With Marc by Marc Jacobs announcing its closure and many luxury houses reshuffling their brands, we examine the future of the diffusion line and argue that it’s not looking bright, as a watered-down product does not stand up in the eyes of an ever-educated internet-savvy fashion consumer.
As news broke a few weeks ago that Marc Jacobs’ beloved diffusion line Marc by Marc Jacobs would shutter its doors, there was much talk on what would happen next: where would its creative directors go, what would happen to its flagship stores, would the label be incorporated into the Marc Jacobs mainline? One question that was noticeably missing from the conversation was whether or not the concept of a diffusion line even made sense anymore.
The diffusion line has long been a profitable vehicle for luxury conglomerates to peddle relatively affordable, often heavily-branded versions of their brands’ mainlines to the masses. And while CK, D&G, Marc by Marc Jacobs and the like were in the past effective – if clumsily named – ways for brands to reach people who wanted to dabble in fashion without having to wear leather sweatpants or go without food for three months, they’re starting to look somewhat outdated now. The world’s luxury houses may be frantically reshuffling their lines in light of declining performance and dwindling profits – Marc by Marc Jacobs merges with Marc Jacobs, Miu Miu now sits alongside Prada and Kors by Michael Kors is no more – but in my eyes the real reason diffusion lines’ futures are bleak is that they just don’t make sense in the year 2015.
Since streetwear and Normcore gatecrashed the high fashion party and it suddenly became acceptable for the sartorial illuminati to wear the same clothes as mere mortals, high/low has been the recurring cliché for describing the way people shop – gleefully mixing Nike sneakers and sweatpants with Givenchy and Raf Simons is now de rigueur for the fashion-savvy consumer. Just as Michael J Silverstein outlined in Trading Up: Why Consumers Want New Luxury Goods, shoppers are happy to keep spending low on reliable basics in order to splash out on extravagant statements. So to many consumers a mid-priced, good but not extraordinary product just doesn’t cut it anymore. The worlds of high fashion and readily-available streetwear are now so incestuous that a watered down, affordable shadow of an illustrious fashion house offers nothing and appeals to no one.
As the internet has exposed people to everything the world has to offer at once, luxury houses with an expansive network of labels offering roughly the same product risk confusing – or worse, boring – a customer that has access to a dizzying array of fashion at their fingertips. Why waste time stumbling through Burberry, Burberry London, Burberry Sport, Burberry Brit and Burberry Prorsum when you could be getting to know the latest avant-garde Korean streetwear sensation or diving headfirst into the world of Scandinavian minimalism? The Japanese may – as ever – be the exception to the rule here, with COMME des GARÇONS and Nepenthes‘ mini-ecosystems of esoteric labels working together in harmony, offering bizarre new twists on their parent brands in stark contrast to the diffusion line’s premise of offering a cheaper, lesser product.
“Shoppers are happy to keep spending low on reliable basics in order to splash out on extravagant statements.”
Furthermore, the big-box department store – Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s and the like – long seen as the traditional home of the diffusion line, is starting to look more and more like an archaic temple of mid-priced mediocrity, a place where middle managers and people who drive Audis go to buy things that are kind of expensive but nevertheless wholly uninspiring. This is in stark contrast to the new breed of intelligent, innovative e-commerce retailers that have emerged to cater for increasingly educated customers. Discerning fashionistas need only visit places like Tres Bien and MR PORTER for an eclectic curation of product accompanied by content that caters for their now-refined tastes; you can at once browse a huge spectrum of diverse labels while learning the best way to break in denim or how to wear running sneakers with a suit.
If the future of the diffusion line is looking bleak, then luxury powerhouses still have one trick up their sleeve to access the younger customer and groom them for a lifetime of extravagant purchases – high-street collaborations. One only need look at the furor surrounding Alexander Wang’s recent collection with H&M for proof that it still makes sense for brands work with fast fashion retailers on easily-accessible crossover projects. While collaborations will never prove to be as lucrative as parent labels’ mainlines, they expose the brand to a younger, less monied customer without needing the separate infrastructure and retail spaces that necessitate a full blown sub-label.
In short, the future for diffusion lines doesn’t look good. Basic, mid-priced product from a watered-down version of a storied brand is unlikely to survive the whirlwind of changing tastes and trends that defines fashion in the age of social media. The internet has completely turned the world of fashion on its head and many designer labels have so far been slow on the uptake, reluctant to open webshops in lieu of their expensive flagship stores while they lose ground to a new generation of internet-savvy brands that have their fingers on the pulse of the modern, educated, easily bored fashion consumer. As bloggers become the new editors, Instagram becomes the new catwalk and upstart brands spring up all around them, the diffusion line could be the first of many casualties for fashion’s old guard.