Fashion as Art as Fashion

8 06 2009

Consuming Fashion...

Since I just did a business overview of Dolce & Gabbana, I was thinking about their controversial ad campaigns. There has been a lot written on the subject, from reports of bans to protests from anti-violence groups.

Most designers from Marc Jacobs to Armani have stated that fashion is not art. In fact, Marc Jacobs was quoted: “Fashion to me is not art because it is only valid if it is lived in and worn.” That’s all good and well in making the attempt to drive mass sales, although Marc’s own collaborations with artists such as Takashi Murakami and Richard Prince – or Armani’s recent museum-touring retrospective – might show that they actually do consider fashion to be art. When creativity meets commerce, does it matter if fashion is not hung on a wall for the occasional observation?

What is art, if not a subject for provocation and inspiration? And, while today’s fashion world may be led by the sales figures of merchandisers more than the creative impulses of artists and designers, there is still an underlying art form in fashion, which seeks to provoke and inspire. If the garments themselves cannot be considered “art” by our anti-commercial definitions, then surely fashion photography can (and should) fill in the gaps.

Fashion has a long relationship with photography. To quote from Cathy Horyn:

“If fashion shows are a way for a designer to think out loud, collaborations with a photographer can help spin those disparate ideas into a story. Both Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein owe a debt to the visionary eye of Bruce Weber, who is really a storyteller. Gianni Versace frequently paid homage to Richard Avedon, whose pictures lent imaginative energy to Versace’s designs. And it seems doubtful that generations of women would have felt quite the same about Yves Saint Laurent’s pantsuits if Helmut Newton had not made them an object of sex and mystery.” ~from her article When Is a Fashion Ad Not a Fashion Ad?

juergen teller for marc jacobsMarc makes me think…

While Marc Jacobs’ ad campaign collaborations with Juergen Teller have inspired cult fans to look beyond the typical product-placements and see the Marc Jacobs world from the indie perspective he lives within, the Dolce & Gabbana ad campaigns create the very concept of provocation that the designers take inspiration from. Where it would be quite difficult to meet the sales figures necessary for a large luxury brand if each item alienated the mainstream through such provoking themes as date rape or warfare, the ad campaign can do just that.

dolce & gabbana ad campaigns

…But so does DG

Of course, I understand the opposing argument that these ads are no more than superficial charades imposed by the brands to maintain some street cred in the art world (and surely, to an extent they are), I also believe that it’s a very creative way for the designers to explore and explain their more provocative themes without hurting sales figures. The designer’s most die-hard fans typically “get it,” and those who don’t at least take on the aspirational values of someone who wants to get it. Even if the clothing isn’t particularly provocative or thought provoking, the ads can be, and that’s enough to ensure that a creative vision can be carried out while simultaneously creating the coveted word-of-mouth buzz around a brand.

Furthermore, isn’t this the perfect segue into using content to develop the online experience of a brand? I think so!

Required Reading: On Fashion, Photography & Art

Inside the Mania for Fashion as Art: How a Sedate Museum Ventured to Create a Home for a Sumptuous Costume Collection

TIME Magazine: Dialogue on art & fashion (“Art and fashion get along like the couples whom nobody expects to stay together.” Ha!)

It may be fashion, but is it art?

Striking Poses: Is fashion photography art?

‘Fashion is not art’ (Rei Kawakubo may say it, but she proves the opposite)

Dress Sense: Why fashion deserves its place in art museums (this is a good one!)

Is fashion a true art form? Acclaimed designer Zandra Rhodes and the director of the Design Museum, Alice Rawsthorn, go head to head

Is the future of art in their hands? (Designers take over our galleries and museums)

Fashion and Art Collide in Hong Kong

Fashion: A Presentation on Contemporary Concepts of Art and Expression (analysis of the 1967 Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin article: “Is Fashion an Art?”)

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Dolce & Gabbana: The Business

8 06 2009

The Roots

1987_Scianna shot of Marpessa for DG

The Dolce & Gabbana style is inspired by Sicily, represented in a modern context with a hint of the past.

“We had a vision at the beginning, and we remain faithful to it. We believed in the strength of our message, even in periods when everything seemed to go against our beliefs. Our inspiration has always come from Italian culture and from Hollywood glamor. We also like playing with roles, with opposites, with masculine and feminine, black and white, sacred and profane.” ~Domenico Dolce & Stefano Gabbana (SDA Bocconi)

In addition to their own personal backgrounds, the design team developed their brand within a niche opened up by the social climate of the late 80s and early 90s.

The Social Roots of Dolce & Gabbana

Style Codes

Dolce & Gabbana's Hollywood Inspiration

Every brand has its own stylistic codes (or should)… they distinguish the collections from others, and make each item identifiable with the brand. The following are DG’s key codes:

dolcegabbana metal corset jessica stam

hyper-femininity • glamor • youth • zebra & cheetah prints • flowers • black & white • gold • rosaries • corsets & bras • fetish •Mediterranean • Baroque • Neo-Realism • Hollywood • embroidery • black lace • coppole hats • opposites (high-low fabric mixes, gender-bending, love & violence, sex & religion, see & don’t see, old world & modern, etc)

Merchandising is fundamental to DG. Every single item under the brand’s name reflects the brand codes and the influence of the main collection.

From Maison to Vertically Integrated Company

The History

  • dolce (right) & gabbana (left)Domenico Dolce was born in Palermo in 1958; Stefano Gabbana was born in Milan in 1962
  • 1985: the Dolce & Gabbana brand debuts with their first show through Milano Collezioni in the New Talents section (now operated through Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana)
  • 1988: signs production agreement for ready-to-wear with the Dolce Saverio company, owned by Domenico Dolce’s family
  • 1990s: expansion through licensing
  • 1990: men’s collection is launched
  • 1994: a second line, D&G, is launched
  • 2000s: the company becomes vertically-integrated by acquiring their own production companies (including Dolce & Gabbana Industria in Legnano for clothes and Incisa Val D’Arno for shoes and leather accessories) and their own store network around the world through wholly-owned companies and subsidiaries
  • 2007: the company decides not to renew the license to produce the D&G line with Itierre, and has brings production in-house with the first line, Dolce & Gabbana. Remaining major licenses are with Procter & Gamble (fragrances), Luxottica (eyewear) and Binda (watches).

Growth Strategy

1987 – 1999: strong use of licensing to support brand growth

1999 – 2008: progressive in-house management of line extensions

Communications

dolce & gabbana delacroix-inspired ad, mixing sex & violence

The brand typically incorporates imagery from old Sicilian towns and street markets or images of dramatically staged human interaction, all with a mix of modernity and sensuality, and often provocation. The in-store environment supports the brand image through a mix of materials made to look both antique and modern-chic, romantic and sexy, with a strong element of Hollywood glamor.

dolce & gabbana 2009Dolce & Gabbana’s catwalk uses a stage set to reflect the theme of the clothes, and uses video feed, pictures, etc during the show to further convey the inspiration. This imagery is now being incorporated into the company’s media website in order to archive the collections and demonstrate the brand history and evolution. In fact, the company has put considerable effort into creating the brand environment online this year, both through the formulation of their online blogazine and e-commerce stores.

scarlett johansson for dolce & gabbana beautyCelebrity endorsement is important for the brand’s Hollywood appeal, through both public appearances and dedicated ad campaigns. In addition to young starlets, they use the best and most known photographers and models in their ads.

Gabbana partying

The two designers are also very social, and are often photographed mixing it up in some of Italy’s most glamorous night scenes. Not only does this allow for photo-ops in the world press, but it also serves to validify the brand, as if to say “We live the lifestyle that we are designing for.”

Ownership

The company is still fully owned by Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, much like Armani and his company. While this freedom from the demands of shareholders seeking quarterly profits allows the designers creative discretion, it also provides them with the luxury of being able to strategically plan for the future. Also like Armani, the company which grew through licensing agreements still earns approximately 35-40% of total annual brand revenues through licensing revenues, although many of the licensees have been internally acquired.

However, the challenge of full ownership is that the company accepts full risk in the case that problems emerge. This is a big risk to take, but in the case of Dolce & Gabbana, it seems to be paying off… literally!

By the way, TIME has a great article on the designers and their company. It’s a couple of years old, but still a good read. Check it out!





The Italian System for Fashion

2 06 2009

1950s ferdinandi

Italian Fashion Industry – Cycles of Development

Though some could argue otherwise, according to the experts in Italy, there are 4 primary phases or cycles of Italian fashion industry development.

  1. 1950s-60s:  Industrial production systems are developed after WW2
  2. 1960s-70s:  Economic and social change emerges, apparel system reacts
  3. 1980s:  Democratization of fashion and surge of “Made in Italy” around the world
  4. 1990s:  Brand concentration, financing revisions and mergers & acquisitions

The 1st Cycle: 1950s-60s

Prior to industrial developments in Italy, which occurred only after WW2, 90% of Italians were rurally employed. The elite acquired their luxury products from France, and Italian goods were considered “poor”. Most higher fashion was reserved for men, as women did not have as many black tie events to dress for.

At the time, the fashion industry in Italy was largely non-existent. With the high-end consumers buying their fashions from Paris, or having copies made by local tailors, some industrialists noticed a gap in the market supply, which called for functional, durable, high quality garments. To begin to meet this demand,  Italian company Gruppo Finaziario Tessile (GFT) took the first initiative to measure a wide sample of the Italian population to create national sizing system.

Italian Apparel Finds a Niche

giorgini's la sala bianca show of italian designs for the us market, 1951In 1951, an Italian importer for American goods, named Gian Battista Giorgini, realized the the US market was also ready for something new and different from that offered by France. They had mass-produced garments, the elite could buy haute couture from Paris, and yet there was nothing in between. Giorgini used his US contacts for market research and development, and began to organize Italian designers, whom he encouraged to abandon their French knock-offs and pursue an affordable Italian style. With new production technologies from the States being imported into Italy as part of the recovery plan, and a large skilled workforce of women to operate the machinery, GFT and other Italian manufacturing firms such as Marzotto and Lebole developed the production end of the industry. As many of top producers had a background in men’s tailoring, there was still a strong industrial concentration in menswear, but the mass-production capabilities in the States would find their way into Italian womenswear production soon enough.

You could summarize that the beginnings of the Italian Fashion Industry were characterized by:

  • Large manufacturing facilities
  • Economies of scale (primarily the US market)
  • Strong specialization

The 2nd Cycle: 1960s-70s

girl_trioIn most cultures, up until this point, children and adolescents had dressed as their parents dressed. In the States and the UK, pop culture shifted in the wake of the Baby Boom as young people struggled to develop a new identity and used fashion as a means to demonstrate their separation from the values of their parents’ generation. (England was becoming a hub for the new youth culture, inspiring fashion and trends around the world, in addition to American hippies.) Women had entered the workforce in increasing number, and no longer wanted to dress as housewives. Further, as there were fewer and fewer occasions for dressing up, people began to seek more informal clothing. Trends had begun to be driven by market needs, as opposed to the stylistic direction set in Paris.

Big Business Gets Smaller

woolworths union strike 1970At the same time, there were many social and union conflicts that helped create increased labor costs in developed countries, resulting in a surge of apparel imports from developing countries. The combination of these elements together with the oil crisis of 1974 and the Italian economic crisis of 1975 caused the big manufacturers to lose their hold on the mass market. There was no longer a one-size-fits-all model for fashion (and that was only the beginning, as we now know!).

As the big manufacturers in the States and elsewhere had maintained large scale standardized production even after consumer demand had decreased and diversified, the labor costs in Italy were falling and new small/medium-sized production companies were forming. Manufacturers began to outsource production in Italy, and even France began to rely heavily on the cheap yet skilled Italian labor pool for their pret-á-porter lines.

Designers Respond to a Changed Environment

1979 versace for genny adA new generation of designers emerged in Italy, capable of working with industry partners to produce collections that were fashionable and more affordable than their French counterparts. (Consider Armani & Cerruti, Versace & Genny, or Soprani/MaxMara.) These designers had relationships with market-savvy business leaders, who ensured that the Italian form of fashion would meet the demand of developed markets. The Italian Fashion Week cycle, following on the heels of Paris, became increasingly popular to buyers and press who saw the potential of Italian fashion’s middle ground between haute couture (France) and mass fashion (the US).

In summary, this cycle of development in the industry of Italian fashion can be characterized by:

  • New consumer values and lifestyles (youth, rebellion, rock, women in business, etc)
  • Market segmentation (no longer one-size-fits-all)
  • Increased demand for informal wear
  • The decrease of influence from Paris and haute couture
  • The increase of influence from London and the youth culture

The 3rd Cycle: 1980s

DynastyCast-Season6-1985-1986This was the decade where the world found Italy.

By the 1980s, Italy had little competition from other developed countries for quality textile production. However, developed markets were building a habit a rampant consumerism, with a renewed interest in fashion. The Italian style had gradually been gaining consensus, especially in the States, which had become the largest consumer market. Meanwhile, Italian industry was looking for new formulas to stay (or get) on top of the fashion game.

Total Look, Branding & Hollywood

A new type of relationship began to form between industry and the designers, which was more a partnership that a contractual business relationship. With the craze for “Total Look” taking the fashion scene by storm, designers began to throw their labels onto every conceivable product in their quest for notoriety and brand building.

Internationalization, mass media and the help of Hollywood brought Italian industry onto the main markets. For example, Armani exclusively clothed actor Richard Gere for his role in American Gigalo, bringing the brand notoriety throughout the States and abroad. You can see an early example of product placement with Armani’s menswear collection in the closet scene of American Gigalo, in the clip below:

Love for Licensing

Licensing agreements had become the method of choice for labels to expand their designer names into new product categories (including second and third lines, kids wear, athletic wear, homewear, eyewear, fragrances, etc.). The cooperation between industrial companies and designers, mainly based on these licensing agreements, was the key success factor to growth for the Italian fashion industry.

Fashion companies moved from product-specialization to develop multi-product capabilities through their licensees. In addition to manufacturing, licensees were used to handle distribution and retail activities for the licensor brands, while the brands in turn provided the design concept, the brand name and image.

Throughout the 80s, much of the Italian fashion system depended on licensing agreements for growth and for specialized production (after all, what does a ready-to-wear designer know about producing furniture or fragrances if he can’t rely on experience professionals to help him?). However, as the brands amassed capital, and learned from their licensees about best (and worst) practices, it became clear that licensing could be equally beneficial and detrimental.

Brands like Gucci were widely diluted through numerous licensees, all whom had a different idea of what the brand represented and how their designs should appear and retail. On the verge of bankruptcy, they needed to build capital and buy back their licenses, in order to impose a universal brand strategy throughout their comapnies.

Within the decade, four different groups of players on the Italian fashion scene had clearly emerged. They were:

  1. Industrial companies (GFT, Marzotto, Miroglio)
  2. Small to medium-sized industrial companies with product orientation (Max Mara, Zegna, Genny, Aeffe, Ittierre)
  3. Designer/entrepreneurs who both design and produce (Missoni, Mila Shon, Mario Valentino)
  4. Pure designers who take designs to production firms (Versace, Armani, Ferré, Moschino, Krizia)

By the end of the 1980s, Italian designers had entered into a new system of growth:

  • Most remained family industries (Missoni, Prada, Versace, etc)
  • Designers maintained direct control over their “first lines” (the highest line in their brand’s “food chain”  –   typically ready-to-wear)
  • Brands developed second lines and brand extension, typically under general artistic direction of the original designer and through licensing agreements
  • Brands developed direct control of distribution, taken back from licensees
  • Focus was kept on retail, to create a unified harmony across a branded retail outlets

You could therefore conclude that the Italian model for the fashion industry, at this point, consisted of designers sketching models for the primary line, with manufacturing and additional product development farmed out to licensees, with the finished products then brought back under internal control for distribution and sales. Just ten years prior, licensees had handled everything but the initial design, brand name and image direction for the Italian brands.

Unlike France, Italy typically relied on lower-end textiles – not fragrances and accessories – to make the big money.

The 4th Cycle: 1990s

Versace w supermodels 1991 guardianTowards the end of the 20th Century, the fashion system was undergoing many changes. The fashion system had become increasingly global in supply and demand, affecting Italian, French and American firms together.

versace-couture 1994New players were entering the field; for example, the luxury conglomerates. New market segments were being created as well, including the bridge segment, which spoke to a market beneath ready-to-wear but above mass fashion. Entry barriers into the industry had become increasingly higher, with great investments required in marketing (fashion show and advertising extravaganzas, parties, supermodels, etc) and retail. Retail itself was undergoing change through the introduction of the lifestyle concept, pioneered by American designer Ralph Lauren.

Fronting the Tab

In order to meet the new financing needs of the fashion system, many companies opened on the stock exchange. With this move came a market rush by the luxury conglomerates to acquire and reposition the Italian brands with marketable heritage. Much like the French houses before them, Italian brands were gradually having to transfer creative direction from the original designers onto new creatives.

As for the four groups of players on the Italian fashion scene, the 90s saw the following changes:

  1. Industrial companies: begin to acquire brands – typically from past licensors, launch their own brands based on their acquired capabilities, or develop retail strategies (Aeffe/Moschino, GFT/Valentino, Exté, Max Mara, Zegna)
  2. Designer/entrepreneurs: control production and distribution processes with the purchase of production facilities, utilize very few licenses (Versace, Dolce & Gabbana, Armani)
  3. Multibrand Groups: conglomerates acquire brands and designer companies (LVMH, Gucci Group, Prada)
  4. Pure designers: sell their companies to industrial or multibrand groups (Jil Sander, Valentino)

In “Short”

The Italian fashion industry really took off after WW2 with the help of technologies provided as part of the Recovery Plan, the entrepreneurship of business and manufacturing leaders who saw an opportunity, a newly-urbanized population of skilled textile workers, and a burgeoning demand for quality apparel and ready-to-wear.

The first phase of industrial fashion in Italy was made by a few concentrated, large-scale production facilities. As the economy turned south and many new market segments emerged, big business lacked the flexibility to diversify their business model, and small to medium-sized manufacturing companies took the lead.

Designers and their business partners (typically family) recognized the changing market as an opportunity, and developed partnerships with manufacturers who had once contracted work to them. Under this model, the designer became responsible only for the initial designs of his collection, while his business partners managed the brand and image, and licensees took care of the rest – from manufacturing through distribution and retail.

By the end of the 1980s, many brands had gained the capital and the knowledge base to buy back their licenses in specific product categories, as well as their distribution and retail systems. Some were able to purchase their own manufacturing facilities. The typical model now had the design company controlling the initial designs of the highest line and whatever licenses they had brought in-house, as well as their distribution and retail. Manufacturing was still typically licensed out.

During the final years of the 20th Century, the costs of running a fashion business had exploded with a need for mass marketing. Many companies went on the stock exchange to build capital investment. While some brands took control back from their licensees, others were acquired by luxury conglomerates. Some manufacturing leaders developed their own lines or acquired brands they had once licensed production rights from.





The French System for Fashion & Luxury

14 01 2009

French fashion has long been reflective of social and economic hierarchy, illuminating the distinction among classes. Beginning with the Royal Court of the Sun King, France became the capitol of rich fashion. After Charles Worth created the business of haute couture in the 1800s, Paris became the creative center for a business model that has evolved greatly, yet still remains centered around the spirit of haute couture.

Haute couture is identified as unique pieces constructed with precious materials, made-to-measure, and made for special occasions- not daily wear. A dress of this nature today should run you on average between 20,000 and 30,000 euro and up. Where there were once more than 30,000 clients per year for the highest form of French fashion, today there remain less than 3,000, and most of these are irregular clients. Hence, haute couture is not a big business anymore; it is unaffordable and impractical, as there are fewer and fewer occasions in today’s world to wear such items. Therefore, it has become much less profitable than it once was, having lost the link with modern life.

Most companies that made their name in haute couture today sell mostly accessible products and democratic accessories like lipstick, perfumes, and so on. However, to continue to sell these more “basic” goods at high profit margins, they must continue to produce high fashion. People are now buying the legacy of couture, rather than the couture itself. Therefore, to make the big bucks selling goods at the bottom, you must be positioned at the top.

According to French law as of 2008, 50 garments per season must be produced by hand, by at least 20 skilled in-house workers for a fashion company to be considered a house of haute couture. (This model is changing under the current economic situation, in order to protect the existing haute couture legacy; too many couturiers were closing their doors under the weight of these expensive restrictions.) These companies lack a bottom-up business model, and have no second-lines: consider French powerhouses Dior and Chanel, as opposed to Armani, Ralph Lauren, Dolce & Gabbana, etc.

john_galliano_paris_menswear01Brand images and communications demonstrate a high level of arrogance and provocation. Have you ever wondered how or why that “crazy stuff that nobody is ever going to buy” makes it onto the catwalk? The most elaborate and provocative designs are taken onto the runway because the goal is not mass profitability, but to demonstrate creativity and uniqueness. Consider the wild boys Jean Paul Gaultier for Hermes, or John Galliano for Dior (below).

john_galliano_dior_paris_fashion_week

In fact, most clients are unaware of exactly who is the designer behind today’s major labels. Instead, they typically know what celebrities are wearing them (the Poiret legacy lives on!).

To summarize, the French business model is derived from a long tradition of craft and individualism. Couture was the original product of the French fashion and luxury system, which is now integrated with accessories. The image of sophistication and provocation are used to produce the sense of luxury, which is what the companies are selling. Viola!

Here’s my hastily-made visual (with apologies to France):

French luxury business model