Thursday, September 2, 2010

WWD Summary and a rant on "Unborrowed Vision"

On August 29th, Women’s Wear Daily published an article titled Las Vegas Shows See Strong Orders (no longer available) summarizing the sentiments of those involved in both sides of fashion at the trade shows… the retail side and the design side.  Despite the title of the article making it seem like things are strong across the board, some attendees noticed an uptick in business while others did not.  Analyst Eric Beder described it as “tame.”

A major issue relating to men’s fashion today is “raw materials shortages.”  Oscar Feldenkreis, President of Perry Ellis commented that they’re “keeping an eye on… rising material costs.  I think we’ll be facing a shortage of cotton for a while.  The rising costs could add 5 to 15 perfect in final price tags.”

Further, “rising production costs in China and increased expenses for shipping internationally” also is inhibiting a full recovery in retail.  Feldenkreis said his company is watching their “sourcing and fright.”  The article doesn’t elaborate as to what is causing these increases in cost.  While a cotton shortage is given as a solid reason for rising materials costs, we have to speculate on shipping and labor costs.  Are they driven up by tariffs and taxes from import taxes from America, export taxes from China, cost of fuel increases, new regulations on worker pay in China or any other factors.  Of course, this is an issue better understood by a logistics company, not a fashion publication.

Having survived the recession thus far, it’s safe to say that all retailers have had to operate more leanly and efficiently.  One way to do this is to manage your inventory more carefully to avoid losses, stifle the number of damaged goods and try to avoid having a huge surplus of garments left over at the end of a season which must be marked down.  CEO of Devanlay, US licensor of Lacoste, Steve Birkhold said “I think people have been very careful about managing inventories and trying to get away from promotional strategies by offering more value and maintaining their brand equity.” 

As far as what was shown in Las Vegas, there seemed to be a trend toward bottoms that were non-denim like chinos and corduroys.  An example of this would be Seven For All Mankind’s offering of lightweight spring corduroy jeans for guys.

This is a good example of the kind of subtle changes that happen in menswear in general… nothing too radical and out there usually.  Seven For All Mankind’s Susan Kellogg sums it up pretty tidily saying “You want newness and trend, but at the same time, you have to defend and protect your core… You can’t swing too far toward the front of the train.  Our dark boot cuts are still selling well.  It’s a balancing act.”

When I first started studying fashion at FIT, I really resisted and “didn’t get” out there, wacky types of stuff on the runway.  And there are still designers that I can't help roll my eyes at.  However, no matter my reaction, it’s people and companies like that that are at the front of the train, driving new ideas.  

Fashion isn’t a dictatorship however where men HAVE to buy the newest concepts.  If they don’t like what they see, they just buy something safer like another blue dress shirt.  And you can "keep it real" all the way to the soup kitchen.  But my perspective right now is that the people in charge of the companies that are creating new concepts and ideas are the ones truly adding the most value to the landscape. 

In the book The Fountainhead, the main character Howard Roark said:
“Throughout the centuries there were men who took first steps down new roads armed with nothing but their own vision. Their goals differed, but they all had this in common: that the step was first, the road new, the vision unborrowed, and the response they received--hatred. The great creators--the thinkers, the artists, the scientists, the inventors--stood alone against the men of their time. Every great new thought was opposed. Every great new invention was denounced. The first motor was considered foolish. The first airplane was considered impossible. The power loom was considered vicious. Anesthesia was considered sinful. But the men of unborrowed vision went ahead. They fought, they suffered and they paid. But they won. “
It’s tough as all hell to truly create something new with “unborrowed vision.”  I remember I developed a collection last year based off of the theme of lumberjacks.  I was super proud of it.  A month later, I went into Barneys only to see that their display set up had firewood and hatchets as the theme and even a vest that was realllly similar to one I developed.

At the same time, Gap had also changed their holiday logo to near the same plaid (different color) that that a unifying fabric I’d chosen.  

If I was trying to create something that would have fit seamlessly into the market and sold well, then, yes, this would have been perhaps a positive.  But despite my best effort  at creating something truly original, I probably unconsciously let myself be too influenced by what had already been created.

Now, there’s a time and place to experiment with new concepts.  Working for Old Navy or LL Bean is not the place.

Speaking of innovation, I learned recently just how controversial the short-sleeved piqué shirt (aka a polo shirt) was.  In short, René Lacoste was sick of having to wear dress shirts and a blazer to play tennis in.  There was a knit fabric called the piqué that was perfect for athletic wear but not utilized.  It wicked sweat away from the body much, much better than the regular woven shirt.  In fact, the technology Nike uses for the most technical of their fabrics uses the basic mechanical concept of this. 

Lacoste's design was a much better design than the stuffy clothing required before.  Among them:
  • the short, cuffed sleeves solved the tendency of long-sleeves to roll down
  • the soft collar easily could be loosened by un-buttoning the placket
  • the piqué collar easily could be worn upturned to block the sun from the neck
  • the jersey knit piqué cotton called the "tennis tail" prevented the shirt from pulling out of the wearer's trousers or shorts
Anyway, during the 1926 U.S. Open, in the middle of it, he and some of his friends refused to play unless they were permitted to wear these wild, controversial new shirts.  Faced with the option of having some of the best players not play, the officials allowed it.

Also, Lacoste’s nickname was Le Crocodile, for his tenacity and refusing to “let go” of his opponent.  With the help of a friend, he had this emblem added to his shirts.  This was the first know example of a logo on the outside of a garment.  

He's actually a super interesting guy that continually developed and invented things with unborrowed vision like the grip on a tennis racket, the ball-throwing machine and the metal tennis racket among other things.  Here's a little more about him:

Polo players, after hearing of this, wanted in on the action too, as they were bound by the same haughty uniform constraints as tennis.

Decades down the road, in 1972, Ralph Lauren capitalized on the concept and used the now famous Polo logo.  Now the shirt is called the Polo shirt, even though it was originally designed for tennis and not a concept developed by the company Ralph Lauren.

While this is a crystal clear example of borrowed vision, it’s also an example of a person who is one savvy man in regards to business.  

I think the ideal creative person is a creator of unborrowed vision as much as possible and also tenacious enough to do all they can to retain credit for their work through intelligent branding and naming.  Lacoste’s name for their signature shirt is the L1212.  A little wiser branding in the beginning and the shirt we know as a polo shirt probably would be called something else.

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