Five years ago, Alexandre Allard, former owner of Balmain and founder of holding company Groupe Allard, drafted a business plan for fledgling brand Faith Connexion, which Groupe Allard had just acquired. He felt he could turn the brand on its head by building an “open-source” fashion company that lets a collective of designers create collections without the pressures typically facing a business.
Allard identified, and tried to take on, three common issues in luxury fashion: Creative directors, bogged down by sales forecasts and dealing with a punishing seasonal calendar, aren’t given the room to create. Delivery is out of step with customer behavior. Operating a big network of brands and stores is unsustainable.
It all sounds familiar now, as these problems epitomize the chaos and existential crisis that’s been brewing at the highest levels of luxury fashion, finally coming to a head in recent seasons. Brands grappling to adjust to new customer behavior in a competitive global market, including labels like Burberry, Lanvin and Thakoon, have tried it all. They’ve ditched the traditional fashion calendar, fired creative directors and scrapped wholesale retail. So far, these drastic actions haven’t paid off, because, as Allard puts it, creativity is being suffocated for the sake of the business.
“I believe in creativity, and fashion needs to be reinvented to once again allow for creativity,” said Allard. “Having one creative director is old-fashioned. There are more and more creative people, with less room for more creative brands. Something is wrong. Right now, fashion is positioned as one to many. The future of fashion is many to many.”
Faith Connexion, according to Allard, is attempting to lay the groundwork of what the future of fashion will look like. The brand works with a group of 10 designers to work on collections, both independently and as a group, throughout the year. Even though collections take about three months to get from production to customer, new collections are released every month. The brand sells online and in its one Soho store, as well as through a network of 300 global retail partners, which includes department stores like Barneys and Galeries Lafayette, as well as boutiques on five continents.
Allard shared his goals for “freeing” fashion’s creative class while ushering in a new era of business and creative-side dynamics.
Before Faith Connexion, you were in charge of Balmain and are often credited for revitalizing the brand. How’d you do that?
First, I identified a new target group that wasn’t being served by the luxury industry: young people making money in tech. It was the early 2000s. Before that, luxury was not about the young and sexy, but for the rich and old. It was time to create a different kind of luxury product, which ended up being the sexy, short, haute couture Balmain dress.
Another big move was to close down all stores and focus on wholesale. Stores may make money, but then they drive the way a luxury brand organizes its priorities. The brand ends up obsessing over how every single store can make money. The real money to be made in fashion depends on what is created, not how that’s distributed. Balmain had been suffocated by its own distribution network. But luxury is defined by creativity and quality. Distribution is just who carried the product to consumers. We freed up the obsession over that to allow Balmain to reinvent itself with a point of view.
But most brands today are favoring their own retail channels over wholesale partners to build relationships with customers. Isn’t that important?
It’s important to have channels you control where you explain the product and the brand, but you don’t need very many. It’s a question of margins. By looking to make too much money, you take the risk of becoming a retailer rather than a creative brand. That’s dangerous. Faith Connexion is about going back to craft, talent, creativity and quality. It doesn’t necessarily correspond to these current business models that the bankers and the VCs and the analysts are interested in, but theirs is not the model of the future.
So brands should be less concerned about the bottom line?
There are only two things in business: having a philosophy, and then making more money than you spend. Right now, philosophy is not the driver behind 99 percent of fashion brands. They all talk marketing. Faith Connexion is built on a philosophy: How do we allow creativity to exist? We don’t want to become a giant brand that goes to the stock market.
How did fashion get to a point where it stopped prioritizing creativity?
Let me frame it this way: The energy behind Faith Connexion started when Cristophe [Decarnin, former Balmain creative director] left Balmain in 2011. He was a bit depressed about the situation there. The same year, John Galliano blew a fuse. He’s a very nice chap, and he just got so crazy. One year earlier, Alexander McQueen committed suicide. I realized something is very wrong.
The most important thing for a true creative person is integrity. You can force people to do something, but it doesn’t amount to anything good. Why do we need these people to make so many products, so many things? In fashion, the reason this craziness happens is that it’s never enough, never fast enough. You could make a capsule collection every 15 days, still not enough. People are never satisfied. It’s crazy.
So the demands of luxury brands today have outsized the abilities of one director.
It’s a machine. You have to produce different collections with 200 different products. Fifty various accessories. Bag collections. Twelve colors each for different sizes. Even if you’re a small company, this happens four times a year. Brands have stretched it to the maximum. A fashion label can’t be all about one guy who works so hard that he goes crazy. No one needs to be under this pressure.
What’s the solution?
Open-source fashion. Faith Connexion didn’t reinvent the production cycle, we just took the work and divided it up by 10 creatives. We wrote the code and invited a blend of designers to come and create. That’s it. But when I started talking about this being the future of fashion, everyone said I was crazy. It’s too territorial.
I do think this will all rebalance. Brands know they have to fix things, but they want it to cope with the model that is pleasing the financial analysts, the bankers, the investors. You don’t have to deliver 20 to 30 percent growth per year. This is the problem. You don’t need to fit yourself in the growth model. Just do your job, be happy and have clients.