Friday, July 19, 2024

Fashion needs independent brands, so why do they keep closing?

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The first time I realised that The Vampire’s Wife had changed the way women dressed was in 2018 at All Points East Festival. The brand’s founder, Susie Cave, was there supporting her husband, Nick Cave, who was headlining the Victoria Park event. The VIP area was filled with women wearing a very different festival uniform to the denim cut-offs and band T-shirts that had previously dominated. Instead, Kate Moss, Florence Welch and Kylie Minogue wore high-necked, jewel-coloured, body-skimming dresses. They looked like an otherworldly cult that belonged to another, dream-like era – one you wanted to escape into. These dresses were grown-up, romantic and somehow subversive. They were also endlessly flattering, which is of course part of the reason they went stratospheric over the course of the brand’s decade-long life.

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The Princess of Wales wearing The Vampire’s Wife on a royal trip to Belize

“These dresses were grown-up, romantic and somehow subversive”

The Vampire’s Wife Falconetti dress

The Vampire's Wife Falconetti dress

Since its origin in 2014, The Vampire’s Wife was worn by everyone from the Princess of Wales to Keira Knightley and Sarah Jessica Parker. But beyond its international celebrity following, its fan-base was also anyone with deep enough pockets who wanted to feel special at a big event (Cave’s dresses retailed at around £1,000). They were worn to weddings and Christmas parties – anywhere that women wanted to feel truly beautiful in an understated way. The label’s hero piece, The Falconetti – a waist-defining, round-necked style with a frill trim – was hailed ‘the dress of the decade’ by the fashion press. It was restrained and timeless, but also seductive.

Fast forward to 2024, and the brand has gone bust. “Despite a period of positive growth and sales, the upheaval in the wholesale market has had dramatic implications for the brand,” read a statement. Cave herself expressed “great sadness” at the news and thanked her “extended family at The Vampire’s Wife who helped to create such beautiful things. I cannot describe how much you have all meant to me.”

While the announcement came as a surprise to many, the collapse of The Vampire’s Wife is not an isolated case. No longer is it enough for a designer to survive with just vision and customer support alone. Earlier this week, the London Fashion Week stalwart Roksanda Ilinčić, announced that she had sold her namesake label, Roksanda, to The Brand Group (TBG), citing “recent volatile market conditions”. In 2023, fashion and celebrity favourite Christopher Kane shuttered his label, preceded by Nicholas Kirkwood, Meadham Kirchhoff and Sibling. Other independent brands including Mary Katrantzou and Giles have scaled back their operations. The British fashion landscape is increasingly a tough place to be for independent businesses, but why?

“If we start with The Vampire’s Wife, the label’s problems began during the pandemic,” says the luxury consultant Hélène Holzmann. “Its hero product was the evening dress and no one was going anywhere for a substantial amount of time. That made a dent in their profits, and was followed by a winding-up petition from HMRC last year. Those debts were settled but, since then, the business had been struggling with distribution – it sold a lot at Matches, which has obviously now closed. Like a lot of independent brands, they relied heavily on Matches and Farfetch, another struggling multi-brand platform.”

keira knightley

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Keira Knightley wearing The Vampire’s Wife in 2018

natalie portman

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Natalie Portman wearing The Vampire’s Wife in 2019

In March of this year, Matches folded, causing a ripple effect among the brands it stocked, with the worst impact falling on the independents such as The Vampire’s Wife. Unable to pay its bills, many labels were left hugely out of pocket. The Times reported that, according to the administrator’s report, Matches owed Cave’s company £32,250. “The closure of Matches is very difficult for smaller brands who have limited cash flow,” explains Holzmann. “It’s very difficult for them to recover. Fashion is an eco-system.”

Brexit and the end of free trade has also caused significant issues for British fashion brands who now face increased trade costs and the removal of tax-free shopping to tourists. “Brexit has certainly posed the biggest challenge for us over the past two years, particularly with increased shipping costs, taxes, and logistics in Europe,” says Henrietta Rix of Rixo, which is still independently owned. “The additional taxes and duties have made it difficult to trade as profitably.”

susie cave

Harper’s Bazaar

Susie Cave at the 2018 Harper’s Bazaar Women of the Year Awards

Rixo has overcome these hurdles by focusing on US expansion with a New York pop-up store opening earlier this month and a new collaboration with an LA-based brand Ciao Lucia. That said, the business is still feeling the pandemic pinch. “Wholesale has been tricky since Covid in all honesty,” admits Rix. “Multi-brand platforms are a lot more careful with their buy and we are on sell-through guarantees with our big customers, which means if a certain percentage of our pieces aren’t sold at full-price, then the stockist can sell them at a marked-down price. We have to monitor their buys extremely carefully.”

The cost of living crisis has also meant that shoppers are watching their spending more than ever. “High-net-worth shoppers not affected, but the aspirational are,” says Holzmann. “Mortgage rates are increasing, food prices are up – life is more expensive, which means that the luxury fashion that they might have saved for previously, is now out of reach. Rental services and second-hand platforms make more sense to the consumer. How many times are you going to wear that Vampire’s Wife dress? British independent brands have been heavily impacted by these options. If you have an option to rent why wouldn’t you?”

henrietta rix and orlagh mccloskey

Rixo designers Henrietta Rix and Orlagh McCloskey

“Brexit has certainly posed the biggest challenge for us”

The fashion rental business is booming. The Business Research Company reports that the online clothing rental market is expected to grow by 11.4 per cent from $1.57 billion in 2023 to $1.75 billion in 2024. More of us are turning to platforms such as By Rotation and Hurr for both environmental and financial reasons. For Rixo, who partnered with Hurr in 2023, these platforms are an important part of its vision. “The rise of the rental and second-hand markets complements our mission,” says Rix. “We pride ourselves on the longevity and diversity of our pieces and have always loved the idea of Rixo product being passed down through generations.”

Still, the threats posed by Brexit, the demise of the multi-brand luxury e-stores, and the cost of living squeeze mean that independent brands have more to manage financially than previously. Luxury conglomerates such as LVMH and Kering might offer stability, but can involve creative compromise and a lack of control. “Allowing monopolies to dominate the industry can lead to homogenisation, where unique voices and small-scale innovators are overshadowed by a few major players,” says Olya Kuryshchuk, the founder and editor in chief of 1Granary, a global fashion education platform and creative network. “The path itself should be redeveloped. There need to be new spaces for independent brands, new business models, new channels to connect to audiences. Emerging brands need to start creating those, and stop purely relying on others to be supporting them. It is a demanding time, and young designers need to be brave enough to do things differently in order to survive and build a healthy business.”

christopher kane

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Christopher Kane, who was forced to close his brand in June 2023

An argument often thrown at homegrown designers is that, while they boast talent and creative vision in spades, they lack business acumen. Our fashion colleges, including Central Saint Martins and London College of Fashion, are widely regarded as among the best in the world, but have been criticised for not furnishing design students with a commercial understanding of how the industry works. “Too much responsibility is placed on fashion schools, and too much is expected of the designers themselves,” says Kuryshchuk. “We want designers to have a unique vision, be skilled in executing that vision, come up with sustainability solutions, be public speakers, excel as accountants, lawyers, production managers, social-media managers, and HR experts. Perhaps it’s time to promote the idea of building brands as teams, recognising the input and value of diverse roles within those brands, and teach those skills separately.”

“Too much is expected of the designers themselves”

It will take a lot for the current crop of British independent brands to survive, but it’s essential to the international fashion industry that they do. Without them, the shape of our cultural landscape will be infinitely poorer. “Independent brands drive innovation and creativity,” emphasises Kuryshchuk. “They serve as incubators for new talent and foster new communities. Often prioritising sustainability and ethical practices, they set new standards for the industry and challenge the status quo. It’s crucial that we don’t find ourselves in a place where only conglomerates have a say.”

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