By Katrien Herdewyn
On June 30th 2021, I received an award in Las Vegas for my contributions to the fashion, accessories, and beauty industry at the MarSum World Conference. The organization selected 100 fashion industry influencers from around the world who’s work challenges the status quo in their sector. Other awardees include fashion designer, director, and investor, Didi Wong, and the New York-based founder of Smartbzt, Kiyeon Nam, who’s innovative children’s clothing aims to reduce the number of children that go missing.
Interestingly enough, the organization of the award, MarSum is not a fashion, accessories, and beauty conference. It is a conference for marketing and advertising professionals. A painful truth and noble intention is embedded within that. The painful truth: Success in the fashion industry is heavily based on marketing, not on product quality or the designer's talent. The noble intention: Bringing marketing professionals and innovators in the fashion industry together so they can share knowledge, and develop fruitful collaborations or partnerships.
The general rule of thumb in business to spend 5-10% of your revenue on marketing, doesn’t really apply to the fashion industry. It is more along the lines of 20 to sometimes 50%. The big brands that make the big bucks use it to pay celebrities and top models to connect their faces to the brands, for commercials and billboards, advertisements, PR, photoshoots, etc. When looking at the price you pay in the store for a garment or accessory, only 10-20% is to pay for the materials and manufacturing of the actual product. A recent investigation by NGO Public Eye and researchers from the Clean Clothes Campaign uncovered that for a basic garment from the 'sustainable' collection of fast fashion label Zara, less than 6% of its price was spent on materials and manufacturing.
At the end of June, another generation of ambitious and gifted designers graduated from top fashion schools. A lot of them dream about their own label. A good number of them actually try. Unfortunately, it is often not the most talented designer who makes it to the top, but either the most business savvy one, or the one with the biggest marketing budget. However, that is not how they train fashion designers. As I have studied at different fashion schools, including Polimoda (Florence, Italy), University of Arts London (UK), and SASK (Belgium), I can tell you that your actual ideas and designs are valued. If any, during jury presentations where your grade is determined, students usually all use the same fashion models, with the same hair and makeup, and get the same amount of ‘airtime’ to showcase their work. It is about the collection that you are presenting, not how you are trying to package or sell it.
When the most talented fashion students go out into the real world however, they often have a hard time getting their own brand off the ground. Their designs are usually not the problem. Those are novel and exquisite, but they can’t reach enough people that buy their work to turn it into a profitable business. More than once, their work is copied by those same big brands with enormous marketing budgets. Every season, fashion students and small brands will turn to social media to expose famous brands in all price segments who’ve shamelessly stolen their work. In contrast, almost every celebrity these days successfully launches his/her/their own fashion or make-up brand - without a fashion degree. Their involvement often doesn’t go much further than putting their face on it, and reaping the monetary rewards.
Can we help fashion students by adding business courses to their curriculum? Unlikely - it would be good to prevent predatory investors from taking advantage of some of these talents, though. Can we convince the consumer not to be tempted by the faces of celebrities – as their endorsement has rarely anything to do with quality or originality? Wishful thinking. Should we even battle the dominance of marketing for the fashion sector to make the game more fair? That is not really how business works.
When social media was introduced to the masses, there was a huge opportunity to get your products in front of those same masses – without needing the money for a big billboard or a TV commercial. The time that you could organically and quickly grow your fashion label on social media on a small budget, is long gone too. It is again the big brands with the big marketing and advertising budgets who win the bidding wars for Facebook or Google ads.
So what can we do? Setting up collaborations or partnerships between niche brands that are really doing something different, with marketing and advertising professionals, is certainly a good approach. Many of the brands awarded at MarSum have been around for a few years, and are bringing something different. Their business has survived (including the pandemic), because there was genuine interest from the market in their products. To take them to the next level, a well thought-out marketing campaign on a shoestring budget could reach a lot of people. So what could be in it for the marketing companies? Having worked with multiple PR and marketing professionals in the US and Europe, I can tell you that they are often excited about coming up with ideas for a product with a story, that almost sells itself – a product that they can be really creative with.
While being named one of the 100 industry influencers in fashion and accessories at a marketing conference may not mean much in the fashion sector, I consider it a true honor. It is a misconception that you can keep a fashion brand running with beautiful designs alone; it is a business. And getting the opportunity to boost Elegnano’s marketing to grow the business further, is just as important – and valuable – to me, as being among the top 50 emerging accessories designers selected by Vogue, which I was in 2012. So thank you very much for the award, MarSum. I am honored.
Katrien Herdewyn, founder of Elegnano