Get the Fashion Story Straight

fashion, designer, new brands, ethical fashion, eco fashion, fashion story

I’m not interested in your bag because it is made in Brooklyn from recycled cotton, but I’ll be interested if it looks really nice and is super practical.

There seems to be a new trend in the world of fashion start-ups. We aren’t seeing as many celebrity fashion companies or brand collaborations being launched (thank god!) but instead I’m seeing a lot of new companies who are selling themselves solely on their “fashion story,” usually focused around the manufacturing.

You may have heard about these types of companies on Kickstarter or on social media – and sometimes on mainstream media. They are the companies who are selling a story: made in the USA, simple brand, timeless shapes, transparent pricing… Sound familiar? I wrote about two brands who operate like this a few weeks ago. And I happen to own a company who uses almost all of those lines as a selling point (except the last one, and we are made in Canada, but I digress…)

So you are probably wondering why I am about to start complaining about companies like this. I think it is important that people (especially the many clueless ones who are starting labels based on this premise) realize that these selling points aren’t enough to make a brand. When it comes to fashion, the product is most important, not the fashion story. You can create a romantic story about working with small family-run factories and sourcing your organic, naturally-dyed fabrics from local mills and creating garments that are going to last for years and not end up in a landfill. But without a strong product, the rest of this stuff is pointless.

fashion, designer, new brands, ethical fashion, eco fashion, fashion story

Do we need a new denim brand? Maybe if you are doing something amazing with fit or cut or durability. But if your story is “made in America” and you don’t have anything else to say, I’m not interested.

What I am trying to say is that you can’t create a story without a strong product behind it. It is like writing a novel with beautiful language and prose, but no storyline. Your product has to have aesthetic value and/or functional benefits that are selling points on their own. Maybe it is a beautiful design or maybe it provides excellent support or is completely waterproof. Whatever the benefits, they have to come first, above the fashion story. Those beautiful, high quality shoes from M Gemi, the perfectly cut and well priced basics from Everlane, or the chic, comfortable nightshirts from The Sleep Shirt come before where the company makes their product or what the story is behind the brand. Sorry for the self promotion there, but I wanted to highlight the fact that I know our brand wouldn’t have gotten anywhere if we had pushed our “Made in Canada” message as the main story. We make good looking nightwear that is comfortable to sleep in, that is what sells the product. The “Made in Canada” by a “small, independent company” is all secondary to our product.

I read recently about a brand in New York City founded by a fit model who claimed that she was tired of working with disposable fashion that has little regard for worker wages or environmental impact. She talked about how the clothes she tried on at work would fall apart after a few washes and fill our landfills. Her solution? Make more clothes. Her collection consisted of four tops and a dress, almost all identical in design and in a shape that would only fit women with no curves or bust. (In fact, a few of them were cut so that you couldn’t even wear a bra.)

fashion, designer, new brands, ethical fashion, eco fashion, fashion story

Womenswear is already a saturated market. Are you making a shirt that is going to add value to someone’s life? Or are you just adding to the clutter.

The designs were quite obviously not designed by a professional. The fit looked shoddy. And as a professional, I know that sourcing your fabrics from remnant stores and using factories in the Garment Disctrict is actually the easiest way to start a company. You can walk into a store and buy fabric! You can go to a factory and speak to them about the manufacturing! That is way easier than sourcing in bulk and trying to communicate with someone on the other side of the world. For some, producing locally may be for ethical reasons, but the professionals know that it is actually the easy way to do business if you are a start up who can charge a premium price point.

I don’t want to name and shame this one particular brand because this isn’t a post about dissing the companies that are at least trying to do something good. But I wanted to stress that this business is not just about a fashion story, it is about the product. And no matter where or how your product is made, you still need a really damn good one to succeed in the long run. I’m thrilled that we are finally seeing a decline in hideous celebrity collections, but the last thing I want is to see them being replaced by wannabee fashion designers who found a factory in Brooklyn and got a bit of backing on Kickstarter, and launched an “ethical” collection of “simple” garments that will “make you feel beautiful” – but don’t actually look that good. And please remember, you aren’t solving the problem of overflowing landfills by creating even more clothes, so make sure that isn’t the moral of your story.

Images from Voo Store. These don’t represent any of the brands I have been talking about!

  • anya

    I love this piece. I’ve gone to so many previews for way too basic brands whose only story was the local/ethical production. Now that H&M and Zara are making organic cotton tees, there’s got to be more of a concept for starting a brand.

  • Luh Dewi

    Great post Alexandra.

    As Simon Sinek says, companies should be selling the “why” not the “what”. But I agree with you, the quality of a product speaks for both its manufacturing as well as the vision for quality of the brand’s owners.

    But as a clothing manufacturing agent in Bali (we also build eCommerce sites for fashion brands), when we discuss designs with our clients and later their website content, they do want to accentuate the story, the why. That’s because consumers (generally) would rather buy from brands they connect with, from a company they can associate their personal life choices with. Its sort of like building a community of like-hearted people, around products, that as a collective they can feel the same about.

    The price humanity paid for the high demand of “cheap” clothing from “developed” countries like America/Canada has been the unethical manufacturing work conditions in places like South East Asia. You only need to look online for Nike and sweatshops.

    But I agree with you, that quality trumps the ‘story’; one can’t wear a story can they.

    NB: to Anya’s comment – organic cotton may actually just be expensive chemically treated cotton, may have been grown using genetically modified seeds (GMO’s need more chemical pest sprays), and aren’t regulated.
    Here is a quote from Organic Cotton dot org: “Unlike food, textile products don’t have to be certified in order to be described as organic. A product claiming to be organic might only contain a small percentage of organic cotton or may be made of organic cotton but dyed using toxic chemicals which would never be allowed in certified organic products.”

    I say check with the brand’s certifications.