We work hard at developing selves. A personal style both reflective and supportive of those selves. Some of us push through our High WASP reticence. We confess to feelings of anxiety and shameful desires for shiny eggplant purses. Others buy new black patent leather half boots or shift dresses covered in green palm trees or beaded vintage cardigans. We might, any one of us, feel that the leopard print scarf we itch to own will tell the story of our self, or even write it.
What we can’t forget, not for a moment, is that fashion is business. Businesses want first and foremost to make money. That’s a law of physics. They don’t particularly care about selves. To be clear, I have nothing against industry, per se. High WASPs are perhaps not supposed to be “in trade”, but all that money had to come from somewhere at one point. My mother’s family made their way up the capitalist mountain, from ministers to company owners, on the back of a valve factory. My father’s family made their money, at least the last version, by financing railroads. Lots of iron on both sides. I digress.
Fashion has a complex set of players. Consider. Like any other industry, fashion has a supply chain, a product, and end users. With a few twists. The end users are us. The product would seem to be clothing. But it isn’t. The industry couldn’t make enough money to profit all its players on clothing. The pieces of cloth and leather, decorated with feathers, or metal perhaps, are a vehicle for the real product. That addictive thrill of “God Am I Fabulous!” That little click of desire. The moment of rightness in the dressing room. Most of us, thankfully, have enough pieces of various forms of textile to keep ourselves warm and dry and out of jail. We’re buying more than cloth. We already understand that, I believe.
Nor does the supply chain consist, as might appear at first glance, only of textile mills, factory workers in Guangzhou, a few designers, and a whole lot of purchase points. In most industries, software, chemicals, even supermarkets, the associated media and influential talkers provide reasonably indepent analysis and commentary. Every industry has its trade publication. Progressive Grocer anyone? To say nothing of the Wall Street Journal. In fashion, because of the ephemeral nature of what is being sold, fashion media, both those beautiful pictures and the often ridiculous accompanying text, is part of the supply chain. Doesn’t analyze the product, instead is part of the product. This is unusual.
Below please find the Fashion Supply Chain in all its glory.
- Designers (known by name)
- Fashion Media (print, online publications, bloggers, Satorialist…)
- Standalone Brands (Lilly Pulitzer, J. Crew, Banana Republic, Anthropologie – you already know the URLs:))
- Multibrand Retailers (Neiman Marcus, Macy’s, Bluefly, net-a-porter)
- Little Guys (Goods, i.e. m0851, Fluevog, bensimons, etc. and Retailers, i.e. catbird, etc.)
- Stylists (Responsible for the photo ops for most items of desire)
- Visible Fashion Individuals (Celebrities, socialites, and occasionally the stylists and media types themselves. Rachel Zoe anyone?)
Each and every one looking to define the meaning of fabulous and reap the classic profit of the monopolist. The person who corners the market makes a killing. Every year. This can complicate matters for the rest of us. How many emails entitled All The Fall Trends?, from stores mostly, sit in your inbox right now? And the fashion media is not, as would the technology media, gleefully debunking what the manufacturers and retailers say.
Industries share some similar fault patterns. For example. Experts in every discipline occasionally design for themselves. In technology, software geniuses write programs that only other software geniuses could use. In fashion, designers design clothes that are NOT anything that was seen last year, targeted at impressing their peers. Unfortunately, sometimes NOT anything that we want to wear. Industries which provide self-expression and large sums of money to the talent, when said talent is plentiful in mediocrity and rare in excellence, chew up a lot of youth. Think fashion, music, movies. But the fault pattern in which commenting media is part of the supply chain? That may be unique to fashion.
Let me reassure you. I have no issue with business making money. That is its raison d’etre. But any industry lacking a true commenting media, as well as objective metrics for successful delivery of value to customers, requires some caution on the part of the participants. In particular, we end users lining up for delivery of “God Am I Fabulous!” need a pretty good knowledge of just what in hell fabulous means to us.
Or not. It’s OK to participate in an industry non-critically. Just be aware that in the absence of our healthy skepticism the forces of micro-economics are apt to give other players more than their fare share of the value created.