What drives the modern high-fashion market after all? Is it just people’s obsession with labels or something more than that? Read on to find out, with Ashutosh Kukreja…

FACT: The fashion business of the modern era is driven by the sales of its handbags.

For an industry often associated with glamorous runway shots and editorials of extravagant dresses and intricate couture, it’s rather hard to believe that fashion, as a matter of fact, does not earn an awful lot of revenue from its garments. The very concept of the fashion industry has always been intrinsically linked with clothing to the point of synonymity – not only in context of its portrayal in the general media, but for all intents and purposes in the present day: fashion has always been clothing with an extension to accessories. The archetype persists, but the sales don’t.

Although titled as ‘accessories’, this genre of fashion merchandise is anything but an accessory when it comes to actual sales. The evolving consumption patterns over recent years reveal that it’s the shoes, accessories, leather goods, fragrances and branded t-shirts that increasingly bring big money to the table, while many of the ready-to-wear outfits displayed on designer runways do not even see the light of production. Take for instance Kering, the luxury conglomerate heading well-known design houses such as Gucci, YSL, Balenciaga and others: accessories and leather goods made up for about 50% of the total revenue of its luxury division while ready to wear composed only 16% of the same as of 2015. Clearly, the scales have tipped in favor of the more-poundbearing, long considered ‘et cetera’ of the fashion world vis-à-vis the former ‘hero’ of the business (pun intended!).

Tracing the roots of this interesting pattern generated by fashion consumers, the accessories segment of the fashion market owes its popularity to its cheaper price: cheaper, that is to say, than the ready-to-wear or couture pieces; though far more expensive compared to generic versions of the same products. And the fact that these products also happen to be the ones that are the most heavily branded and hallmarked, doesn’t hurt.

While some may argue, “it’s the quality that drives the price tag!”, it would probably sit better if the product’s price was double or even triple its generic counterpart (an amount more than reasonable to ensure better materials, finer trimmings, fair wages, sustainable production and stronger quality controls) rather than the ten-fold price spike that is usually observed. Given such a scenario, one can’t help but wonder if the customer buys a pure cotton t-shirt for £190 from Versace over one from Zara that costs £19, simply because of the ‘V-E-R-S-A-C-E’ emblazoned across the chest.

It is the human obsession with branding. And to understand it, is to question the core concept of designer labels in the fashion industry. Simply put, a brand is an identity, and the very purpose of one for a designer is to have a unique character to distinguish themselves from their competitors in the business. That being said, designer labels or brands acquire new dimensions with changing times and contexts; they become symbolic of entities beyond themselves.

Brands may transform into symbols of nations or notions. Take for instance, Burberry: born in the trenches of the World War, a brand identifiable instantly for its trench coats and checks, which is now perhaps as symbolic of British culture and heritage as Big Ben. Or Chanel: a constant emblem of the empowered woman and the celebration of her femininity, loyal to the spirit in which the design house was first established by its founder, and recognized through its signature quilted bags and its two-toned shoes, not to mention the iconic ‘CC’ logo.

Moreover, brands also assume extra characters by means of representation in popular media – movies, music videos, TV series et cetera – by either actively being central components of the production, or through passive (but effective) product placement. There’s perhaps no better example of the former than the globally famous Sex and the City franchise, a show just as much about the protagonists’ relationship with Manolo Blahniks, as with men; whereas to quote cases of the latter, look no further than any popstarof-the-moment’s music videos (generally found loaded with labels!). Case in point: the famous Jennifer Lopez music videos, with Swarovski earrings being featured in ‘On The Floor’, and Gucci glasses in ‘I’m Into You’, among other examples by other artists. Away from the screens, celebrity endorsements of branded products lend a whole new set of characteristics to those brands. In simpler words, when popular figures lend their face to a label, they essentially lend their personality to it, as the label now shines in the same celebrity light of the said popular figures.

Therefore, a brand label isn’t merely a unique marker of a designer’s work, but quintessentially, a potent symbol brimming with meaning and connotations in a historic/modern cultural context beyond its initial intended purposes. Values are projected on to these brands that they didn’t originally possess, as the customers see them in a different framework, considering the same context. And that’s what affects the saleability of big-name brands. But the main ethos behind buying shoes and accessories over garments extends a tad bit further into the consumer’s pocket and perspective.

It’s no secret that the price tag attached to high fashion merchandise is well beyond the usual budget of the average customer. To put it in other words, the high-fashion heavy price tag, by hindering accessibility to the majority, gives off a vibe of ‘exclusive luxury’ (read: elitism?). And it is that very exclusivity that fuels the desirability of high fashion, because everyone wants to be exclusive.

Going back to the ‘cheapER but still pretty fucking expensive!’ price point attached to many of these fashion accessories, it still sits at the sweet spot of being somewhat affordable for a treat-yourself-kind-of-expenditure for many people, who view it as a splurge enabling them a peek into an out-ofbounds luxurious lifestyle. And even though it may be the least expensive item in the store, it still acts as a symbol of the brand and all the connotations and ideas associated with it in the bigger perspective of things; it weirdly gives the customer a sense of belonging to all the ideas and idolised people attached to the brand in some way or the other.

Again, with the high set prices and the loud branding that tends to adorn most accessories, these fashion items are treated just as much (if not more) as status symbols, working on more levels than one. Besides the financial standpoint, fashion accessories serve as status symbols of the wearer’s taste (significant of good taste in culture, art and design), their social status (significant of their sense of belonging and social standing in their respective circles) and as personal status symbols of motivation and self-validation.

Apart from the retail amount factor, what contributes to the accessory popularity over garments is the fact that most of the designer shoes and accessories have a longer life, stylistically speaking, and are less prone to being trend-shamed away within six months or so – something that may not necessarily apply to ready-to-wear, which tends to change more evidently with every new collection. Also, most accessories aren’t prone to being seasonal in nature, which lends them the quality of being wearable nearly any time of the year (“A fair return on an expensive investment!” as some people might see it). In addition, with a very prominent and dominant industry of fast fashion in the market, especially known for duplicating designer clothing collections, consumers can practically get the same pieces (or similar ones at best), for nearly one-twentieth of the price offered by their designer counterparts.

Modern fashion consumption, therefore, doesn’t quite present a ‘Labels or Love’ situation, as much it displays a ‘Labels and Love’ phenomenon. The love for labels is originally inspired by the products bearing them, and consequently in an interesting manner, the products partly owe their cost to the labels attached to them (especially in the contemporary context). And it is this dynamicity and interdependence that drives the market forward. However, in an age where conscious consumption is soon becoming the need of the hour, it’s probably best to exercise our power as consumers responsibly, or as Luke Brandon puts it, “Cost and worth are very different things” [Confessions of a Shopaholic, 2009] – and it’s time we as a society realise that.

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