Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Great brands, shame about the movie?

Like most savvy followers of the fashion scene, Fashionista has her own very definite views of the messages different brands send out, which brands fit comfortably with each other and which are best kept apart. But what about the fashion labels themselves? What's their self-image and their message? In the company of which other labels and brands are they happy to be seen?

A partial answer to these questions can be found by browsing the Brand Cameo feature on BrandChannel. Each week this picks a new release from the latest crop of films and takes a look at the product placements. This week's pick, for example, is Funny People, which
" ... explores the life of George Simmons, a famous comedian and movie star who is forced to examine his empty life when a rare disease threatens to kill him. Despite the dark overtones and focus on complicated issues, the film provides plenty of laughs and humorous insights into relationships, success, failure, loneliness and life in general".
Part of the art of creating a great film is to make sure that there is a synergy between the brands featured in it, the characters portrayed and the plot itself. James Bond, for example, has been famously associated with a range of cars over the past half century or so, most notably the classic Aston Martin -- but never a FIAT, Skoda, Nissan or Trabant. Brand owners are willing to pay large sums for the privilege of a good placement, and fashion houses are no different.

If you think you're clever, stop reading at this point, take a pen and paper and make a list of the fashion brands you'd expect to find in a comedy about a seriously ill movie star with an empty life, dealing with deep and meaningful issues. Could this be a golden opportunity for Benetton, perhaps, harking back to its deeply provocative social conscience marketing of a few years ago?

The fashion/leisurewear brands actually placed here are Champion, Jordan, Fred Perry, Levi's, Nike, Puma and Target, plus retailers K-Mart and Walmart. Now, wonders Fashionista, what message does that send me about the movie?

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

This is not just any birthday. This is M&S' 125th birthday.

When Minsk born Michael Marks set up a market stall in1884, little did he know that his name would remembered, loved and celebrated 125 years on, appearing on over 650 stores in the UK and over 285 around the world.

Earlier this year, Fashionista brought you a sneak preview of the August Anniversary Post. Well, the wait is over, as this month Fashionista celebrates one of our most iconic and well loved brands - M&S - which celebrates its 125th anniversary this year.

In May, we saw M&S' 125th celebrations kick off in style with a television advertising campaign fronted by sixties icon Twiggy, who first modelled for M&S in 1967 before returning to the brand in 1995. We also saw the hugely successful 3 day Penny Bazaar which was launched in stores across the country, echoing the brand's origins, where the original market stall in Leeds bore a sign saying "Don't ask the price, it's a penny" – masking Marks' inability to speak English.

With more than 70% of M&S clothing designed in-house by its designers, all products are exclusive to M&S. This is a clever marketing strategy. If you want the M&S brand, you have to go to an M&S store. Whilst many brands operate through concessions which typically sell a limited selection of a brand's full range, M&S stores have the capacity to display much more of a collection as the brand is not competing for floor space with other brands. It can sell a much larger range of products, so the customer who may have walked in for a skirt, will see the perfect shoes, bag and accessories to match - a true one stop shop!

To celebrate the 125 anniversary through fashion, M&S has already launched a spring/summer collection, with the classically elegant grey polka dot dress an immediate sell out. Another 125 collection is planned for later this year. This is a brand we all know and love. Its reputation and recognition is immense. Fashionista was fascinated to learn that:

* M&S sells around 30 pairs of men’s slippers every minute;
* In the UK, 1 in 3 women wear an M&S bra and 1 in 4 men wear M&S pants;
* Each year M&S sells enough men’s underwear to clothe the entire male population of the UK;
* Every year M&S sells enough tights and stockings to stretch from London to Hong Kong and back – nearly 12,000 miles of hosiery;
* On average, M&S sells a men’s suit every 30 seconds; and
* The number of bras that M&S sells every year would stretch to the moon and back.

It's not only the volume and breadth of its reputation that M&S is known for. This is a fashion forward high street giant – mixing with the luxury brands by pitching itself at their level, advertising in Vogue as early as 1975. Always seeking to be one step ahead of the competition, M&S:

* launched the first ever high street petite range in 1953 because the majority of women were shorter than the average of 5’5”;
* carried out the first comprehensive leg survey in 1954, to improve the fit of its stockings basing size on calf and leg measurements as well as foot size;
* trialled fitting rooms for the first time at the Plymouth M&S store in 1977. They were so popular that they were then rolled out to all M&S stores over the next few years;
* launched the first machine washable suits for men in 2001;
* launched the Limited Collection for women in 2003 providing new styles on a weekly basis in response to the demand for fast fashion; and
* launched ‘Stormwear’ in 2007 – a range of clothing for men with a unique fabric, which is water and stain repellent.

And that's not all! Loyal readers will know that Fashionista likes to be green – and applauds M&S for being green too by:

* recycling over 120 million coat hangers every year;
* using over 25 million recycled waste plastic bottles to make polyester, which is used in its homeware and bedding as well as in polyester garments;
* introducing the "Look Behind the Label" campaign in 2006 to highlight the ethical and environmentally friendly aspects of the production and sourcing methods used by M&S;
* being the first retailer to launch schoolwear made from recycled plastic bottles in 2007;
* opening its first ‘eco factory’ in Sri Lanka in 2008 (designed to be carbon neutral the factory combines energy saving devices, renewable energy and waste reduction processes); and

* launching the Oxfam Clothes Exchange in 2008 to encourage customers to recycle their old clothes, raise money to support the work of Oxfam, and reduce the amount of clothing sent to landfill in the UK.

For the Fashionista-at-Law Birthday Q&A, Fashionista was lucky enough to speak with Tania Littlehales, Head of Product PR at M&S, and asked:

(1) What is the M&S brand?

Quality Value Service Innovation and Trust are the key pillars of the brand and remain as relevant today in our 125th year as they did in 1884. Plan A - our plan to work with our customers and our suppliers to combat climate change, reduce waste, safeguard natural resources, trade ethically and build a healthier nation - is now completely integrated into the way we do business. It isn't a separate activity but represents the way we behave and act across the board.

(2) Who is the M&S customer and how has she changed over the years?

Our customers are an incredibly broad base from every walk of life and that has really always been the case. She (or he) can be any age, size, lifestyle, income or taste. It's one of the aspects that make this such a challenging and exciting business as our customers are so varied - and they often have a very clear view and idea of what M&S is to them and what they want from us.

(3) What inspires M&S?

Our customers - we get amazing feedback and input from them every day and everything we do is inspired by what they want and what we think they will want.

(4) What does the future hold for the brand?

It's our 125th Birthday this year and we plan on being around for another 125 years. We aim to continue to show that you can be both an ethical business and a profitable one (as we always have done), to continue to be a trusted retailer who offers Quality Value Service and Innovation to all our customers. We are also continuing to expand our international business both in terms of shops and with initiatives such as overseas delivery from our website.

Not wanting to wish away the summer, but Fashionista is looking forward to seeing what the Autumn/Winter 125 collection will bring, and wishes one of our most loved iconic brands a very happy and well deserved birthday. Twiggy tells us "Not bad for a Penny Bazaar". No, not bad at all...

Friday, 14 August 2009

Every cloud has a velvet lining...

This week, we've all heard the news that the German and French economies are officially on their way to growth, leaving the recession behind. While that may be true on a macro level, the reality for many continental fashion business is less buoyant - it was confirmed yesterday that Escada, one of Germany's oldest luxury labels, has filed for insolvency.

Back on this side of the channel, while the headlines were filled with the news that unemployment has reached the highest level since 1995 at 2.4 million, there were also some upbeat stories for those optimists among us.

For example, today the team behind Principles announced their new brand Mint Velvet, will be launched online and in House of Fraser concessions in mid-October. Having failed to acquire Principles earlier this year, Peter Davies (Chairman of Clarks) has drawn together a team of his ex-colleagues to back his new venture, Mint Velvet, led by former Principles brand director Liz Houghton. She explained that Mint Velvet's target market will be 30 somethings who want “relaxed yet glamorous clothes” at a price-point cheaper than Karen Millen & Jigsaw. The new brand has ambitious plans to open its own stores by Christmas, focusing on market towns around the M25.

Fashionista wishes Mint Velvet all the best and looks forward to this new arrival to the high street!

Thursday, 13 August 2009

A fashionable illusion

Fashionista doesn't normally write about science, but when the science relates to fashion (inventive, novel fashion at that), she's prepared to make an exception.

Fashionista remembers watching Michael Jackson's Smooth Criminal video, amazed at the King of Pop's ability to defy gravity by leaning so far forwards whilst standing, without falling over. This particular Fashionista freeze-framed the Smooth Criminal video countless times, looking for the tell-tale cables, supporting such an impossible move - but simply couldn't see any. How did MJ do this she wondered?

Well, the mystery is solved thanks to US Patent (there's a word we don't see on Fashionista very often) No. 5,255,452, for "Method and Means for Creating Anti-Gravity Illusion", filed by the King of Pop himself and others. The patent is for "a system for allowing a shoe wearer to lean forwardly beyond his center of gravity".

No cables were involved. Instead, MJ co-invented special boots (to be masked by spats or sock like covers to give the appearance of loafers), with a cut out in the heel, so that the boots can slide onto hitches in the floor, fixing the wearer to the ground so that he can lean forward without fear of falling over. Move the foot backwards, and you are free. Voila!

Savvy entertainers do more than just perform. They are business minded (or well advised) and known the value of what they do and how to protect it. This patent application would likely have attracted media attention for Michael Jackson at the time, encouraging anyone not familiar with the "lean" to watch his performances. More importantly, by obtaining patent protection, MJ was ensuring that it would be extremely difficult for anyone to copy him without getting into trouble - "cementing his position" (sorry!) as an innovator, and one of a kind.

Whatever views people may have of MJ (and they are many and varied), Fashionista applauds the inventiveness and dedication shown by Michael Jackson to his art, and his contribution to the world of intellectual property.

Monday, 10 August 2009

From high street to haute couture

Fashionista has been keeping an eye on the number of retail administrations on the high street since the beginning of the credit crunch and has watched as high street names such as Bay Trading, Morgan, USC and Viyella have fallen victim to consumers tightening their Primark belts. Although a number of brands have been rescued and several savvy retailers have taken the opportunity to snap up brands with unused potential, there can be no doubt that the high street has been and is still going through a period of transition which will result in it looking very different when the current economic crisis finally comes to an end.

However it seems that no retailers are immune and the effects of the credit crunch have been gradually spreading from high street to haute couture. Fashionista was dismayed to read that Christian Lacroix was placed into administration by the Parisian Commercial Court on 3 June 2009. Drapers reported that Lacroix himself, who started the label over 20 years ago will "give 200% to keep the fashion house running" despite the fact that he is already personally owed around 1.2 million euros by the company. It was then reported on 28 July 2009 that Lacroix had teamed up with Borletti Group, the Italian retailer which owns department stores such as La Rinascente and Printemps, to make a bid for the fashion house, but the label's future hangs on the ruling of the French commercial court in September. The French Minister of Culture has been reported as describing the demise of the brand as a "cultural disaster" and at the July couture show in Paris "onlookers wept as the final couture gown swept past and his staff unfurled a banner which read 'Lacroix Forever'."

With recent reports that Escada is "in a difficult situation" and teetering on the brink of insolvency it seems that the effects are now being felt more and more at the once untouchable luxury end of the sector.
The problem is that high-end haute couture houses such as Lacroix have been historically unprofitable and in these economic times necessity dictates that the focus has shifted to profit rather than status. It seems that it is incredibly difficult to take the creative genius of artists such as Lacroix and translate that into a successful business model. As Jean-Jacques Picart, Mr Lacroix's former business partner, has said, "a dress is not a sculpture, it is a business." The current chief executive of Lacroix, Nicolas Topioil, has suggested that the cause of the label's failure lies with the flamboyant designer and his resistance to translating his vision into wearable and sellable clothing. Perhaps it is a sign of the times that Lacroix has recently commented that "maybe we need something modest, something which makes a profit." Fashionista hopes that both labels manage to find a way to become profitable whilst preserving the artistic flair which has made them famous.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

It's in the bag for "Big Gucci"

Some fashion icons have been described as having that "to kill for" quality -- but others, it seems to Fashionista, have a different character: "to sue for". Not for the first time, members of the illustrious Gucci clan have taken a trip to court to resolve knotty issues of the "who is Gucci?" variety.

Yesterday US District Judge Richard Berman ruled in favour of Manhattan-based Gucci America in its battle with Jenny Gucci -- author of Gucci Wars -- and her daughter Gemma, whom it sued for trade mark infringement in 2007. According to the judge, Jenny and Gemma had "willfully infringed and diluted the Gucci trade marks" by entering into a licensing agreement that resulted in a "confusingly similar" line of products being marketed under their names -- and incidentally mimicking Gucci's classic, green-red-green colour scheme.

Jenny is a sort of Dowager Gucci, having been married to Paolo Gucci (the grandson of the founder of the family's fashion empire) between 1977 to 1990, when they separated. Paolo died in 1995, following years of dispute that eventually drove all the 'real' Guccis out of the company that still bears their name (the business today is owned by French retail group PPR SA).

According to Jenny, Gucci America was "Big Gucci" and she was "Little Gucci". Be that as it may, the judge felt that the two ladies "did not take precautions to avoid infringing plaintiff's trademarks", ordering the pair to stop making any commercial use of their names on a long list of products including "coffee, bedding, housewares, cosmetics, hosiery, handbags, wine and gelato".

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Fake shoes or Jimmy Choo's?

It seems there is no escape from the problem of counterfeit goods, whether you are a top end luxury brand or a high street favourite. For consumers happy to buy counterfeits, the sales channels are many: from the low-end car boot sales and market stalls, to high street shops, to slick websites claiming to offer the real thing.

News has reached Fashionista of the dramatic increase in counterfeit shoes flooding the online market in the last 6 months. Websites such as are claiming to offer genuine Christian Louboutins at a fraction of the cost (albeit still £100+) of the genuine goods.

Somewhat more localised, Ted Baker has helped uncover and clamp down on a counterfeit operation in Leicester. Sukhvinder Singh Gill has just been jailed for nearly 3 years admitting several counts of trade mark infringement. Trading as S.G.H.T Ltd, Mr Gill set up an operation which manufactured cheap knock-offs of brands including Ted Baker, Armani, Boss and Lacoste, all due to be sold on to wholesalers as the genuine article. Ted Baker started investigating the company and then involved Leicester City Council's Trading Standards Officers, who raided Mr Gill's factory and seized over 3,000 counterfeit goods. and over 6,000 counterfeit tags and labels, amounting to approximately £60,000 worth of counterfeit goods.

Fashionista's advice to brand owners: Ted Baker has got this right. Clamp down on counterfeiters. Counterfeiting is a big problem which can seriously damage a brand owner's most important asset: its brand and reputation. We've seen it happen to luxury brands where floods of readily available counterfeits turn a "must have" brand into one that the discerning shopper turns her back on. Although brands can claw their way back to the top with clever marketing, savvy rebranding or the right PR spin, it is not always easy, successful or cheap to do. Whilst pursuing counterfeiters requires an investment of time and cash, show counterfeiters that you will pursue them and there is every chance that counterfeiters will look to rip off easier targets, leaving your brand alone.

Fashionista is hopeful that brand enforcement measures, coupled with the imposition of strict penalties, will lead to a marked reduction in counterfeit goods. Our European neighbours in France and Italy have started imposing fines on consumers of counterfeit goods. Fashionista is watching this space to see whether we are going to impose similar fines on consumers here in the UK.

The real deal or a fake: which price are you prepared to pay? The one you see on a (genuine) price tag, or the one that may come with a custodial sentence or a hefty fine from manufacturing and selling counterfeit goods and, maybe one day, just from purchasing them.