The Balancing Act Of Fashion Business

Where does the value of artistic creativity stand in a conventional business model that is product-driven and sales focused?

Words by Pak Lun Chiu

London fashion weeks are usually lauded as an unabashed creative affair, like a rebellious sibling to New York and Milan, where the artistic expressions are proudly presented with cheeky misbehaviour. Whilst this ‘misbehaviour’’ continues to push the boundaries of fashion and even society as a whole — a case in point is Charles Jeffrey Loverboy whose work ensures the minority powers of LGBTQ+ are a force to be reckoned with — critics and big businesses like to land a few cold punches on the reality of these designs; “So what? How can we benefit from this artistically creative but commercially neglectable talent?”.

Kevin Tadge Image by Kevin Tadge,

This may ring true, as most people who work in the industry will tell you that it is the permanent, or “fuss-free” items, that bring the money home — think of the popular Gucci logoed pool sliders that are repeatedly released. Yet, it is this commercially-driven mentality that pushes me to think of the importance of true artistic creativity; the type of artistic skills that designers use (e.g. visual interpretation & figural expressions) to innovate and add value to people and culture. In one way or another, we all get touched and inspired by this kind of creativity. It affects the way we view ourselves and influences others through our expressions with clothes and fashion. It is evident in the way artists help us interpret social justice, and even the way we consume technological innovations and how these have integrated into our everyday lives.

But as our (fashion) industry operates in a conventional business model that is product-driven and sales focused first, where does the value of artistic creativity stand?

Whilst many fashion companies are feeling the pressure to perform in an industry that is already facing a slump in sales and profit growth — just 2.5% - 3.5% of total sales growth reported in 2017 — the artistry and creative elements that fashion professionals spent years to hone have not been abandoned by the system; not just yet. From interviews with eight fashion professionals including designers, wholesale managers, strategy experts and merchandisers, their devoted love for creativity in fashion has continued to prevail:

“Every fashion business is like that… that's the risk part that I was telling you about. The commercial team knows that it’s going to be really hard to produce this creative print. But we really stick to it and I'm really happy with that because as I told you, it's what makes the collection alive.” — Jo, Wholesales team

“The market will only ask you to create the kind of product they know and they feel would suit them. But if you only do that, you die at the end of the day. Because you also have to anticipate” — Annie, Product strategies

Despite the commercial risks that come with the above use of creative skills, the professionals saw this as a worthwhile gamble essential for creating a sense of anticipation; keeping the collection “alive”, so to say. However, the demands of running a business can be overwhelming. Marc, a menswear designer, and Alex, a design manager, confessed that the priority of securing commercial sales has dominated the focus of their everyday work, sending their beloved artistic expressions into second place:

“I did this shirt for one season. That was the best-seller and immediately you play smart, you just do it again for every season, but with new colours or with new fabrics. When you do a collection where you know every single piece has to end up in the store, you really have to think in that way, you know” — Marc, Menswear designer

“The designers want to play with colours and they want to play with textures. Sometimes they want to be a bit creative and I as a manager have to say “no, I mean it’s nice but it’s worth nothing” because it’s really worth nothing… for me, it’s worth nothing because it’s not going to produce money and this is all about money” — Alex, Design manager

Fanny Dora Image by Fanny Dora,

The unspoken motto for design teams is to make clothes that are sellable. By engaging in the repetition of designs and relying on past-sales data, the professionals I interviewed have come up with a strategy that meets sales targets and financial success. For some professionals, this priority can take its toll as it removes the heart and soul from the design process:

“I guess that’s the issue with capitalism, the final motivation is to sell. It’s very much down to the sale, which is very disheartening to see” — Jess, Womenswear designer

With the issue of capitalism being raised by Jess, a designer who has served the industry for over a decade, I couldn’t help but question if presenting a challenge to the business status quo is equivalent to fighting a losing battle. Let’s face it, we all need to make money for our business and everyday survival. But how much are we willing to sideline our creative spirits in order to feed the financial beast?

In light of business priorities, it appears the artistic side of fashion has been relegated to the roles of support acts and side-shows.

Taking the descriptions made by Jo, as shown below, it seems the more creative and edgy pieces were used as a teaser to the main event, creating excitement for the otherwise more classic pieces that carried the real money-making appeal:

“That’s fine because we don't want to have a boring collection. We want to have this kind of aggressive thing that is used to make the customer look at the more classic pieces...

...OK, you see this print which you’re probably not gonna buy, but next to it you're going to see the classic trench coat that you were always looking for” — Jo, Wholesales team

It is the dare to dream and the capacity to create that drew my heart to the art of fashion and there is something uncomfortable about knowing that the artistic allure has been used as a prop, only to provide a shop-front to the forever sellable items. Could creativity in fashion regain its value when the importance of money has taken precedence? I believe it can, as most individuals who enter this industry are not here to make big money — no, there are other industries that will fulfill this in an easier and a quicker way. Like the professionals who were interviewed here, economist Trine Bille and her team found that artists from 49 countries reported a higher happiness with their work than non-artists, but only if their work valued the use of initiatives and utilised their creative skills. The point to take away here is that creativity is important not just because it provides social capital for society, but it also offers creatives an enjoyment in what they do. Can we find a solution that places these values back at the centre of the fashion design process, driving profitability through creativity rather than in spite of it?

Fictional names have been used to protect the privacy of participating professionals.

Further Reading:

When Creativity Meets Control by Cristiano Busco, Mark Frigo, Elena Giovannoni, & Maria Pia Maraghini
Fashion Thinking: Creative approaches to the design process by Fiona Dieffenbacher
Fashion Professionals Perspectives on Creativity by Elena Karpova, Sara Marcketti, & Jessica Barker


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