Exploring the garment gap: why high fashion brands sell more accessories than clothes

If you take a walk on any college campus, you will notice one thing for certain: a plethora of young women who tote designer handbags and trek in name-brand shoes, yet sport low-end loungewear in terms of clothing. And, it is no accident that a large percentage of young women dress this way. Their style, or lack thereof, is evidence of the garment gap: the phenomenon in which luxury clothing brands sell exponentially more accessories than actual garments.

“For me [producing every single look from the runway for retail] is absolutely necessary,” Dries Van Noten told The Talks in 2015.

Per The Fashion Law, the Belgian designer’s sentiment “sheds light on his ongoing resistance to conforming to a larger practice in the fashion industry,” i.e., “brands’ reliance on the sales of non-runway–and in many cases, non-garment–goods to derive the majority of their profits.”

There is no question that many big-name designers (think: Chanel, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Yves Saint Laurent) sell more handbags, shoes, even makeup and fragrance than they do clothing. In fact, “leather goods represent over 50 percent of the €7.9 billion that the conglomerate’s luxury division earned in revenue for the 2015 fiscal year,” while “ready-to-wear accounted for only 16 percent,” according to The Fashion Law.

“At Louis Vuitton–by far LVMH’s most valuable and recognizable brand, accounting for no less than one-third of total group sales and almost half of its profit–bags play a significant role,” The Fashion Law Continues.

“[Louis Vuitton’s] current roster of bags and related accessories includes upwards of 850 products,” while “shop-able womenswear collections consist of just over 380 products.”

To anyone with fair reasoning skills, it may seem pretty pointless, for lack of a better term, for luxury fashion brands to design clothes anymore. After all, both the amount of effort and the cost of putting together just one fashion show are extremely high. But, high fashion has never been logical or practical–quite the opposite, in fact. The Fashion Law lists two major reasons high-fashion brands continue to show garments on the runway, despite the fact they never make the transition to retail:

“The first [is] that runway garments are simply not meant to represent marketable items but instead, serve a different purpose.”

“One could argue that modern day couture and ready-to-wear shows, in many cases, are more akin to large scale marketing events for brands–for the purpose of enabling and/or maintaining lucrative licensing deals–than buying opportunities for clients.”

When you think this through, it actually makes a lot of sense in today’s society. Fashion shows once served as buying opportunities for clients, as The Fashion Law states, but today, Fashion shows are more like pseudo-events. That is, they exist purely for publicity.

Chanel Fall/Winter 2017/2018 at Paris Fashion Week, March 2017 [source: Fashionisers]
“Over-the-top shows serve as an opportunity for brands to market themselves as luxury fashion brands,” The Fashion Law continues, bringing us to the second reason.

“The second reason centers on the tactic of putting runway garments on the back-burner in favor of brands more strongly pushing runway accessories and derivatives thereof–namely, bags and sometimes, shoes, [as well as] watered down garments, as these have proven to be key sources of income for brands.”

Plainly, this means clothes just aren’t selling for most high-end designers.

“For luxury brands, it is about licensing and handbags with nearly everything else taking the form of marketing,” according to The Fashion Law.

Thanks to Paris-based brands like Saint Laurent and Vetements, “the most recent rise of ‘it’ items…are not limited to bags.” Ultimately, when it comes to Saint Laurent, you think biker jackets, not purses. And, when it comes to Vetements, you think hoodies, sweats and activewear–definitely not handbags.

“Hoodies, bomber jackets, statement jeans and other eye-catching garments have taken center stage in street style shots, in Gucci stores, in editorials and elsewhere.”

But, this is a rarity and, not to mention, an extremely new phenomenon in the fashion industry.

“Most runway pieces never get produced. They’re marketing exercises. The legacy brands aren’t in the fashion business anymore. They’re selling handbags and lipstick,” Cameron Silver, founder of Decades, the posh Los Angeles vintage clothing store, told The Daily Beast last year.

Saint Laurent Fall/Winter 2017/2018 at Paris Fashion Week, February 2017 [source: Fashionisers]
“According to a report released by Exane BNP Paribas, accessories– namely, handbags–dominate in the luxury market. They represent one of the few categories with high sales densities and full-price sell-through rates,” according to The Fashion Law.

“As of 2016, they account for almost 30 percent of the total global luxury market, up from just 18 percent in 2003.”

So, why isn’t high fashion selling?

Silver has an answer: “Luxury brands have alienated the luxury customer.”

“Bloggers and celebrities, who either borrow or get clothes free, have replaced paying customers in the hearts, minds and front rows of fashion’s nabobs,” according to The Daily Beast.

Blogger Jetset Justine carries a Neverfull by Louis Vuitton and wears sunglasses by Ray-Ban [source: jetsetjustine.com]
“Runway clothes are made for magazines or loans,” Silver continues.

“Customers are low on the totem pole and they’re starting to rebel. It started in the mid-’90s with the red carpet and celebrities. Who wants to pay $250,000 for a couture dress they’ve seen loaned to some actress six months earlier?”

But, it’s not only couture that is failing to sell. Fast fashion has also taken its toll on ready-to-wear sales.

“Thanks to the Internet, [ready-to-wear] is also now instantly over-exposed,” writes The Daily Beast.

“By the time it’s in stores, it looks tired,” says Silver.

“The quirkiness of luxury, the artisanal experience, has largely been lost.”

Bloggers Chiara Ferragni and Aimee Song, among others, sit front row at Tommy Hilfiger’s Fall 2015 fashion show [source: runwaynewsroom.tommy.com]
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