When I opened my store five years ago, I had no idea what I was doing. It was an impulse move. I had launched a branded line of jewelry five years prior, but it was a wholesale enterprise back then and there was no direct line to the consumer. It was a different retail environment. Large department stores partnered with new designers, giving them a foothold in their retail space and access to their consumer. This was a great way to build a new brand as it could propel a designer rather quickly into national brand recognition. The focus back then was much more on the product than the brand story. Retailers tended to invest in new designers and the partnership was truly strategic - there was guidance. Retailers did not expect instant sell through and designers were given opportunities to grow. The instant gratification model and price downward spiral was an anathema back then.
So many amazing brands came to market this way. Kate Spade, Alexis Bittar, Kendra Scott and so many more started off as department store partnerships before scaling into venture backed brands. The 2008 recession changed the old retail model. The inflection point came when department stores, reluctant to carry risk, started cancelling purchase orders. They stuck with the established entrenched brands and the newer ones were shut out of the market. The results were twofold: department stores bereft of fresh innovative designs evolved into limp and duller versions of their former selves and designers were left deserted, unanchored, and carrying merchandise with nowhere to sell. Many of these designers, not yet savvy with the rising ecommerce wave, sank into bankruptcy or ceased to be relevant. And this is where the designer and the department store split up, never again to be reconciled in a meaningful way. Fashion became disruptive and, together with a percolating ecommerce, an entire new sales model came to be.
Abandoned by the department stores, designers were forced to deal directly with their consumers. The consumer now held an elevated position of power. Price became the new dictate and brand stories replaced quality. The marketplace became flush with new brands with very little differentiation. Instagram, the ultimate equalizer, became a platform for both new and established brands all vying for the consumers attention. Suddenly, instead of innovation, design, and quality, brands were battling for their consumers attention with lifestyle pictures and edgy photographs. The rise of Influencers on social media created a seismic shift whereby Influencer became the new leaders of fashion. A new age of marketing emerged. Influencers dictated fashion trends with designers now vying for their attention. Influencers, realizing the power of their reach then began to morph into would-be designers. These Influencer brands focused not so much on innovation, artistry, or design but rather on an aspirational look measured by followers and likes.
The female consumer should be aware of her reach. Her power to follow and like is her currency. She has the ability to decide which brands stay relevant and which ones will not. She needs to be mindful when picking her fashion leaders and to choose those with a viable product where artistry, originality, and design reign supreme as opposed to simply following a personality. In addition, consumers should gravitate toward designers with a social mindset; those who genuinely care about waste and sustainability and those who are aware of labor practices in the countries where they manufacture. Fashion need not just be eye candy but substantive as well. As the department store giants have receded into the background, the consumer is now the strategic partner.
As for myself, I am still learning to steer my own ship. Having come of age as a designer in the pre-social media blitz, I am still adjusting. Learning to find my voice on social media was a challenge at first. Somewhat guarded and reserved, it was not something I was initially comfortable with. Still shrugging off this reserve and putting myself out there as a face to my brand has been liberating. I have learned to control my own narrative and connect with my customers in a visible way and this connection has become very personal. My feed is filled with causes I care about as well as personal highs and lows as I journey through life. My customers challenge me, and I feel accountable to them. We are living in an age where everything feels personal, the barriers of anonymity have broken down. Try as they might, the big box retailers cannot bring this personal experience to their consumers – they are big box by definition; be aware that there are reams of soldiers steering that ship all accountable to shareholders and not to you. By definition a big box store’s personal voice on social media cannot be personal; it's a well-tuned fabricated tale.
So to my fellow designers I say, show us your authenticity. Put a voice to your artistry and tell your story. To my beloved customer, I am forever grateful that in this immense, infinite sea of personalities on social media, you have chosen to follow me. I vow to never take you for granted and to always be transparent. Use your judgement wisely and make smart choices as you pick those who deserve your attention and loyalty. As we elevate each other, we can take pride in our partnership which will benefit not only us but the world at large.