“Mass elitism, which has long been my dream [...], it’s the future of modernity.” Fashion czar Karl Lagerfeld used these words to comment on his collaboration with the Swedish fast fashion giant H&M in 2004. Always in tune with the world around him, he was the first to agree to create a collection dedicated to the mass market. A trend that marked the beginning of a new era in the fashion world, with a focus on accessibility that sees its fleeting nature as its primary essence. It was a “new” mechanism when it came to brand identity. A collection that sold out in an hour. Since then, for 12 years, the low-cost Swedish brand par excellence has presented a mini capsule collection in collaboration with an international designer. The best known? Stella McCartney, Jimmy Choo, Lanvin, Versace, Maison Martin Margiela (a remake of iconic garments), Comme des Garçons and Balmain.
In recent weeks, two co-branding operations have captured our attention, although to a varying extent and with different media effects. Kenzo for H&M and Jean Paul Gaultier for OVS.
One common element between the two initiatives, the only one I would add, is perhaps the presence of the collection in selected stores. And a capsule collection presented in line with the criteria of the two retailers, the high-end fashion essence of the branding partners, Gaultier on the one hand and the duo at the helm of Kenzo, formed by trendsetters Carol Lim and Humberto Leon, on the other. Without doubt, these two strategies from OVS (Oviesse, Coin Group) and H&M are poles apart.
We must not forget, in fact, the objective DNA that differentiates OVS, a clothing company and retailer, from H&M, a fashion brand, despite both having the same positioning on the market, but a model of customer that is only recently emerging as similar.
First of all, the marketing and communication strategies are different. Media events for H&M that do not escape the exhausting logic of waiting, which is increasingly catalysing the Ivy League of the fashion system. Leaving aside the see-now-buy-now phenomena, which do not seem to have had an actual effect beyond the New York fashion week (only time will prove these words wrong), it is the desire to be able to wear what we see on celebrities at red carpet events that breeds in us the desire to possess and therefore buy.
Another element to bear in mind is the media coverage of the two operations. An impressive presentation in New York for Kenzo for H&M: everyone who is anyone in fashion and great coverage, from Vogue Runway to L’Officiel and BoF. Jean Paul Gaultier’s collection for the Italian retailer was definitely on a smaller scale. The advertising campaign was entrusted to the careful eye of Eugene Recuenco, ready to highlight the unique style of the French enfant terrible, part Breton part deconstruction. Shyly but with determination, OVS took its first steps in the red carpet world for the occasion, choosing the Venice Film Festival and supermodel Bianca Balti to wear a trench coat from Gaultier’s capsule collection. All this a few months before its actual presence in the collection in-store.
But a question arises, an issue with decidedly broader contours. There is no doubt that the strategies supported by H&M are truly significant, but in the long run, summing up, how much do these collaborations actually pay off? And there’s more. Can these different types of behaviour on the market used by retailers help win over different groups of consumers, like in a game of fashion Risk, thus expanding their ability to compete?
Without doubt, H&M communication strategies are clearly different from those of OVS, but also from those of other retailers such as Zara. Considering the latter, no one has decided to move towards massive campaigns, expectation strategies or celebrity endorsement. OVS has focused its relaunch in the first instance on the reaffirmation of Italian retail outlets. With a very careful eye on France, Spain, Switzerland, Eastern Europe and the Middle East, today in Italy, the opening of direct OVS retail outlets is set to continue at a rate of 30-40 a year, 200 over five years. Another element that is not to be underestimated is sustainability, not only in terms of production but with a 3.1 focus on the workplace. Together with Excelsior Milano, OVS was the official retailer at EXPO 2015. A wooden raft and green woods, emphasising its vocation as a place to gather and relax, welcomed visitors to the OVS store at the EXPO, curated by a pool of interior designers and architects. OVS’s was a path that wound alongside the graphics inspired by “Foody”, the mascot of Expo Milano 2015, and continued with the capsule collections inspired by the Canticle of the Creatures created by Elio Fiorucci, and, later, with the collection of T-shirts featuring graphics designed by students at the Istituto Marangoni who worked under his tutorship. All products made only using organic cotton. The focus on reuse and sustainability dictated all the design choices in the pavilion, in order to allow the structure to be fully recycled at the end of Expo Milano 2015, becoming a nursery for employees at the OVS headquarters in Mestre.
But also Zara, from the Inditex group, has never focused on big media events and campaigns with a haute couture allure for its collections, concentrating instead on in-store experiences and on the extreme speeds between emergence of the trend, internal production and purchasing opportunities for customers.
In a world in which capsule collections and co-branding have become the expected and not the unexpected, what else should we be expecting?
Recently, the analytics leader Crimson Hexagon noted that during the week in which the H&M co-branding was launched, more than 200,000 posts on social media mentioned the brand: 34% of these conveyed a positive feeling. A percentage that does not normally exceed 10%, says The Business of Fashion. And half of these posts expressed an intent to buy, compared to the usual 14%. Significant data which does not, however, offer a full quantitative analysis of the phenomenon.
An approach making use of high-end fashion logics due to their aspirational nature, diversification of marketing activities including co-branding and sustainable production, in terms of both ethics and support for the new levers in fashion, and production speed, with customer satisfaction through immediacy and in-store experience. H&M, OVS and Zara: three business models which we have compared, albeit briefly. In a fashion industry which, according to The State of Fashion 2017 report, drafted by BoF and McKinsey & Company, can be summed up in these three words: uncertain, changing and challenging, what should we be expecting? In medio stat virtus, one would think. Could the future of retail in 2017 find a fourth way that can bring these different aspects together into a single solution? In a present in which consumers have become less predictable, but more demanding and aware, honing one’s own tools and technologies is certainly the most urgent challenge, one which should not be ignored. We will see how it will be received in the coming months, meanwhile congratulations to OVS for this new operation: you’ve passed with flying colours.