This week, a deep dive into the rise of better-than-basics. Scroll down to use Glossy+ Comments, giving the Glossy+ community the opportunity to join discussions around industry topics.
Since 2020, brand executives have been vocal in discussions with Glossy about the value that a strong community brought their business at the height of the pandemic. Though many consumers were pinching their pennies, their lifestyles were also changing. And people turned to brands they knew and loved to buy styles, however uninspired (i.e., sweatpants, leggings), that suited their new reality.
There are similarities in consumer buying habits today, amid a declining economy, according to Rebecca Vallance, the Australian designer and founder of her 12-year-old namesake fashion brand. “Consumers are still buying from and supporting brands they love,” she told Glossy. “But the items they spend their money on must be well worth the investment.”
With that in mind, Vallance, best known for event dresses, is expanding her brand’s offerings to include a dedicated line of timeless, versatile pieces. Dubbed the Essentials Collection, it will launch on Monday with 15 black-, ivory- or “oatmeal”-colored styles, including suiting, underpinnings and outerwear. They’ll make up 30% of the brand’s total ready-to-wear assortment out of the gate, with Vallance planning to grow that slice of the pie with new styles twice a year.
Vallance said her customers informed the launch. For example, the best-seller in the fall 2022 collection was a little black dress. “And we’ve seen the market shift to ‘quiet luxury,’” she said, calling out the Essentials Collection’s use of elevated materials including merino wool and cashmere. She also noted the brand’s ability to adjust production and “be reactive” based on shopping behavior.
Most people reading the room would agree that wearing a trend flaunting one’s wealth — logomania, for one — would be in poor taste considering the state of the economy. Plus, as consumers get more thoughtful about their discretionary spending — leading more with cost-per-wear than #OOTD, for example — fashion styles offering great versatility are seeing renewed interest. Across pricing tiers, this is playing out in a few trends, ranging from American classics to “quiet luxury.” And brands and retailers alike are signing on. Some are calling it a sustainability play.
Depending on who you ask, prioritizing timeless styles is a smart move for brands counting on a significant portion of their sales to come from wholesale channels.
On the company’s earnings call on Monday, Stefan Larson, CEO of Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein owner PVH Corp., said wholesale accounts are being “cautious.” As such, PVH brands are increasingly prioritizing global best-sellers and “core” products to continue working closely with those partners.
For its part, e-tailer Net-a-Porter included “Plain Luxury” among the five key trends highlighted in its spring 2023 trends presentation, declaring that pared-back elegance is the current “height of luxury.” As such, for the season, it bought almost 500 units across eight styles of a new, simple tote handbag by Loewe and nearly 600 minimalist bags by New York-based Savette.
Rebecca Vallance is, indeed, working with wholesale partners to grow the business internationally, specifically in Europe, the U.S. and the Middle East. So far in 2023, the brand’s wholesale revenue has grown 108% year-over-year to now make up 52% of the business. Vallance plans to roll out brand stores internationally starting in 2024.
That retailers are playing it safe will bode well for them if “quiet” styles remain popular. However, if the assortment bores consumers, it will instead work to the advantage of brands’ direct businesses. That’s according to brands’ oft-reported Amazon strategy of selling basics on the marketplace as bait to lure shoppers to a fuller, comparatively elevated DTC assortment.
Meanwhile, a February 2023 Spring Market Report by digital wholesale marketplace Joor showed that, for spring, retail buyers most wanted to focus their buys on offering something new (75% of buyers surveyed) and keeping up with trends (52%). Investing in sustainability (27%) and affordability (25%) were far lower on the list, while “versatility” wasn’t offered as an option.
It’s worth noting that leaning into essentials contradicts one big behavior of fashion fans: peacocking on social media.
Vallance said that, “more than ever,” her brand’s customers are coming into stores knowing what they want after having seen it on social media.
In September, Everlane CEO Andrea O’Donnell spoke to Glossy about the challenge of using channels like Instagram to the brand’s advantage: “Timeless styles don’t show off,” she said. “We can put something on an expensive influencer, but we won’t get the credit; the extent to which something is identifiable as Everlane is quite limited. So we’re working to figure that out.”
In a March interview for a Glossy Podcast that goes live on Wednesday, O’Donnell said that 70% of Everlane’s product carries over from season to season, while 30% is now seasonal, style-driven “newness” that’s also “purposeful” thanks to an attached story. This summer, the brand will celebrate American fashion’s “icon” styles by rolling out “the perfect T-shirt” and “the perfect denim,” for example.
“The more we can prove that [a brand] can offer sustainable style that also excites customers, and be healthy and profitable without oversupplying the market, the more influential we’ll be,” she said. (Many brands are expected to announce related goals over the next 30 days, timed to Earth Month.)
According to Connie Chan, a general partner at venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, “trend” does not always equate to “waste.” She described the “amount of technology behind the curtain” of fast-fashion marketplaces including Shein and Cider as “underappreciated.”
“These are tech companies with strong engineering teams that use tech everywhere: in the fashion design process, in predicting sales with a lower margin of error and in managing supply chain so they don’t need to place large orders months in advance,” she said. “It’s through technology that these companies are able to sell timely, fashionable pieces without traditional risk.” It’s worth noting that Andreessen Horowitz invested in Cider in 2021.
The capabilities and potential of artificial intelligence have been top of mind for people far beyond industry insiders in recent months. Many fashion brand executives are particularly interested in its ability to help right-track production volume, using predictive analytics to match the right supply of the right product to the right customer at the right time.
Especially considering the accelerated trend cycle and drastic trend shifts — from athleisure one month to “night luxe” the next — Sonal Gandhi, chief content officer at research-driven retail media company The Lead, said that, “ultimately, AI is going to increase efficiencies and help [brands] be less wasteful.” However, she noted that most companies are “not even close” to going there.
With retail layoffs now rolling out regularly, many brands are in survival mode. But large conglomerates are actively playing in this space, hinting that the AI opportunity — at this point, anyway — is another opportunity for the big guys to get bigger. Kering’s Sustainability Progress Report for 2020-2023, released on March 22, showed in a section titled “circulating through optimizing” that the company is using AI to model sales. The goal is to perfect predictions around sales and production, as part of a Kering-wide ban on destroying excess inventory.
On a related note, along with upping the attention on “core” products, Larson said PVH is working to improve its “read-and-react” model, to enable shorter lead times with higher in-season buying.”
“Quiet luxury” is nothing new; the long list of brands that have built successful businesses on the concept is long, starting with Eileen Fisher, Lafayette 148, Nili Lotan, The Row, Brunello Cucinelli, Zegna and Loro Piana. Since 2020, more brands have entered the category, including Another Tomorrow and 60-year-old St. John, the latter with a Foundation Collection of wardrobe “building blocks.” It sells a white T-shirt for $700.
Karolina Zmarlak, creative director of KZ_K Studio, built her 14-year-old business around the notion of quiet luxury. She co-founded the fashion brand in the middle of the Great Recession and, as such, has always prioritized value and sustainability in her designs, she said. That includes ensuring their local production, versatility and longevity. “Luxury” details include innovative fabrics sourced from textile partners in Japan and tanneries in France. A sheer black button-down blouse by the brand retails for $1,200.
According to Zmarlak, physical retail is the best sales channel for minimalist luxury styles, as associates can point out and describe the special design elements. Of course, they can also offer styling tips. Zmarlak noted that versatile “quiet” pieces are ideal for travel, which has benefitted the brand post-lockdowns.
“The ‘quiet’ we see now, is the quiet we’ve always aimed to infuse into our design discipline,” she said, regarding the trend. In fact, she pointed to libraries as a longtime point of reference for the brand.
“What’s more appealing than reading a book, seated in a perfectly sculpted chair, surrounded by clerestory windows looking onto a verdant garden, within a peaceful, cleanly designed library?” she said. The brand’s NYC design studio, which offers 1-on-1 shopping appointments, features a Library Bar stocked with books meant to inspire.