E-Fashion – The Second Act

With every activity in the world moving at a frenzied pace, fashion cannot remain far behind. With this has come in a fallacy in the pre-existing trends in the fashion scenario-that of forecasting, dressing up, branding, and fast fashion, to be taken over by uni-season clothes, a state of no fashion, and luxury for less. Mona Gupta unveils the current and future trends governing e-fashion.

After some years of success, the most sweared by concepts tend to lose steam. In fact, quoting Victor-Marie Hugo, ‘There is only one thing that is stronger than all the armies in the world and that is-whose time has come.” In this hyper digital world, not only time but everything around us is moving in a frenzy. The irony of clocking in the maximum number of hours per week, to being able to make split second choices; from the Zaras of quick fashion to the long ques of hypermarts, ironically the most scarce commodity and also the biggest luxury today is time.

To top the crust, whereas a time and cash strapped individual, driven by massive consumerism, would pick up another pair of trendy shoes, he/she would still return dissatisfied. To live up to the expectations of the buyers, marketers are left scouring the markets and crunching numbers to decrease costs and increase profits. As on date, only tremendous effort and deep understanding of the customer’s need for meaning can give the shopping experience a renewed emotional resonance. No doubt, successful fashion-which is more often than not prescribed, expensive haute couture, is branded on the ramps and highly priced commodities have become luxuries-bringing the front end retailers handsome rewards. Yet, preoccupations with only prescribed fashion, traditional branding methods and mantras, and dotted line supply chain management are now passe.

What next? Should retailing or any other form of marketing transform from just extravagant and/or essential to “emotive selling,” which is not about some daily soap opera or emotional blackmail. Rather, it is a business strategy which delves beyond the current forecasting models to transform into more meaningful markets and products for the producer, marketer, and consumer.

Foresee, not forecast

Why are we forecasting? Are we actually trying to prescribe two years in advance, what a consumer would wear? When perhaps none of us can say today what we would like to wear two days later. Well, what we often need to do is, foresee- which means perception linked to causation and not necessarily forecasting or just predicting. A marketer needs to be more of a foreseer than a forecaster, who can not only understand past behaviour, but also the reasons for it. For example, in the case of colour palettes, if the colour black was the runaway hit-why was it. Was it just because black was a trend that was predicted, or because it echoed a positive sentiment after decades of racial apartheid and after white being the ruling colour on the high streets? Or was it reflecting the gravity of the times post September 11? But most importantly, in addition to colours purchased, a foreseer should also take cognisance of ‘desires unmet’.

What do people want?

The following trends emerge as a part of a consumer psychographic exercise:

Dressing well: The individual wishes to “dress well” and not “dress up”. People are tired of dressing for the sake of just functionality and fashion; they want a deeper meaning in their products-dress well, which instantly implies something which is pleasing to him/her and is not necessarily haute fashion.

Price sensitivity: People are increasingly price sensitive. This is accelerated by the transition from a polarised world economy to an over globalised world, where there is no dominance by a country or a brand. Thus, consumers are looking at ultra niche mass customised products from any and everywhere at economic prices, which enables them to dress well.

Individuality counts: The importance lies in “what’s good for me” and “I do not always care what’s in.” Incidentally, in its last issue of the twentieth century, French magazine L’Express issued a statement behind its cover page which was a mirror, which signified “you” as the face of the year. The page said “People individually are the force that needs to be reckoned with in the century to come from a political, cultural, artistic and business point of view.”

The economy impact: Fashion and spends on fashion are now derived from the course taken by the world’s economies.

Global terrorism, uncertain future and economies, deeply held spiritual, religious and philosophical convictions are driving consumer preferences and expectations across categories and demographics. A lot of people are making changes to gifts (more practical gifts, joint gifts, or making gifts) as well as putting up last year’s decorations. The economy will also impact where people shop, with 70 per cent planning to head to discounters, and 11 per cent planning to buy something from a thrift store or resale shop.

Back to the basics: Soul searching, yoga, and Tai chi and different forms of art of living, which accompany routine lifestyles, even if it implies the art of doing nothing. These were some of the favourite pass times earlier, and are making a comeback. Connecting with the past by visiting old relatives and friends is an offshoot of the uncertainties in the foreseeable future in many ways.

Global well-being: It is in to talk about global well-being in non-material terms and accomplish it, particularly in the age of finite resources of limited fuel, power and water. The topics in vogue range from ethical supply chains to green consumption, global warming to the mental and physical security of the future generations. A finite future unpacks the attitudes and implications that come with living in a world of limited resources. This applies to brands, business-leaders, individual consumers and the planet at large.

Brands-a boon or a bane: Brands and their mushrooming numbers are a bane to the time strapped consumer. Overemphasis on the presence of a large number of brands and their sub-brand has made buying more complicated and time consuming. Many consumers say they are discontented with the existing brands and variety of clothing-and shopping is very often a harrowing experience.

Fast fashion to no fashion: A majority of people who understand fashion trends are fed up with multi-seasonal trends or fast fashion. The larger picture that emerges is laced with confusion, multiplicity beyond comprehension and hence a state of no fashion is preferred.

Strategy for e-fashion?

What do the above trends imply, and how do they relate to our quest for an innovative e-fashion strategy? This is how we can go about this management strategy:

Great expectations: As private companies take up government functions and consumers demand new standards of ethics and transparency, new cultural expectations are radically reshaping the rules and roles of big business. The businesses today are not only responsible for contractual dealings, but for all factors-ranging from obesity to malnutrition, sweatshops to child labour. Thus, there are great expectations from the values and implications driving the existing business models. This helps us to explore the ways in which businesses can harness the power of profoundly personal values and resonate with consumers motivated by passionate views on ethics, morality, and faith.

Recently, Nike was compelled to shut down its sourcing unit in Cambodia following coverage by a news channel. And that is not the end of the story, as people feel that both Nike and the news channel are responsible for reinstating these families and their incomes. This event alone challenges the wisdom of the conventional supply chain, which even though is time and quality efficient, does not come up to the expectations of the emotional economy. What unionised demonstrations could not achieve has been accomplished by the voice of the people.

Spirit of the times: Individuals choose what connects them with the spirit of the times (and not necessarily what is or going to be in fashion)-of which there is little advance warning. For instance, the invaders of health foods in the markets had never expected a consumer boycott of the bestselling brands, or Nestle a downpour against their genetically engineered food. Neither did Live Strong Bands, a campaign for cancer afflicted patients, expect the phenomenal success it met with. So, can we still afford two-year long supply chains today? A phenomena, which began in the mid 20th century as an answer to street fashion and factory production vis a vis haute couture, were dealing in larger quantities led to longer production cycles and the guessing by stylists more than a year in advance as to what would sell.

To understand the spirit of the time, we need to foresee the effects and impact of events, ideals (humanitarianism, multiculturalism), idols (social, political and religious idols), dominating attitudes, style interactions between cuisine, sports, media, pastimes and hence have flexible supply chains and products.

Uni-season: On one hand, the global diversity in temperatures is tending towards uniformity, which has also blurred the distinctions between season friendly clothing, and gradually made Lycra the all season word, on the other, erratic changes in the weather’s time span and intensity, from extended monsoons to prolonged winters and from absence of spring to shrinking autumn has generated demand for uniseasonal clothing, which are multipurpose. Thus, there has been a gradual fading of season specific fabrics, which have been replaced by uni-season fibres and textiles.

The multiplicity of seasons in our fashion industry has been on the increase more rapidly than with what nature has actually provided us. There are situations where one seasonal trend steps on the heels of the preceding one and has barely made a mark before the next one barges in. All this has only tended towards making the buying sheets more of a challenge to computer software companies rather than a tool of simplification for buyers and merchandisers.

Living brands: The new economy currently in transition, although, is claimed and proved to be consumer friendly and shrewd, has overplayed its part by gradually sedating the consumer into a limbo with an overdose of variety, styles and brands followed by a larger dose of promotion and USPs. This strategy thus was preoccupied with market research, supply chain management and branding.

What we see is the outcome consumerism fuelled by heavy doses of patronisation and promotion which has resulted in overcrowding, duplication and identical looks. Coupled with this, the flooding of the markets by a swarm of brands has lead to an “obsessive branding disorder” in the words of Lucas Conley. Brands, which were meant to facilitate mental shortcuts towards understanding a product, now gravitate towards complexity.

Luxury at a lower price tag: One of the biggest changes we’ve seen in consumers is that ‘price’ and ‘luxury’ are no longer synonymous. In other words, the aspirational buyer is now also a price-sensitive buyer. In the West, brands that can reach down to the aspirational buyer at a lower price point but still maintain the feeling of participating in a broader lifestyle seems poised to thrive. We’ve already seen the recent failures of Christian Lacroix, Escada, and Yohji Yamamoto.

But we can begin to see the emergence of new lowpriced luxury brands in the remarkable success of J Crew (JCG), which recently doubled the estimates. Even in the Middle East, which is considered as “a refuge” in rough commercial seas, one effect of the recession has been to make customers more discerning about what they buy.

Co-branding/creating fashion: The consumer now looks towards breaking free and is empowered by knowledge and technology to influence the generation of new brands or co-brand the existing ones with some ideology of his own. It is very interesting to observe the growth of the tattoo culture, which clearly displays the attempt of the people to co-create and customise. Recently, pictures of Beijing Olympics show how participants, besides using Speedo brands and national colours, have tattooing to define their individual ideologies.

This is a way of having a dialogue with people around you. Not all those who create are necessarily consumers, but help us resonate with the consumer. For instance, personalised gift cards on Wikipedia (the online encyclopedia), could be viewed as a product created by its distributed customers. Consumers increasingly want to engage online with one another and with organisations of all kinds. Companies can tap this new mood of customer engagement for their economic benefit. Another company that has gone out of its way to engage customers, is the online clothing store, Threadless, which asks people to submit new designs for t-shirts. Each week, hundreds of participants propose ideas and the community at large votes for its favourites. The top four to six designs are printed on shirts and sold in the store; the winners receive a combination of cash prizes and store credit. In September 2007, Threadless opened its first physical retail operation, in Chicago. A study of the symbols and motif culture revealed that some of the symbolic inspirations, which sought to address the needs of the times, were local cultural iconography or religious yet multicultural symbols on one hand or global symbols and expressions on the other. Very few were inspired by motifs that were part of a trend, which often culminates as a fad.

Communicative supply chains: Companies that will involve customers in design, testing, marketing and the after-sales process will get better insights into customer needs and behaviour, and may be able to cut the cost of acquiring customers, engender greater loyalty, and speed up development and production cycles. As it will seek to revolve around people’s thoughts, convictions and aspirations, and as products play a more emotional role by becoming value based, marketers will be able to understand the difference between real needs and perceived ones by tapping into unfulfilled desires. The two-way communication will thereby ensure sustainability even in low times. However, a company, open to allowing customers to help it innovate, must ensure that it is not unduly influenced by information gleaned from a vocal minority. It must also be wary of focussing on the immediate rather than longer-range needs of customers and be careful to avoid raising and then failing to meet their expectations. A recent campaign by Gap-Create your own-emphasises individuality and appeal to the personal lifestyle statements and is a strategy of creation of clothing that is not just essential or extravagant but emotive.

Bonding scores over branding: It may not be out of place to reinforce our strategy. In the words of Jean Claude “At the heart of the momentum effect, is the realisation that the only form of sustainable efficient growth is customer-based growth.” When faced with a growth challenge, it is essential to take time to understand the underlying issues, rather than to just keep pouring in money to push sales. A case in this point would be-as major luxury brands in Japan delay store openings or quietly slink away from what was once their largest single market, two recent foreign entrants on the other end of the spectrum are aggressively plotting their expansion: Hennes & Mauritz and Forever 21. Both Forever 21 and H&M’s shops feature cheap, trendy clothes, with new items hitting the shop floor on a daily basis. In brand-obsessed Japan, the success of both stores underlines a deep shift in consumers’ mentality, as shoppers put value ahead of logos.

Belt tightening is not the only way to improve operating margins especially once the belly trimming is over. Thus, our emotive fashion strategy, while responding to the spirit of the times and with the help of sustainable supply shains meets the great expectations of the people and its strategy of co creating and bonding culminate in a unique genre offashion textiles and clothing that not only echo ethics, but also seek to resonate with desires unmet.

Mona Gupta is a designer and governing board member of NCTD, Ministry of Textiles; chairperson CII, Delhi Skill Core Group, a senior visiting professor to NIFT, and jury and member advisory to various academic boards of fashion and management institutes.

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