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From Startups to Mass Retailers, It's a Tough Time for Fashion

There are too many labels, and many are failing. But what does this sea change really mean for the industry?
Band of Outsiders founder Scott Sternberg in 2014. The label recently cancelled all of its fall orders and closed its New York flagship. Photo: Joe Scarnici/Stringer/Getty Images

Band of Outsiders founder Scott Sternberg in 2014. The label recently cancelled all of its fall orders and closed its New York flagship. Photo: Joe Scarnici/Stringer/Getty Images

I went out to eat on Saturday night, my third visit to a restaurant that opened about six months ago. I initially booked a reservation there because I’m attracted to novelty. It’s in a popular neighborhood, but more than a few blocks away from the cliché parts, and its chef has worked at some very hip eateries. The menu, from the raw bar to the cocktails, is appealing. The proprietors have also done a good job with branding: nice logo, beautiful interiors, inventive cocktail names.

My first meal at Restaurant X was a success: The atmosphere was gently buzzing and the food was good, if not holy-shit great. On the next visit, my husband and I invited some friends along, and they seemed to like it, too. But this weekend was different. All of the things I had originally appreciated about it had begun to wear on me. While the out-of-the-way location was initially an attraction, on Saturday night it resulted in a lot of empty tables, while more mediocre restaurants closer to the action were bustling. The slick branding and pricey menu still seemed to be bringing in first-timers — especially group diners who probably had trouble booking such a big party elsewhere — but not repeat customers dedicated to filling up those seats. Those atmospheric letdowns could be ignored if the food was worthy of its price tag — dinner for two, plus drinks, is about $120. It’s good, but maybe not that good. As I surveyed the room, I couldn’t help thinking, “This place isn’t going to last, even if I’m rooting for it.”

I’ve had that feeling plenty of times while eating at restaurants, and plenty of times while looking at fashion. The posit that there are “more brands than ever” is true. In 2003, 154 designers were listed on the official New York Fashion Week calendar. In 2014, that number more than doubled to 324, thanks to an interesting mix of circumstances. There are the young-designer competitions — from the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund to the International Woolmark Prize — which promise money but also much-needed mentorship. There are more investors, from angels to private equity firms, interested in putting money into fashion. And there are more promises of a big exit, à la Michael Kors’s billion-dollar IPO.

However, what might be the most important — and overlooked — factor is that, in modern society, entrepreneurship is considered hugely admirable. It’s thought that the most ambitious people live to work, right? If you’ve devoted your life to one company, why shouldn’t that company have your name on it? It’s no longer sexy to earn well into the six figures at a corporate job. It’s sexy to pay yourself nothing and gamble that your multi-million dollar payout will come.

But the majority of restaurants fail, as do most startups. Screenplays never get made, and artwork never gets seen. Fashion, of course, is not immune to this unwritten law, and this year has proved a particularly difficult one for the industry. In just the past month, Band of Outsiders halted operations, Honor closed down its ready-to-wear business to focus on custom orders and Dior Homme designer Kris van Assche announced the shuttering of his namesake ready-to-wear brand.

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Others have chosen to reorganize. Peter Som took a season off. Marc Jacobs announced that it would fold Marc by Marc Jacobs into the main collection, following the lead of Dolce & Gabbana, which did away with D&G in 2011. And there are rumors of other brands taking a similar approach.

It’s been a transformative time at the mass level, too. J.Crew, a global tastemaker for the past decade, can’t seem to get its assortment right and has therefore seen sales drop. Long-suffering Gap continues with its struggle to pick the right colors. Ann Taylor’s profits shrunk in 2014, and its sales were down, too. (Fortunately for shareholders, Ann Inc. was recently sold to a larger retail group for more than $2 billion, or $47 a share, about a 20 percent premium on the stock.)

All this bad news can feel a bit end of the world-ish, and the shakeout will undoubtedly continue. The aftermath may even cause investors to turn away from fashion, and young designers to return to the presumed security of a corporate gig.

Which, I should say, may not be a bad thing. Unless you hate clothes (and I’m sure that a few fashion journalists do), it’s impossible to cover this business and not want people to succeed. Talent and vision should be rewarded, right? But the reality is that talent gets you nowhere. Savvy only a little further. Money helps. But luck? Fate? Providence? Whatever you want to call it, being in the right place at the right time with the right people surrounding you is what leads to success.

Consider the past recipients of CFDA Awards. For every Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan and Calvin Klein, there’s a Jhane Barnes, Andrew Fezz and Gordon Henderson, gifted designers whose businesses just never took off in the same way. As difficult as it is to accept that even the labels with the greatest potential might not succeed, there’s nothing to do but move on.

Fashion people like to lament that the changes the business has undergone in the past 20 years have not been for the better. That it’s all about branding and profit margins now. That real artists aren’t given the room, or time, to grow. I’m not sure if I agree with that wholeheartedly, but let’s just say that it’s true. Then do something about it! If you’re a magazine editor, find a teensy little more room in your pages for the designers you believe in, not just the ones with advertising dollars. If you’re a department store, work more closely with young talent to ensure they can actually fulfill the orders you’re placing — and negotiate terms that won’t leave them bankrupt. And if you’re a designer, learn something about this business before jumping in head first. Even if you have all the family money in the world, 99.9 percent of the time it’s not enough to keep a fashion brand going for more than a few years.

That’s all easier to say than do, but it’s not impossible. Instead of mourning the brands we’ve lost, the industry needs to focus on what’s working and what’s not, and how it can be better next time around. After all, we simply don’t know what’s next for any of these designers. Who would have thought in 1993 that a bankrupt Michael Kors would be a billionaire? Surely not many. But it happened.