The term ‘burnout’ has been bandied around in fashion conversations for some time. But recently the problem has worsened, with every facet of the industry struggling to keep up with burgeoning demands. Designers are producing hundreds, if not thousands, of products a year to keep up with flitting millennial minds, and leaving their posts after just two seasons. Hype-fuelled retailers are increasing their stock volumes like sustainability isn’t even a thing. And editors? Well, they can barely keep track of what season they’re on (Pre-Fall? Spring/Summer? Cruise? Resort? Pre-Pre-Fall?), let alone who is heading up where, who they need to watch out for, and which unlikely brands are collaborating next.
When big names refuse to take holidays and fail to hit sales targets, despite the support of wealthy backers, it seems that emerging talents stand no chance of making it — at least not without major investment and/or a willingness to give their entire life to the fashion cause.
In the last few years alone, London has witnessed the shuttering of several critically acclaimed brands. 2015 saw the 2014 LVMH Prize winner, Thomas Tait, quit the catwalk, announcing a move to one-on-one appointments instead. No one has heard a peep from him since.
That same year, British design duo Meadham Kirchhoff were forced to kill their haute couture dreams when their fantastical designs failed to generate revenue. The pair told i-D, “Meadham Kirchhoff wasn’t killed by the fashion industry, it was killed largely by itself.” But blaming it on “a quagmire of debt”, it’s easy to argue otherwise.
Exuberant knitwear label Sibling suffered the same fate in early 2017. Rather than fall prey to “an unmanageable level of debt,” the founders decided to go into voluntary liquidation after nine years in business.
All of these brands had one thing in common: they were hyped up by the press season after season. Equally, they all were forced to learn the hard way that tons of coverage doesn’t translate to healthy sales. Whether it took months or years, each of the protagonists of these cautionary tales burned to the ground, unable to rise from the sartorial ashes.
Fortunately, 2018’s up-and-comers have learnt from the past. They are refusing to suffer from mental or media-related burnout, instead testing alternative business models – as per Gosha Rubchinskiy’s recent decision to go seasonless – to avoid constant stress and toppling debt, and to banish the risk of peaking too early. They’re rebuking the tenuous “see now, buy now” marketing concept of heritage brands and finding their own paths, opting out of fashion week schedules and bypassing traditional retailers.
Here, we take a look at a few of the methods emerging designers are using to give their brands real staying power.
Radically reduce what you show
Chinese designer Anna Yang has shown her label Annakiki in Milan for the past three seasons. Her latest collection blended sci-fi themes with a more down-to-earth issue: that of sustainability. In her show notes, she observed that we’re all suffering from “aesthetic fatigue” and “fashion excess”, referencing this on slogan designs that read “over supply” and “consumed by fashion”. With a view to reducing waste and pollution, she even went so far as to produce fewer pieces overall.
“We all need to slow down in order to give more value to what we create,” the designer tells Sleek. She plans to get rid of seasons all together, hoping this will work to improve both the planet and her business. “From now on, my idea is to make clothes that will last the test of time. Over-consumption is harmful for the planet and creates confusion in the consumer. There are too many messages in so little time; we all need time to digest.”
This focus on non-seasonal longevity is something that has been adopted by a number of other designers. London-based Matty Bovan believes we simply need less stuff. His handcrafted work is made to order, reducing the chance of leftover stock and therefore wasted time. The LVMH Prize-nominated Kwaidan Editions have also professed a desire to take things at their own pace. In a recent interview with Business of Fashion they expressed their desire to grow the brand slowly in order to forge lasting relationships with retailers, and retain their independence.
Reject the show-cycle system
British designer Bethany Williams has never put on a show; she doesn’t even produce collections, preferring to refer to her annual charitable exploits as “projects”. 20% of the profits from William’s sustainable and socially conscious brand goes towards the charities she works with, meaning that her business model has to focus on sales, rather than pure creativity. “I work with different rehabilitation programmes for the production of my pieces,” she explains,“so the more orders I can give them, the more cash will be made for their programme.”
Nevertheless, she has managed to hold strong on her decision not to put her designs on the runway. “If you don’t show two collections a year, people think you don’t have the money to fulfil your orders. But personally, I want to consider what I’m actually making rather than having just six months to think about it and produce it, alongside taking orders.”
Yang, on the other hand, says she has considered alternative ways of showcasing her work but came to the conclusion that traditional shows are still the best way to establish a small brand on the international market. As such, she is planning to stick two shows a year, while rejecting a strictly seasonal approach.
Go directly to your fans
Today, increasing numbers of young designers are reducing their reliance on press coverage by going directly to their consumers. Social media is a perfect means of achieving this as it negates the need for expensive and demanding PR companies. Edward Meadham launched his Blue Roses label in 2016, using Instagram to promote an array of graphic tees and hoodies, whimsical dresses and twinset cardigans, to the cult following he garnered through Meadham Kirchhoff.
Eckhaus Latta’s Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta, meanwhile, have opted to combine their LA store with their design studio to ensure direct contact with their clients and a better understanding of their needs. They also refuse to dress celebrities or enter competitions for funding. Instead they are currently looking for an investment partner of their own choosing.
Don’t rely on design income
As many young designers will attest, putting on shows and fulfilling store orders can be incredibly expensive. Even if your sales are healthy, it’s highly unlikely that they’ll cover the cost of hiring venues, enlisting models and hair and make-up artists, producing samples and paying the rest of your staff. So how is one supposed to earn enough to live? Williams believes that having extra sources of income, while allowing your brand to grow naturally, is a good way forward; she currently consults for bigger brands and teaches at the London College of Fashion (LCF), as well as working on her own label.
Shayne Oliver and Leilah Weinraub, the pair responsible for Hood By Air’s winning transformation from independent label to shared collective, have taken this a step further. Last year they announced that the New York brand would be going on hiatus with Oliver taking on guest designer roles at Helmut Lang and Diesel, and Weinraub taking time out for filmmaking.
Find your own path
The good news for young designers is that today’s seemingly unstable climate is in fact an optimum time to carve out your own niche in the fashion industry. “The industry continues to shift and although it’s still a tough marketplace, setting one’s own agenda is possible in a way that it wasn’t a few years ago,” explains Judith Tolley, Head of the Centre for Fashion Enterprise at LCF. “Showing at fashion week isn’t necessarily relevant for every business and it’s not easy to evaluate the return on what is often significant financial investment for a 20-minute show.”
“Success these days need not be dependent on selling in high-profile boutiques and department stores — which can often take up to 90 days to pay invoices while demanding discounts,” Tolley continues. “Direct-to-consumer models can generate better margins and bring money into the business on a daily basis rather than a seasonal one.” She advises new talent to put their consumer first, whether by inviting them to pop-up stores and exclusive events or learning more about them via social media. “Unfortunately, there is no panacea for running a successful fashion business,” she concludes. “Most designers start out in business without money behind them, but what the success stories have at the outset is creative talent combined with entrepreneurial skills, tenacity, resilience, dedication and extreme endurance.”