ModaRévisé®

Creative Studio

Democratization of Design & Development

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Belated Thoughts On The Demise Of Henri Bendel: When I graduated from High School in tiny Novi, Michigan, my dear mother decided that it would be a fabulous idea for me to give a piano recital to all my friends and family... Not exactly my idea of how to celebrate my graduation, but next thing I knew I was flying to NYC for the first time with her to buy a recital dress from Henri Bendel.

  Actually this little black dress is custom designed by ModaRevise for a private client, but you get the idea.

Actually this little black dress is custom designed by ModaRevise for a private client, but you get the idea.

This was back in the early 2000's when Henri Bendel still carried the many brands that made it so famous, and a marquee destination for quality and high fashion products.

Well, that little black dress still sits in my closet as I type, but Henri Bendel is soon to be no more. What happened?

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I'm not here to discuss the 2008 financial crisis that impacted everything from real estate to retail, nor am I going to spend time to re-analyze the slow recovery and many strategic pitfalls HB made in the last 10 years. (You can read all of that on WSJ or BusinessInsider, or BOF.com yourself.) Instead, I want to write from my own experience and my fashion designer's POV of how the fall of Henri Bendel is the signifier of a much larger phenomenon that I consider the Democratization of Design & Manufacturing.

If you are younger than 30 years old, you may not know that the distinction between luxury fashion and mass market was once much more distinct than it is today. Back in the day, Henri Bendal was among a handful of retailers such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdales that offered real quality goods with stringent product design and development and testing processes to ensure that the money you spent was truly worth it. The level of designers and labels that were able to sell to these stores were highly skilled in what they do, and would be considered true visionaries in the art of design.

But then, a seismic shift happened where mid-tier contemporary brands emerged and more affordable retailers such as Macy's and Dillard's, among many others, also started to offer private label products with the same level of design and quality at a fraction of the price. In other words, they democratized the design and manufacturing process by setting up a Product Life Cycle Standard Of Operation for all fashion graduate hopefuls to produce with relative efficiency. Indeed, it no longer matters if you have talent or not, nor the precision or vision to be a designer, so long as you can follow through with the system.

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Under this system, a great design and amazing craftsmanship are no longer an exclusivity and milieu of one "star designer.” In fact, the concept of a “rockstar designer” is the thing of the past, YSL v.s. Saint Laurent anyone? Instead, the system now trains a team of designers/merchandisers/product developers that work together not just to pump out designs on a regular basis, but designs to meet all sales objectives, withstand discount seasons, meet on time delivery with quality passing all regulations and tests, AND look similar enough to what's selling in the luxury world to entice buyers to spend less but buy more.

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The advancement of digital retail and technology has only sped up the democratization and boom -we are now in the age of a digitized fast fashion cycle with more than 12 deliveries per year!

I'm the product of this SOP just like countless other fashion designers born in the 80's who started working in the mid 2000's. All of a sudden, designing and producing quality products is no longer an exclusive process exercised by a few fashion giants who have the access and the capital.

When I design for Kohl's vs. Coach, it is actually the same level of design detail, time, and energy demanded of me for both collections. The only difference is you pay $79.99 at Kohl's instead of $327.00 at Coach. Yes, I could probably afford more embroidery flowers on Coach's satchel but not Kohl's, and you may argue that Kohl's is only in faux leather whereas Coach uses genuine leather. But let me ask you, Which bag would you buy without a sweat if they look similar enough? Even if you end up hating the Kohl's bag, you still have some money left to buy a new one.

When the process of producing fashion has become democratized and  inclusive to the point that anybody, including fashion startups can utilize the same Product Life Cycle SOP to offer value and quality of design, anyone can be your competition.

After all is said and done, however, my personal observation of Henri Bendel is that unlike other doomed retailers who were beaten by the new mass market competition both online and retail,  Henri Bendel beat itself by abandoning its branded business that built up its reputation, and tried designing their own products using the same Product Life Cycle SOP created by the democratization of design and manufacturing.

Farewell H.B., you will always occupy a special place in my heart.

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The Importance of Having Creative Strategy Behind Each Design

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"You gotta have a creative strategy behind each product you design."  

I overheard this while visiting a client’s office recently and listening in on a design training webinar. While it is something I have learned to do intuitively over the years, something about hearing it presented in a training scenario got me thinking back to one of my first bosses. It was back in 2008 when he said something very similar “Things don’t sell themselves anymore because of so much competition. It’s not enough for a bag to look pretty or simply be affordable. You gotta have a creative strategy behind it.”

I think what struck me in my client’s office is that it has been ten years since I first learned the value of having a creative strategy and it remains among the best advice I've ever received as a handbag designer.

However, it never ceases to amaze me how often designers are misperceived, even by our own non-design interdepartmental colleagues, as only drawing to our heart’s content until someone else reigns us in. The reality of design, however, is much different: Good designers understand that design is a business and designs need to sell at the end of the day. So you better believe that designs need to be supported by a sound strategy that will increase the chance of selling!

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As such, this post is perhaps targeted to aspiring handbag designers, as well as anyone considering hiring one.

As a working designer in the retail world, it is vital that you create products that not only maintain as much creative integrity as possible, but also meets the demands of the market. This balancing act is what defines a successful designer from an unsuccessful one, no matter if you have talent or not. You may be a super talented designer from Central Saint Martin, but if you can't balance what your heart desires with what's needed by consumers, then it will be ever so challenging to remain employable, let alone relevant to the market that is driven by consumers. 

 Anthropologie 52 Conversational Limited Edition. Conversational Print is still very much the focus. 

Anthropologie 52 Conversational Limited Edition. Conversational Print is still very much the focus. 

To be a good designer, you must learn to design with strategic purpose and execution in mind to reach whatever sales/creative/retail goals are set. For example, I always start my own design process by asking myself a barrage of initial questions: "Who are my customers? Suburban moms or city gals or a blend of both? How do they dress? How much are they willing to spend? How do they live their lives?" If this sounds like research that only marketing and sales folks should do, you’re mistaken. A good designer will take the initiative to figure this out for him/herself.

Designers need to stay relevant and the only way to do so is to know what’s relevant to your target market. Let’s continue with the suburban moms for instance. They often need to literally shoulder a myriad of responsibilities and virtually fit the world into their bags, so I always include a TRUE TOTE in my line ups. Nothing too complicated but with enough pockets for functionality and accessibility. 

From there I’ll ask myself a critical follow-up question: “Am I designing this tote to faithfully translate my brand's DNA to our consumers while adding some trending elements to it?” If the tote is beautiful but looks nothing like your brand's DNA, then you are a one-off designer who can't create products that maintain a consistent brand look. 

 Saks Fifth Avenue: 80's Back with animal prints and bold colors!

Saks Fifth Avenue: 80's Back with animal prints and bold colors!

Next, I ask the question "What season will this be for?" This is extremely important because knowing the season you'll know the following:

A. Are there any special holidays in this season like Mother’s Day or Back-to-School? If yes, most likely your customers will expect you to sell at a discount, which means you must design that tote in such a way that you can afford to sell it at the expected discount without hurting your margin.

B. Additionally, if the season includes a major holiday, be ready to add extra SKUS of gifting items or little bells and whistles that your customers can purchase as extra gift options together with the Tote. (In this case perhaps a simple Pick-Me-Up wristlet, or cosmetic pouches, are easy add-ons?)

C. Obviously materials and color ways can be determined by asking this question as well.

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And then there are the questions I ask myself when samples come in: "Will they sit well together?" Color wise, style wise, and even material wise, is there a cohesive theme created by these products sitting together in a store? Any eye sore design I should just drop? Any crazy price point I should just give up? This is mostly a collaborative process when you need to sit down and discuss with Merchandising, Sales & Buying teams to get a more balance POV.

But even after all that preplanning and effort on your part, don't be surprised when you still need to defend your designs and explain your strategy behind each product: "No, I can't use that trendy peacock blue on the tote because green never sells well for our customers and peacock blue has too much green. Instead, I chose a warm lake blue to compensate for the missing peacock blue."

Or…

" I made the wristlet front panel die-cut using the same die-cut mold as the crossbody so that combined styles' quantity will off-set the die cut mold cost."

A successful designer designs to ensure a successful transaction!

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On The Challenge of US-China Tariffs: If You’re Not Solving Problems, Then You’re Not In Business…

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The past two weeks ModaRévisé has been re-assigning our handbag clients, new and old, to factories that have out-of-China facilities, such as Cambodia and Vietnam, in order to allay client fears of reduced margins as a consequence of the current US-China tariff dispute. If approved, US tariffs will affect all consumer handbags, small leather goods, and all other accessory items that are made in China. 

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In case you've been living in the dark ages, this tariff will jack up existing retail prices anywhere from 10% - 23%, depending on the type of materials (synthetic PU/PVC, leather, or fabrications) and the percentage of its usage per bag. And of course, no wise retailer will ask consumers to shoulder this 10% - 23% increase, thus the fear of loss of margin on the retailer's part. 

So ModaRévisé is scrambling to move production outside of China but it's not as simple as it sounds. We need to re-align the supply chain so that factories located outside of China can continue to procure quality materials and meet all delivery deadlines. For those that don't know, China is arguably the only country left that has a massive and well-developed infrastructure of supporting industries for handbags and accessories. From leathers, to Pu/PVC, nylon, canvas, embroidery farm, hardware molding, printing, silicon molding, anything you can imagine on a bag they have the network of supporting industries well established since 20 years ago. 

 Dongguan, China

Dongguan, China

As a result, the majority of these components will still be developed in China, then shipped to our various factories in Vietnam or Cambodia. This can become a logistical and pricing nightmare if we don't manage the transition with extreme care. I get dizzy at the mere thought of a misstep, but this is the current reality of our business environment.

 Leather may be from Indian but the rest still made in China. 

Leather may be from Indian but the rest still made in China. 

Thank goodness for a couple of things, however:

 1) ModaRévisé is supremely fortunate to have a strong teammates to work with to make this happen, especially our manufacturing partners who were prescient enough years ago to anticipate the risk of limiting their operations to China alone; 

2) If you’re not solving problems, then you’re not in business! This is, indeed, one of the greatest lessons I have learned from running my own business. As human as we are, it’s so easy to freak out when something so beyond our control, such as a looming international trade war, suddenly challenges everything we’ve worked hard to build.

But you know what? The sooner we can settle our fears and identify the things that we can control, the sooner we can see that even macroeconomic issues can be simplified, in a sense, and mined for problems that are within our means to address. In ModaRévisé’s case, for example, we were able to focus on working with manufacturing partners with facilities in countries without tariff risk.

There are certainly challenges with even that solution, but solving problems is what business is all about, isn’t it?