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The Business of Fashion is Killing Fashion

The fashion industry won’t get out of its current economic morass by cutting costs and corners, but by creating inspired product that resonates with soul, artisanry and quality, the true linchpins of desire.

In its quest for profits, the fashion industry is creating merchandise that—much like fast food—is tasteless and unfulfilling. We mindlessly acquire and dispose of fast fashion, and then begin the cycle again.

Lecture Series, a joint NY Fashion & Retail Association and the FIT Graduate Global Fashion Management program, recently hosted Pauline Brown, who works in academia at Harvard Business School, where she created and teaches an interdisciplinary course called “The Business of Aesthetics.”

Giving a talk on the topics outlined in the course, Brown said the apparel industry, simply put, is overwhelmingly made up of boring me-too product that doesn’t provide the values consumers seek.Sure, the clothing offered by brands and retailers cover the body and keep wearers warm and perhaps even fashionable, but the fashion industry, in its quest for growth, has de-humanized people (both consumers and industry participants) while humanizing brands.

Brand messaging has become hollow and the fashion industry has lost its spirit, its zest, its raison d’etre, which,according to Brown, is to make beautiful things that consumers acquire and that bring beauty into their lives.

Most fashion product has become commoditized, the dreams that inspired fashion and in turn inspired the we are rare gone along with quality fabrics and construction. The industry shouldn’t be surprised, then, that consumers are looking elsewhere for fulfillment and moving onto experiences.

Brown is at root a philosopher and she cautioned the fashion industry, “We need to invest thought into what people eternally value—beauty, creativity and relationships.” Brown is calling on designers and fashion creators to refocus on making their products, not making the quarter, and to adhere to aesthetic values so that in the longer run, the business will come around.

Fashion can teach business a thing or two

Business is uber focused on analytics to the exclusion of the senses, while fashion at its best celebrates many of the five senses: vision, tactile and that sixth sense where myths are made and desire is stimulated. Fashion is as much art as it is science, as much magic as logic. Fashion engages the imagination, which is what gets consumers’ attention.

An aesthetic IQ is necessary to lead an aesthetic business and while a brand doesn’t have to succeed on all five senses, success requires attention to multiple senses.

Think of Disney, your favorite restaurant or even Starbucks. The value proposition is far more than the need met, providing a sense of belonging, comfort, delight and pleasure.

Fashion students are more in touch with aesthetics than a typical MBA student, which is why Brown begins her Harvard course asking students to review a restaurant and think with mood boards to help them get more in touch with the emotional side of business and use their sensory perceptions, leaving the analysis on the side—something many brands could stand to do in their quest to attract an increasingly distracted, disinterested customer.

“I worry more about my students at Harvard that I do about this room full of students from FIT,” she said. For too long the “suits” have run the C-Suite and the MBAs charged with finance and operations have eradicated creativity. The fashion industry needs a heavy dose of creativity to restore demand and increase sales and profits.

Businesses that stretch themselves to incorporate aesthetics into their strategy and business model will provide deeper values to consumers and create necessary emotional connections. In the long run, these factors can mitigate business risk and improve operational and financial metrics. It may seem ironic, but by not focusing so much on the income statement and the balance sheet, brands may be able to improve them.

Growth is the root of all evil

Growth for growth’s sake has undermined brands along the positioning spectrum, from moderate to luxury. Brands need time to incubate away from the incessant pressure for growth.

A B-corporation, like Patagonia, can maintain brand values, authenticity and demand, while most publicly-traded companies are judged on short-term sales growth, market share gains and increased profitability to the demise of the long-term viability of the business.

There is good news for luxury brands that have succumbed to the clarion call for growth and subsequently crashed and burned in logoed-ubiquity, however.

“Old brands have a lot of good will and the longer the heritage, the deeper the archive and the quicker you will be given permission to rebound” Brown said, pointing to recent turnarounds at Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Coach.

Failure forces change. The disruption that the fashion industry is undergoing is an opportunity to return to core values. People matter and, perhaps just as important, corporate culture and business structures matter too.

Brands and retailers should acknowledge the tension that exists between short-term results and long-term legacies, and start building for lasting legacies and more sustainable business models.


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