Running an independent brand isn't easy these days. With more competition than ever and financial security far from guaranteed, many upstart labels find it hard to maintain longevity after initial successes.
The internet has, in many ways, completely revolutionized fashion. While in the past the clothing industry was dominated by huge fast fashion retailers and luxury houses, the web has given a new wave of independent brands the chance to shine on the global stage. Instantaneous communication to a global audience is now only a click away, and the barriers for entry have never been lower for anyone who wants to start a brand of their own.
However, those same low barriers also mean that the marketplace is more crowded than ever. Thousands upon thousands of fashion labels are furiously competing for a piece of the action, making long-term survival far from guaranteed; recently, we've seen even veteran brands like Band of Outsiders and KRISVANASSCHE call it quits. While every brand has a different story and different circumstances, it's clear that independent labels are in for a challenge if they want to translate their vision into commercial reality in an age of fierce competition and economic uncertainty.
All of this begs the question, what does it take for independent brands to find success in the industry and, more importantly, maintain it?
It's All in the Product
"A clothing line should be creative and not afraid to try something new" Samantha Caini, Contemporary Menswear Buyer at LUISAVIAROMA told us. "It is the quality and unity of the fabrics used, together with innovative and visionary shapes, designs and prints that make the difference." MR PORTER buyer Daniel Todd agrees, arguing "For me the single most important factor in deciding whether to pick up a brand is the product...We’re always trying to offer our customers product that feels interesting and that has a real point of difference."
While our work as editors at Highsnobiety is very different to retail buying, we have to agree: the product is the single most powerful tool for brands wanting distinguish themselves in a crowded marketplace. Many brands have expertly produced campaigns and large social media presences, but so often the case is that the product just doesn't cut it; the one thing we - and our readers - want to see above all else is something we've never seen before: something exciting and something new. While chasing trends inevitably finds short-term success, it doesn't guarantee longevity for when times change; far from it. "Find a stable aesthetic and stick to it; brands who chop and change direction have generally a short life," Caini said.
Spread the Word
With traditional brick and mortar retail declining with every passing year, brands can no longer rely on retailers to tell their story for them. "There are less exciting stores opening around the globe which makes it harder to find the right match for your brand," Jakob Kamp Berliner of Copenhagen label Soulland told us. "The financial situation of many independent retailers worldwide makes it harder to expand in some markets." Filling Pieces' Guillaume Philibert expanded, telling us "the hardest part for us was finding people and retailers that were interested in our brand...but as long as you strongly believe in your brand and always innovate, people will buy your product."
Of course, one way to stand out amongst the noise is with a strong message. While social media is absolutely not the be-all and end-all of a brand's story, we have seen many brands break through with clever campaigns that add depth and scope to their product. "It is very important for upcoming labels to create a 'vibe' around their name," Caini told us. "So many people find out about new brands through social media. This of course needs to be backed up by top fabric quality and innovative product design." While a brand may be able to shoot to the forefront of the conversation with a viral campaign and endorsements from big names, hype never lasts forever and has absolutely nothing to do with longevity or sustainability; just look at Been Trill.
Do the Math
Given that fashion is a world concerned with grand aesthetic visions first and foremost, it's hardly surprising that many labels struggle when it comes to altogether less exciting issues like production, logistics and finances. Countless labels rocket in popularity - particularly those driven by social media - only to stumble when faced with a sudden influx in orders and demand.
"I have seen quite a few brands doing an amazing job with their marketing and creating a very high demand for their product, which has led to doubled or even tripled sales within a very short time," Caini warns. "But they weren’t organized enough to face such a quick and massive growth, with the result that all the logistic and quality control aspects suffered incredibly." Whether a brand is selling via a wholesale network or direct to its customers, if deadlines are missed and quality dips, both retailers and customers will be quick to move on to something else.
Put the Work In
No doubt the greatest challenge facing independent brands in the early days is lack of resources. Given that independent brands are typically lacking in investment and run on tight budgets, the only way to get things done is the old fashioned way; hard work. "When we started Filling Pieces there was limited budget for marketing, traveling, sales and so on" Philibert said. "Because of this I gained a lot of experience by doing these things myself - it's amazing to get knowledge on different aspects of the brand."
While it sounds clichéd, everyone has to start somewhere and nowhere is this truer than with clothing brands. Supreme may be a multi-million dollar global streetwear juggernaut these days, but for the first ten years of business the brand was an obscure skate store in New York, "If I showed you what we used to do at the beginning you’d be like, damn, how did you stay in business?" James Jebbia told Hypebeast. And it's not just true for skate and streetwear labels; even luxury houses started from the bottom. "I read somewhere that Missoni made a lost the first 10 years they existed," Jakob at Soulland told us. "That is always a good reminder of the path you have to travel to succeed. A tough journey just makes the result stronger."
For more upcoming independent fashion brands, check out our Under The Radar series.