Donna is arguably one of the most powerful people in Australian fashion. She was most recently the Head of Merchandise at David Jones. With the recent spate of middle market fashion exits – Marcs, David Lawrence, Willow, Herringbone, Rhodes & Becket etc; who better to give their opinion on what’s missing in the Australia fashion market.
Q: What’s your take on the Australian Fashion at the moment – what’s underpinning the recent demise of the middle market?
Donna: The commonality is that all the brands that we’ve heard about (that are failing or have failed) are running on vertical models whether they’ve got stand alone stores, or concessions – they rely on a vertical margin.
They are being squeezed on rent by their landlords – paying more than 30% of sales (source: Savills). That’s high! Added to that there’s a lack of differentiation. They’re all doing the same thing – they’re taking inspiration from the catwalk and, with the entry of H&M and Zara, that’s now become a game of efficiency. The big internationals have nailed it. H&M and Zara can bring product to store weeks after you’ve seen it on the catwalk.
Q: It seems that Australia fashion is always on sale, aside from sharper pricing, what does H&M + Zara get right?
Donna: With Zara (or H&M) it’s there and you know if you don’t buy it then and there it will be gone. That makes it fun. As a business they have a much more aggressive lifecycle. Whereas, the middle market doesn’t have that immediacy. As a customer, you know that item will be on sale later if you don’t buy it then and there. They have trained the Australian customer to look for and expect a discount.
They also put out seasonal stock too early. For example, if I were to walk the floor today (when everyone’s started merchandising winter clothes) I don’t want to try on knitwear or outwear – it’s not cold yet – but that’s what’s on offer. I know if I want a new coat I can wait until it’s on promo discount in a couple of weeks time…when they need to clear that stock – and it’s actually cold enough to wear the coat.
Then there’s the fact that they all use the same model – they travel overseas to get samples and then copy them – that’s what everyone does. That might have worked in the past, but now you have someone (H&M and Zara) doing it fast and cheaper. So really, there’s so many brands to choose from with such similar design that you (as a customer) start to make a decision based on price.
The fact is Australian mid-market fashion is copied not designed.
Q: How would a brand need to change in order to adopt the idea of ‘designed not copied’?
D: It’s all about the principles of editing. You need to be able to edit what’s on trend according to your design point-of-view. For example, (cult Australian brand) Camilla has never met a colour she didn’t liked. She’s unique. At the moment everyone’s doing pastels (that’s what’s on trend) and instead Camilla continues to design her collections with her customer firmly in mind and that may mean the collection is about strong colour when everyone else is knee-deep in pastels. That’s being a ‘designed’ brand. Australian fashion companies have fallen down because they’re not design-led businesses. They’ve become ‘inspired by overseas trends’ businesses.
Q: There’s obviously exceptions to this, who else do you think is doing a good job to ‘design not copy’?
D: I think Cue, it’s a mid-market brand that has a strong aesthetic. Then there’s Veronica Maine – these are brands that know who their customer is and they’ve chosen designs accordingly.
For example, Cue with their body hugging attire for the office girl or Veronica Maine which I imagine in my head is more for the ‘environmental lawyer’ type.
They don’t get distracted with the hot label or trend of the moment (like everyone else) – that’s where it all falls over.
Seed is also a great label. They’re very clever because their stores are cluttered with merchandise – high densities of accessories and clothes. It feels like there’s lots of things you can buy – it’s a treasure hunt. In terms of their design, they allow you to wear a trend safely. They provide a great uniform for their customer (who is more of the ‘yummy mummy’) and well priced enough to work for a season. Then with menswear I think Industrie and Calibre do a good job.
Q: How about overseas, who is notable to watch in this space?
D: Personally I think H&M-owned COS is a fantastic brand. They use prints, colour and fabrics really well plus they’re well priced. I think as they expand in Australia they will hurt other mid-market fashion retailers (ie. Country Road, Witchery etc).
Then there’s Club Monaco in the US, they do a great job in womenswear and menswear – they’re selling you a lifestyle, not just clothes. The flagships have the florist and coffee shops. It’s not just clothes you’re buying into the whole aesthetic.
Q: You made a point around winter coats being in store in late Summer, talk to me about the importance of seasonality?
D: If we (the retail industry) could crack this idea that the product you have in store must be appropriate for the season – that would be great. At the moment, merchandise is always in store at the wrong time. The fact is you won’t sell a winter coat in February. We assume that people buy a whole season at once – maybe a coupe of decades ago that was true. Now you buy something when you want it or need it. Particularly when it comes to winter – it is a grudge season, you’re leaving summer behind and that means goodbye to longer hours, being outdoors etc. No one wants to be reminded that it’s going be winter, yet we do it all the time in fashion. When we put clothes out too early (in the season), we end up in sale because we haven’t moved stock. Everyone jumps to sale, because everyone else jumps. I think all that your doing is pulling the dollars forward and that’s a mug game. The fact is that we’re not in time with our customer behaviour.
Q: Finally what advice do you have for brands operating in the ‘middle market’?
- Absolutely understand you customer, then design accordingly for her or him. If your customer always buys a certain shade of blue then just because green is on trend overseas doesn’t mean you should walk away from blue entirely.
- The middle market is ‘Forever 40′ and she doesn’t want to dress like her mother but she’s not as young as say Dotti. I see a lot of ‘Forever 40s’ who are in Zara – they want to live longer look better and feel better but also I think she wants to be appropriate for her age.
- Finally, be brave when you put seasonally appropriate merchandise in the market.
The fact is that we not in time or tune with our customer behaviour