Adidas, Alexander McQueen, Beijing, belle du jour, Christopher Kane, CSM, Fashion Designer, Gingerly by Liber, John Galliano, Kanye West, Karl Lagerfeld, Liber Jiang, Lieber Jiang, Phoebe Philo, Sophie Theallet, Stella McCarney, Studio Berçot, taobao, Taobao.com, Typical Me, Véronique Leroy
La version française de ce post se trouve là.
One could say that for young designers it is getting harder and harder to succeed but the truth is, it has always been very difficult. Season after season, hundreds of fashion schools across the world churn out thousands of freshly minted hopeful designers with their portfolios tucked under their arms, with big dreams and big ideas, and usually two cents in their pockets they want to conquer the world. Some will launch their brands right away (British style), others will train with more established designers first (French style). The harsh reality is that, talented or not, most will fail and thousands will leave the industry within 5 years. Would Stella McCartney have attracted attention straight out of CSM without her last name? Probably not. Her former school BFF Phoebe Philo owes her career to the fact that Stella left her stranded at Chloe when she launched her line, giving her a chance to shine on her own. The rest was history and today Philo is at Céline designing the ‘intellectual-lesbian-chic’ collections she is famous for. Supernova fashion visionaries like Alexander Mcqueen, Christopher Kane or John Galliano are one a generation. Karl was honing his skills for over 30 years as a gun for hire before Chloe, Chanel and Fendi. Most hopeful designers will struggle to get buyers and editors attention from Paris, New York, Tokyo, Düsseldorf or Beijing.
The truth is that without orders from the stores any designer will simply disappear. No matter the adoration of the press or celebrities, no matter how much money your banker/backer/daddy/boyfriend is willing to sink into your brand, if you do not sell at retail, you can’t sustain a business. That simple fact has costs tens of thousands of designers millions upon millions of money wasted on a dream. Even designers whose pockets are filled with coins throw the gauntlet after a couple of seasons when the sales dry up. Ask Kanye.
I recently came across some late 80s pictures from my alma mater Studio Berçot in Paris. Isabel Marant or Martine Sitbon graduated also from Berçot. I studied fashion along Sophie Théallet and Véronique Leroy. We were about 80 students the first year, 15 at the end of the second. Véronique and Sophie are, I think, the only two designers from my class that are currently designing their own brands. Véronique is in Paris and sells the best stores in the world and Sophie shines in New York.
The usual format for a young designer in the West is pretty straightforward. Design a collection, manufacture it (at your own cost), get into a (good) trade show in Paris New York or London, pay the exorbitant fee, alternatively get into a showroom and pay an exorbitant commission, make appointments with the buyers, prepare your price list and pray for the best. Repeat. Twice a year. The first seasons are the toughest. Most buyers want to see a collection at least once or twice before their commit money and « real estate » to it. Christopher Kane was inundated with orders from his first season on, but he is the exception and not the rule. Then, of course, the collection must perform at retail, and for this, press support is important, if not essential. To get support, you need advertising. Which costs money. This is basically the format of my side of the industry as I know it. There are variables of course, but this, in a nutshell, is it. Fashion must sell.
China, as I recently discovered offers an unexpected alternative to young designers. One that I believe to be quite unique.
Liber Jiang, 23, is a fashion designer. We met at a party in Beijing. Stylish and lovely, she was of course, a ‘Belle du Jour’. I asked her what she did for her living, she replied: « Fashion designer ». We had a chat, I complimented her on her cute bag and my ears perked up when she explained how she has been developing her collection for the past three years.
« Gingerly by Liber » is Liber’s own brand of handmade leather bags. Her small collection is very reasonably priced from about 40 to 120 euros per bag. Retail. The trick is, it can only be bought online. Lieber has never seen a buyer, done a trade show or received an order from a store. Yet, her collection thrives. She produces on demand. She is a one-man-band and she is successful. Alone.
Everything she sells is online, and only there. She does a bit of business with a Chinese virtual multi-brand but at the the core of her business are the two distinct shops she operates on Taobao.com where she controls everything. Both are in her image, super stylish yet relatable. The bag collection is more established. http://bit.ly/1wr91ow The prices are calculated directly from the atelier to the client. Without any trade show expenses, distributor, agent or buyer’s commission and without a showroom’s rent or stock freezing assets she generates monthly revenues that are growing steadily. On the strength of the growth of the line of bags, Liber recently started designing a small capsule of fashion clothes under the name « Typical Me ». http://bit.ly/1mHknLm
The range is tiny: one rack. Slim and pretty, Liber models her own collection on the site and everywhere she goes. And it sells. Her current stock would fit in a small box. A fact that would have most of my designer friends green with envy. She plans on bringing out a new capsule of 12 to 15 new pieces every two months or so. No stock. No overhead. Lean and mean. Designs, shoot, sell.
The thing about China, is that it’s so BIG that even such a tiny operation gets on average 300 visitors per day. More than anyone could ever hope to get through the doors of any ‘brick and mortar’ shop in China or anywhere. From these 300 daily pairs of eyeballs, she currently gets about 50 orders per week. Also massively more than she could ever hope to generate in any trade show for an unknown designer. These steady orders generate a steady income which enables her to live and develop her business.
Taobao is one of the most visited website in the world. Depending on the source, it ranks as top 10 or top 20 globally. It is definitely the ‘go-to’ for most young stylish Chinese. A clever cross between Ebay and an infinitely big virtual supermarket where one can virtually find everything and anything at the touch of a keyboard. From fake Chanel to real Birkins, makeup, shoes, clothing for the entire family, teaspoons, skis, books, bean bags, sheets, sugar paste, pots, pans and toys. If it’s « Made in China » it’s on Taobao. If it is desirable, the genuine article or the copy are also available on Taobao. The list of stuff found on the site is endless. Easy to buy, easier to return, the goods have to match their description or return to sender they will.
China is crisscrossed daily by a tight network of messengers fleets that can get anything from seller to consumer in 3 to 4 days tops. The client pays Taobao that keeps the money in escrow until the merchandise arrives and the client is happy.
I cannot think of a tougher school for a young designer.
The collections fly straight from Liber Jiang’s tiny atelier to the streets of Beijing, Shanghai or Wuhan. For now, her only way is up.
PS I was in France for quite a while. Sorry for the long silence.
FEARLESS IN BEIJING IS ON INSTAGRAM (benedictebeijing) AND FACEBOOK.