I have been fielding questions from the press and colleagues about the bankruptcy of Toys “R” Us and its challenge to stay in business after shutting many stores in the chain. A leading question, typically asked with evident nervousness and need for reassurance: “It couldn’t happen this way in the fashion business, could it?” The answer: it could and it has. Some points to consider:
The Toys “R” Us model was to put familiar, heavily advertised brands into large stores for one-stop toy and game shopping. That worked in part because children see toy advertisements and play with friends’ toys with such regularity that “shopping” is often simply a matter of picking up what they have requested (over and over) and then fending off enough impulse purchases at least to give the illusion of parental control over the process. Trust me on this: I have an eight-year-old.
And trust me on this as well: pushing a shopping cart through large, undifferentiated corridors, plucking brand-name toys off shelves, is not an adult-friendly experience. Contrast that to the flagship Hamleys shop, which has cleverly positioned itself on London’s Regent Street, in easy walking distance from both my tailor and shirtmaker. Eager, helpful people are constantly demonstrating products, which is how, on my latest visit, I got two wafer-thin model airplanes for £10 that broke up on first crash landing and a coin-trick magic set I haven’t quite got the hang of yet—though I’m working on it. Yet it was a fun visit, which is quite the point. Just as important for the chain, a large portion of its merchandise is private label, which makes part of what they sell both exclusive and retailer-branded. If you want it, that is, you have to go to Hamleys, and when you bring it home, the name on the product reminds you from whence it came.
Providing a quality in-store experience and building a brand through exclusivity and desirability are very much points for any fashion retailer to consider. There is no benefit in falling back on the familiar mantra: “We are working to enhance our presence online.” Consider what, if anything, is unique about the Toys “R” Us website that would bring you there first instead of to Amazon. A certain segment of the population still wants to walk into shops, and what you provide online, at least in the near term, will be seen as an extension of what you provide in-store. Private label is still largely a bricks and mortar play, and it is often a very necessary one to reinforce the power of a brand and to build and hold onto customer loyalty. Private label has so far not had the same impact on fashion websites as it has in-store, in fair part because it is quite challenging to recreate the kind of storytelling experience that the best store brands provide in real space. (Is there any doubt, when you are in an Hermès shop anywhere in the world, that you have entered the Hermès world—one of chic sophistication, style and even, around corners framed by carefully arranged displays, a touch of mystery?) A website can support that experience, but so far, at least, cannot fully replicate it.
So the lesson for fashion retailers is simple: make them want it, and make them want to come in to get it. Which is to say, the lesson is what you already knew. Major bankruptcies are like traffic accidents. You drive slowly by, saddened by the damage; and, although you surely already knew that driving safely is a must, the experience brings the message home with great force.
Credit: Alan Behr
The bankruptcy and attempted reorganization of American Apparel demonstrate not just that fashion is a risky business but also that, in bad times as well as good, it brings into play some unique considerations. First among those is that fashion businesses tend to arise from the unique vision of one or a very few individuals. That is true as well for tech startups, but except for a few software geniuses (such as Mark Zuckerberg), entrepreneurial masters (such as Bill Gates) and brilliant marketers (such as Steve Jobs), once a tech business gets going, skilled replacements are relatively easy to find.
That is not the case when the founder and guiding light of a fashion business is also its chief designer. As even well-established brands have demonstrated, bringing in a new designer who understands a brand’s signature looks and who can add his or her own vision while somehow keeping all that fresh (and keeping loyal customers purchasing) is not an easy feat.
The situation at American Apparel was ironically even more complicated because much of the trouble started when its founder, Dov Charney, was forcibly removed. More of a businessman than the creator of a signature style (American Apparel was all about ever-cool basics made in the USA), he dominated the company. He made a failed effort to return; and while everyone involved focused attention on that, the business lost its vision and too many of its customers, and then slid into receivership. That might have happened anyway, but the disruptions caused by the long-running Charney episode may well have been the tipping point.
It all serves as a reminder that, in fashion, getting a clear and effective legal structure into place as early as possible, with understandable methods and procedures for personnel transitions and successions, could potentially be a business-saver. True, Ralph Lauren, that grand warrior for American gentlemanly style, simply and graciously stepped aside as CEO of his company, letting the business keep running, apparently seamlessly, from there. But legal planning is not about expecting the best; it is, unfortunately, about hoping for the best while planning for the worst. And when it comes to fashion and the people in fashion, that is nearly always a prudent way to go.
Credit: Alan Behr