Editor’s Note: Ambassador Heather Potter reports on how the land of fashion is coping with its big bad enemy – the world wide web.
From the moment the first speaker took to the stage at the 2013 Ragtrader conference in Sydney, it was evident that the retail fashion industry was battling an enemy fiercer and more terrifying than Godzilla. And bricks and mortar retailers were united, trembling in their stance against this monster.
No, not the GFC. They’re scared of the internet.
It’s hard not to sympathise. For years, retailers have played in a rigged game. Their distance from other major markets has allowed them to charge higher prices with impunity: locals had nothing to compare them to. Margins were healthy – perhaps even a little on the chubby side – and retailers were cheerful. Aussies had no idea that the “luxury” brands they were forking out big dollars for were available at high street prices in other countries.
As the local population became more jetset, a little belt-tightening was inevitable – consumers were more educated and it was harder to get away with it. But the average shopper was still out of options if they wanted to get their hands on foreign brands and the inflated prices had a delightful halo effect on local wares as well.
“You get what you pay for,” was the mantra – implying that low cost meant low quality.
Then along came the big bad internet, bringing with it fashion players like shopbop.com – that showed people what real luxury brands are about – and ASOS, the price gouging avenging angel, bringing value fashion to the masses. Suddenly there was nowhere to run or hide.
Aussie fashion labels hit the Ragtrader stage to talk about their love-hate relationship with the online revolution.
Paul Cherney, MD of Camilla, admitted the brand was diversifying to stay ahead of the red line. Licensing agreements were key to profitability. Camilla is now putting her brand on rugs and – believe it or not – house bricks. Love the clothes? Get the architecture to match…
Ginger and Smart barely concealed their disdain for licensing, with the designer duo sisters saying they had worked hard “not to undermine the value of the core brand”. Rather than slapping their name on products, they have created a diffusion range for David Jones (just high brow enough to pass muster).
Sass and Bide, similarly would not “cheapen the brand” by selling low cost commercial product – a sniff at Peter Morrissey’s Big W clothing line that starts at a mere $29 per piece. Rather, they have created a gallery of exclusive pieces (code for high cost, largely one-off items sold to the few who can afford them) and opened concession stores in Myer.
All these moves are a pre-emptive strike against the spectre of bankruptcy and in the background, the names of now defunct Kirrily Johnston and Lisa Ho were uttered in hushed whispers, as if saying them out loud might summon the grim reaper. Meanwhile, fingers were pointed and the only people in the room wearing inextinguishable smiles were the overseas online giants (ASOS, Shopstyle.com, my-wardrobe.com) and the local upstarts from The Iconic.
The theme was consistent: online retailers are killing the margins of traditional bricks and mortar. Stores can’t compete. They can’t buy the volumes necessary to cut the prices. Good service is no longer enough to ensure customer loyalty.
But somehow the protests felt like the death throes of an archaic dinosaur that has failed to adapt. And even as they squealed, the local players had to admit that the internet was the way of the future.
Cherny acknowledged, “Camilla has seven boutiques and the online one is the most profitable”.
Meanwhile Sass and Bide CEO said, “Online is a huge opportunity – it’s our biggest store”.
So why the resistance?
Prestige and ego seem to play a large part. Ginger and Smart said its brand was not about “fast fashion, it’s important to have longevity”. And all the major designers seemed to view online as a dirty little reality they would rather turn a blind eye.
Only Peter Morrissey bucked the trend, unabashedly confessing that he was dressed from head to toe (including the underwear) in his Morrissey for Big W range, “And the whole outfit cost just $169, including the shoes”.
Morrissey’s entire interview was an apologetic for his Big W range. He defended claims he’d sold out, saying “I’m fashioning people’s lives. What’s the point of designing a $500 dress if nobody ever wears it?”
Morrissey said he gains enormous pleasure from hearing that a suburban nanna feels great in her $39 dress from Big W.
“To dress a celebrity is easy. To make a woman’s husband hire a babysitter – that’s clever,” he says, almost smugly.
And by the way – his Morrissey cutlery is available for just $16.94 for a 16-piece set in the Big W online store.
An audience member challenged him that he’d got his price wrong.
“Well I’m just glad you’re looking online already, Love,” he said, in typical flamboyant style. “I’ll make sure you get it for $16.94. See me after…”
Morrissey’s Big W clothing line, meanwhile, had sold through 53% of stock in the first three days from launch.
In a room full of snobs and purists, it feels like Morrissey is having the last laugh.