has been appointed artistic director of Balenciaga.

The takeaway? Different business models have to compete; one model is to give in to the need of fast consumerism, while the other model says, ‘Stop, give me time for doing it my way’. During the International Woolmark Prize, Australian contestant Patrick Johnson presented a very specific business model because of his bespoke tailoring for clients, finding him between New York and Australia; his is a perfect example of how to use Merino wool, which he produces in Italy. Siki Im and Agi & Sam, young designers but with experience working for a while in the complex fashion system for other brands, the first in New York the latter in London, have built a network of followers, and thanks to hard work, have improved their respective styles each season, catching the attention of press and buyers. Munsoo Kwon, a star in South Korea, came to tailoring from sportswear, and his strategy is to maintain the presence of his brand in Korea, being a market he knows well. The youngest of the group, Jonathan Christopher, is the most optimistic of all, and is developing his use of volume and composition in his collections.

I wonder now how they will each continue their careers, having learned so much before and during the process of the International Woolmark Prize, using wool with different techniques and textures. Developing and settling on a solid business model for the coming years will help to solidify their creative vision.

Linda Loppa is currently the Director of Strategy and Vision at the Polimoda International Institute of Fashion Design & Marketing in Florence, Italy. As a founder of the Flanders Fashion Institute and, for 25 years, the head of fashion at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, she is one of the most recognised figures in international fashion education.

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