Pivot to quality
Quality as a competitive strategy
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Where did the premium fashion brands go? They used to sit below luxury, emulating its looks and serving the audience of aspirants who wanted to dress and look like the rich. In addition to copying luxury fashion, premium brands also put forward an aesthetics of their own (metrosexual, preppy, workwear, vamp, hippie, Western frontier…). Their demise is almost universally attributed to lack of innovation (apparently there are limits to seasonal riffs on workwear) and to the rise of fast fashion brands, which took over the role of furious emulators of the luxury fashion’s innovations.
They still have that role, churning new copies at the speed made possible by just-in-time-manufacturing. Speed has been one of the ways they have achieved competitive advantage; low price is another.
Faced with the low prices dominating the market, premium brands did the same: they started reducing the quality of their items and offering incessant discounts (30%, 50%, 70%, 90%). It is not outrageous to think that the most desperate among the premium brands would start paying shoppers to take their product.
The strategy of discounting works until it doesn’t. Without aesthetic innovation and speed to market, low quality and low price do not provide a competitive advantage.
The opposite does.
A finely tuned quality/price ratio is the new market opportunity. It is a competitive advantage.
The most important piece of brand communication today is not a fashion campaign, or store windows, or a beautiful Instagram grid. It’s the product label.
Product labels are the new nexus of a brand’s innovativeness and differentiation.
Information what is something made of fits well in the existing fashion system. It also subverts it, in the sense that gives products durability beyond trends. For example, The Frankie Shop captures the zeitgeist like very few premium fashion brands do. The brand introduced the oversized blazer look a few years back, and it’s still going strong. They are also responsible for the shoulder padded tees, which enjoyed their extended moment of fame. Owning the look that everyone wears without knowing why has always been a secret ingredient of a fashion brand’s success. Imagine now if The Frankie Shop made its items in a slightly better quality materials for the slightly higher prices. Nothing would be different - people would still buy them en masse - except slightly more durable, better fitting, more comfortable on the skin (this last point is not trivial: touch is one of our most basic senses, and one increasingly important/desired in the digital world).
When the fashion world was simpler - seasonal trends were agreed on, editors steered consumers’ attention - premium fashion brands competed through a combo of the above: an owned aesthetic mixed with seasonal favorites. But today there’s isn’t the trend. There are many fashion trends, all happening at the same time and all peaking quickly and then dissipating into the mainstream. Fashion is one of the modes of the expression: there are TikTok videos, curation of anything from plants to coffee beans to vinyl records. Fashion is also a vast field of individual interests and influences, spanning decades, locations and contexts. This is great. It’s also infinitely more difficult to compete in mass- and premium- fashion markets beyond price and speed to market (a very few global brands have reconfigured their supply and distribution chains into something more nimble and resilient).
When durability, of both trends and items equally is the challenge, quality is the answer. For the past 20 years, the quality of materials has become an afterthought in the fashion business. Pick any premium fashion brand from early ‘00s and you’d be shocked at how rich, thick and sturdy it feels. At the time, clothes were made to last.
In the context were mass-market clothes are made to be worn less than 10 times, having a visibily better quality is a competitive advantage. Unaccustomed to quality, Gen Z has yet to discover it, and once they do, they may very easily like it. The rise and rise of vintage fashion is an example: it is now mainstream to buy vintage, and it is aspirational among Gen Z. Gen X and Millennials may become nostalgic for quality, and ask themselves why did they ever shopped differently.
This isn’t wishful thinking. Pivot to quality (of ingredients in food, furniture, work-life balance, entertainment, news and content) is happening across social, cultural and economic domains. Netflix faced a lot of backlash (and not a lot of financial gains) with their massive global growth strategy that came at the expense of the quality content they once nurtured. In a recent article, “The Junkification of Amazon,” New York Magazine reported that customer satisfaction has fallen sharply, citing poor search results and “low-quality” items. “More products are junk, reviews are junk” the article concludes. Mmass social networks lack the quality of desirable social connections. In the past few years, the restaurant industry reconfigured itself around quality of its food, service and ambiance: brutal as this reconfiguration was, it was a Darwinian scenario of the best versus the rest.
Any brand that is looking to claim - or reclaim - relevance should start with quality first: of its fabrics, materials, hardware, finishes and fit. Diesel’s net sales in 2021 were $1.71bn, a healthy shift from the bankruptcy in 2019. Clever marketing brings the customers in, but quality keeps them coming back and advocating for a brand. Higher prices that accompany better quality will turn the discount shoppers off, but this is offset by smarter commercial planning and marketing allocation (how many full-price customers does a brand need to attract in order to offset the loss of discount shoppers).
Pivot to quality is a competitive strategy with positive externalities (buying less but better, having a longer-lasting clothes, supporting a more sustainable fashion industry). It is also the only way to win for the new market entrants and the premium brands staging a comeback.
Completely agree and I often find myself now heading to the product details section of garments I’m looking to purchase. Any premium menswear brands that are standing out to you?
great article. It points out all the right facts. It is for us (taverimoto.com) of utter importance to excactly follow these steps so that we can make the difference (motorcycle wear is like fast fashion, copy paste and mostly produced in Pakistan or China). We will never follow path and it feels good to see that acknowledged here.