New York Fashion Week officially starts tomorrow, amid increasing questions about the 76-year-old event’s relevance in today’s fashion landscape. Some of the biggest brands in fashion — those from the direct-to-consumer space — will have no presence whatsoever, many because they’re not led by a designer. The official fashion calendar is owned by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, which requires members to have been “actively engaged in creative fashion design” for the past three years. It makes sense, considering the foundation’s purpose, but it’s caused some tension between DTC and designer-led brand leaders. I’ve recently spoken to many about the situation — their takes are shared below. (The CFDA declined to comment on this story.) — Jill Manoff
Aaron Luo, CEO and co-founder of Caraa:
“I believe that product is key and branding is second. I wonder how much emphasis other brands are putting behind product design. More than 50 percent of our investment dollars goes into product development, rather than to brand storytelling, which is different from what a lot of brands do. They have a merch team, not a designer. We have a CFDA fashion designer leading product design, and other brands are leading with business people and marketers. They’re making a lot of noise and being heard, but they’re business school people that don’t come from fashion background. Ten years ago, American fashion was exciting, and there’s something to be said for bringing back American fashion in a modern business way. You can still do digital marketing and storytelling.”
Michael Preysman, founder of Everlane, in a recent Glossy interview:
“When you look at the CFDA or fashion houses, in general, the way they approach the world mostly is: ‘We have a creative direction, and this is the creative direction we believe in. And, hey, customers, this is what we offer as a result.’ And it is highly dependent on having an amazing creative director, and you could end up in a place where the wrong person can take [the company] in the wrong direction. What we’re trying to do is develop more of a studio-like environment, where you have a design director for a single product or an idea — they own the initial concept, but marketing, creative, merchandising and production all sit together and decide: Is this right for her or him? Is it the right price? Is it a fit in the market? What’s the story? It’s really a design collective; everybody participates in design.”
Wei Lin, founder and CEO of PH5:
“It’s hard starting as a designer brand and trying to work the DTC game. Design is our priority. For DTC brands, the business model is the priority. Investors don’t understand design; they understand business models, so we have a hard time getting investment. In general, designer brands still need a lot of wholesale accounts because we lack the marketing money and power to promote our businesses;. we rely on wholesale partners to promote us. [PH5] spends some money promoting our Instagram posts, but it’s nowhere near what the DTC brands are spending. Everything we do is built on personal connections.”
Sarah Flint, founder, CEO and designer of Sarah Flint, on a recent Glossy Podcast:
“I’m a member of the CFDA, and I have been since was a wholesale brand. But they’re doing much more with direct-to-consumer brands now. The CFDA is as “traditional fashion” and prestige as you can get. It used to be that, to be accepted into the CFDA, one of the requirements was that you be in one major department store. Now there are members that aren’t in department stores. I went to a CFDA talk at MM.LaFleur the other day, so [it’s clear] they’re really jumping on board.”
The state of men’s makeup
Luxury house Chanel introduced in September its first men’s makeup line, Boy de Chanel, comprised of a tinted foundation, a matte moisturizing lip balm and an eyebrow pencil. The launch seemed to signal that the beauty industry had finally set its sights on the male consumer. Chanel chose South Korea as its launch market and only began rolling out the product to its bevy of boutiques in January 2019.
“Culturally, America is still very much behind when it comes to masculinity,” said David Yi, founder and editor of men’s beauty publication Very Good Light. “We’re seeing brands like Gillette push the envelope, but this is very much a country that’s still afraid to embrace their authentic selves,”
Perhaps highlighting that is the onslaught of unisex lines, which have hit the market and are seeing expansion opportunities as of late. Take Little Barn Apothecary — it was founded in 2015 by two men, Brad Scoggins and Joshua Morgan, in Atlanta, Georgia. Though 75 percent of the brand’s customers are women, the products themselves are devoid of traditional feminine and masculine scents and packaging. This was a draw for Ulta, which began carrying the brand in 2018. To appeal to both sexes, the retailer merchandises the brand’s products in the Prestige Skincare section of its stores, where both male- and female-friendly brands sit.
It’s going the other way around, too. Men’s brand Oars + Alps also moved into Ulta in order to target more women. Seventy percent of the skin-care brand’s customers are men, but co-founder and CEO Mia Duchnowski said that 30 percent are women who are buying for themselves or gifting to the men in their lives. Captain Blankenship, a 10-year-old women’s line, launched its gender-neutral line called Sailor last year. It grossed $500,000 in sales for the company in 2018 through a Target-only partnership, and it expanded its merchandising assortment in January 2019.
Yi’s explanation? “To have a product that can appeal to both men and women is an easier sell for retailers,” he said. “In 2019, women are still the biggest consumers of beauty, and to not tap that market would be missing out on a huge base”
Still, these brands run the risk of being everything to everyone, which is obviously a deterrent for men. “Men want products designed for them, but there still isn’t a brand or product that’s cool and for them only,” said Yi. “Until then, unisex will be the way.” — Priya Rao
Fewer products or more?
Once a brand tastes success in one category, it can be tempting to immediately want to expand into others.
This past fall, the 100-year-old athletic brand–turned–streetwear darling, Champion, began selling sneakers for the first time, a category that the brand, despite its long history in sportswear, had no direct experience. I spoke about the brand’s centennial last week with Susan Henrikke, president of athleticwear at Champion, and asked about how the brand is trying to navigate the new category.
“We know footwear is a very busy space,” she said. “Some brands obviously have a huge market share. For us, we did a ton of research to come up with how we could infuse footwear with some of our Champion DNA. We don’t have a ton of footwear out there right now, but we have some stuff that really resonates because it uses recognizable elements from our other pieces: fleece material, the bright blue color, the C logo. After we did our research, we dug into our archives and came up with what we thought would make us stand out.”
Research and conscientious design can go a long way for a brand delving into the dangerous waters of a new category. At the same time, there’s something to be said for picking one thing and sticking to it, as Naadam has shown with its $75 cashmere stores that specialize in a single item. Champion’s sneakers are certainly aesthetically cohesive with the rest of the brand’s products, but it remains to be seen if they’ll catch on in any notable way. — Danny Parisi