Last month, I had a front row seat at the 11th Annual ITS Fashion Show and Competition in Trieste, Italy, where 11 finalists, winnowed from a pool of 772 applicants sent their fabulous fashions down the catwalk to vie for several awards, including the Fashion Collection of the Year.
The opportunity to spend several days immersed in the pure fashion side of the apparel business was a unique experience for me, and a reminder of the vast number of hopeful apparel designers out there vying for the thinnest chances of fashion fame in a fiercely competitive field, made more so by the clout of increasingly large and powerful fashion houses and their rising mastery of technology. ITS, the International Talent Support show, was created by founder and director Barbara Franchin to lend a helping hand to fledgling designers through its annual competition as well as year-round support in helping them gain exposure and make connections (look for more on the 2012 ITS Competition in the October issue of Apparel).
The road to success for a designer is typically long and windy, and may never arrive at its intended destination. Even more rare is the designer who becomes a world-class brand — think Ralph Lauren or Giorgio Armani.
In speaking with many of the judges at ITS, one of the things I wanted to know was, what does a designer require to make this transition? The answer from Tim Voegele-Downing, creative director of Avery Dennison RBIS (a first-time partner of the event, which awarded a prize for brand innovation), was that a world-class brand rests on a sturdy triangle of story, product and branding, with the story being paramount, and that the designers best suited to make this leap have not only design talent, but the ability to translate it into a much larger vision. “Until you can tell your story effectively, you can’t connect with the customer,” he said.
In explaining the finer nuances of this triangle as it plays out on the real-world calendar, Voegele-Downing said that the overall brand story is “non-seasonal” and consistently communicates everything the brand stands for, but that sub-stories come and go with the seasons, telling the customer “what the brand does today, and why you should be buying this [particular] collection.” The “big brand” doesn’t change every season, he says. It retells the story every season in a different way.
His explanation reminds me of the Sanskrit term spanda, a concept I’ve learned of in yoga class that is defined as “the subtle creative pulse of the universe as it appears in living beings,” and on a human level deals with how that primordial universal consciousness turns into different forms of thought, intention and action. Spanda is often likened to waves crashing upon the shore; my yoga instructor talks about finding the perfect moment of balance when the wave has extended as far as it can up the beach but has not begun to retreat. This is the moment of being connected to your core beliefs and your essential self, that keeps a person centered even amidst the continual waves of change and creativity. Country music singer Aaron Tippen might put it like this: “You’ve got to stand for something or you’ll fall for anything.”
You’re inundated with waves of change, but you need a core story. This holds as true in life as it does for apparel fashion and apparel retailers. In this month’s Top 10, you’ll see how department stores are reinventing themselves, clarifying their core stories (think Belk’s Modern. Southern. Style.) while stabilizing their own triangles on the two other legs of product and execution.
While a company’s core message may be clear, waves of technology, consumer expectations and habits, and sourcing, among others, are continually changing the shape of the supply chain. To succeed, retailers must constantly adjust to these shifts. In sourcing, today that means seeking out less-expensive factories (the No. 1 driver of vendor reallocations as identified in this year’s 6th annual Sourcing Report, starting on p. 18); in sales force management that means using technology to staff stores with the right number of knowledgeable people at the right time (see “The Secret to Staffing Success,” p. 30); and in the overall supply chain, that means gaining greater visibility across systems, such as PLM and SCM, which you can read about in this month’s Thought-Leadership Report, starting on p. 3.
If you haven’t tapped into the creative pulse of the universe, there’s still hope. If you haven’t tapped into the pulse of the consumer and gotten your brand story straight, you’d better move quickly. There are plenty of eager contenders for your spot.