Consultants like tables, diagrams and charts… Fashion is not a science (some might disagree…) but using this “figure” makes easier to understand and organize something so complex as “needs”. Maslow was an American psychologist and was best-known for creating in 1943 the hierarchy of needs, or Maslow´s pyramid. As I said, using a pyramid is an easy way to understand something such intangible as human needs, from basic needs to abstract hope.
Does it mean that, if we are hungry and don´t find food, we won´t be able to dream? Not at all, but I suggest to understand the evolution of societies thru this pyramid. From the invention of fire, Homo sapiens started to use heavy clothes made of animal skins and use efficient tools. From then, people, technologies and wars defined what we are today (Jared Diamond would say “Guns, Germs, and Steel”). I would simplify and mention Egypt, Rome, the Middle Ages, Religions, Migrations, Colonialism, the French Revolution, Industrial Revolution, Capitalism… From mass-production to mass-consumption. From Louis XIV, “le Roi Soleil” to the American Way of Life. From Versailles to McDonald´s. Fashion is the consequence of refinement. Fashion retail is the business of it.
The late 19th century saw the birth of brands and retailers such as Levi´s, Lanvin, Channel and Harrods. Of course, before that, we had markets and craftsmen selling their goods locally. Nowadays, we have a workforce ready to consume. “I consume, therefore I am”. And this is where brands create their galaxies. Just a few brands are surviving to the conglomerate era of LVMH, Kering, VF Corporation…But private, family owned brands still survive because of their history, their stories, their charme.
The pyramid of fashion links to Maslow´s needs. The higher we go into needs scale, the more intangible and exotic is the need/brand. This is a way to represent the hierarchy of brands according price and quality, but there is room for exceptions. In the internet era, some companies are offering high quality products at very good prices thru selling directly to customers, without middlemen. These cost-effective fashion business models will be mentioned in the coming posts.
How did Luxury Fashion Houses reach the Olympus? Retailers have historically measured growth in terms of the square footage of their store footprint. This means to grow thru adding more points of sale: Direct owned stores, franchises, multibrand stores, store-within-store, department stores, wholesale, outlets…But coming back to the pyramid, we can see a clear segmentation of brands, from the “Gods” of the luxury industry (e.g. Hermés) to mass-market fashion retailers that are pushing to cover more than a basic need. This is what Zara is doing thanks to a fast-fashion business orientation, empowered with a best-in-class supply chain. The result is that Zara can react to trends or be “inspired” by the top fashion designer brands (e.g. Gucci and its famous designer Alessandro Michele). Zara can deliver these new products to their more than 2.200 stores in less than 2 weeks.
What are the most important variables that differentiate and rank brands in the pyramid?
• Marketing: The most common tool and an important expense in the P&L of all luxury brands. (i.e. James Bond wears a suit from Tom Ford and the most famous celebrities are luxury fashion ambassadors).
• Flasgship Stores: Luxury fashion retailers bet for high street presence. Location is key.
• Architecture/design: retailers are hiring well-known architects to create a special and unique atmosphere in their flagship stores (e.g. David Chipperfield, Renzo Piano, Zaha Hadid, Toyo Ito).
• Temples: By temple I mean the new “museums” of Luxury houses, merging art and grandeur (e.g. La Fondation Louis Vuitton by Frank Gehry)
• Customer Service: Best-in-class exclusive customer service and loyalty programs. (Some brands are doing exclusive sales in flats, just for a few customers. Others are coming to your place in or der to provide a “made-to-measure dress or suit”).
Source: La Fondation Louis Vuitton
• Experience: This concept has evolve because of the internet and brands are trying to offer an excellent customer experience in their stores, on the internet, thru their apps, in every single point of contact. This is why everyone is talking about the importance of Omnichannel. Brands are alive and storytelling it’s a must if they want to keep their special approach to their loyal customers.
• Quality: It´s not all about marketing and experience. Quality is still a must in luxury fashion retailers. Customers are looking for handmade items and “Made in” is sacred (above all, Made in Italy and Made in France). This means that luxury retailers still produce most of their collections near shore. Off shore (e.g. China) is used to produce items for the aspirational customer, that is looking for an opening price level. In fact, Luxury retailers have evolved into vertical structured business in order to control the quality across the value chain. From fabric to retailing.
• Exclusivity: Uniqueness is given because of scarcity. This applies to raw materials, (vicugna, the South American camelids that give some of the finest fibers in the world, at a diameter of 12 μm), skilled handmade labor or quantity of production (e.g. Hermés Birkin bag waiting list).
• Designers: Designers are the gods of the industry, with the permission of CEO that understand and make the business “possible”. A designer can destroy or honor a brand. See the case of Moschino revival with Jeremy Scott.
• DNA: The fashion industry has something special compared to the rest of industries and this is DNA, roots and the history of their founders. Most of them are centenary, and they keep giving the essence of their founders. All have evolved and adapt to changes, as Darwin would suggest, but all are respectful with their foundation.
Top Luxury Fashion retailers from the pyramid – Illustrative
- Absolute: Hermés, Dior, Channel, Bottega Veneta
- Aspirational: Prada, YSL, Gucci, Dolce Gabbana, Armani, Ermenegildo Zegna, LV, Fendi
- Accessible Luxury: Max Mara, DKNY, Paul Smith, Coach, Michael Kors, Furla
- Premium: Ralph Lauren, Guess
Is this pyramid immutable? No. Brands evolve and consumers also. A bad distribution strategy can have a negative effect on brand perception. This is the case of Ralph Lauren or Michael Kors, two premium brands that are struggling to compete in the luxury market because they are betting to every channel (wholesale, outlets, online…) and they are losing pricing control. When you are selling the same item in different channels, and price is different, customers will react. And Luxury is about uniqueness and if everyone has the same bag, it no longer becomes special. Brand positioning is flexible and to connect to new generations, to have a consistent distribution strategy and to deliver a unique and authentic experience are some of the key elements in order to succeed in the long term.