As consumers, we have all kinds of ways to demonstrate our "coolness." For instance, we buy $60 French candles, only to later repurpose them as containers for makeup brushes. We wait in line at Sweetgreen for lunch. We read indie magazines on thick, glossy paper stock. We own a leather jacket, maybe even one with a shearling lining.
But how do the brands themselves do it? Not only are they tasked with producing the next big "It" thing, but their success also hinges on knowing us, the customers, better than we know ourselves. Within fashion — an industry that has spent the last several years in a state of flux — this poses an especially difficult challenge. But as legacy houses flounder in the face of change, fresh-faced labels like Vetements, Rosie Assoulin, Mansur Gavriel and Monse — as well as Instagram-savvy companies such as Glossier and Revolve — are filling in the gaps.
"In this fickle time period, it's brands like Vetements or Glossier who are paving their own paths to 'cool,'" Sarah Owen, trend forecaster and Senior Editor at WGSN, says. "When we dig a bit deeper to analyze their catapult into social media fame, the common thread is culture and community." Indeed, brand loyalty is back, and we have millennial labels like Outdoor Voices and Reformation to credit. And, as retail consultant Robert Burke told Fashionista in June, the customer is getting smarter: "It's not just enough for them to run out and buy, say, a ruffle top. They want to know everything about it: what it stands for, who's behind it, how it was made and the type of person it represents."
Today's well-informed customers see right through any inauthenticity, so it's in a brand's best interest to show its true colors and wait for the appropriate shoppers to respond. "I think brands that are cool and buzzy start with a really specific point of view and a unique take on fashion, and that manifests itself into cool and buzzy," Claire Distenfeld, owner of New York City's Fivestory boutique, describes, explaining that this sincerity allows for distinctive brands to rise to the top. "They're not machines; they [don't have] a conglomerate of people telling them what to do," she says. "With Rosie [Assoulin] and Monse, what they're putting out there is really them. Maybe they're guided by a retailer or a mentor, but what comes out is their vision of what they want their brand to be — not what somebody else wants their brand to be, or hopes for their brand to be."
Remaining authentic is crucial, but so is tapping into a sense of timeliness — otherwise known as the right place, right time effect. For a label to register as "cool," it must feel at once relevant and prescient, providing product that allows for consumers to tap into a greater societal phenomenon, whatever that may be. Owen calls this "cultural relevance." "Vetements knows that irony helps aid that, so what better way [to do so] than incorporating logos from previously not-so-cool companies like DHL or Juicy Couture? One could even go on to ask if it was Vetements that ignited the 'cool' factor in Justin Bieber's merchandise."
In the case of Bieber's merch, which launched in March and reignited a whole mini-industry of concert tees and pop-up shops, it's now so ubiquitous that it's close to teetering off the "cool" scale and into "passé" territory. Brand awareness is essential, and the right brands can get away with growing that into a constant state of chatter. (The jury's still out on the exact shelf life of Bieber's merch.) Take women's e-commerce site Revolve, which spent all summer hosting a bevy of social media stars — Kim Kardashian, Hailey Baldwin and Chrissy Teigen, for starters — at its enormous house in the Hamptons.
Marianna Hewitt — a TV host turned popular lifestyle blogger and Instagram fixture — is no stranger to Revolve's branding tactics. "As far as the 'coolest' [brands] with the most buzz, there's Revolve, which has created its brand identity as the Cool Kids Club," Hewitt says. "You know that if you go to one of their events or parties, you'll have fun — there will be great people there and the clothes match their lifestyle."
And then there's Gucci, a 95-year-old fashion house that's spent the past two years competing with "It" labels nearly a century its junior. Since Alessandro Michele took the creative lead in Jan. 2014, Gucci has dominated the field with Michele's vintage-tinged, gender-bending designs, as well as its much-hyped, super-modern collaboration with graffiti artist Trouble Andrew, aka Gucci Ghost. In this short period, Gucci — now so filled with life and Michele's own eccentricities — has been lifted onto a design pedestal. But what's better is that it's actually moving product, and lots of it. In the three months ending on Sept. 30, comparable sales at the house increased by 17.8 percent — up more than 10 percent from last quarter and 18.4 percent from the same quarter last year. "I think for a luxury brand, [Gucci's] prices are more reasonable than others and you can buy a designer piece that isn't as expensive as other brands," Hewitt says. "Their smaller accessories, like belts, are at a great price point and very 'Instagrammy.'"
Few companies understand "Instagrammy" better than beauty brand Glossier, which has reached, perhaps, the very pinnacle of "cool" since its launch in Oct. 2014. While every item in its now-expansive product line is sleek, natural-looking and effective, its secret weapon lies in its devoted community of "real girls," both online and off. With the return of brand loyalty comes a desire to seek membership in and support a tribe, and Glossier's clubhouse is open to all. Plus, it doesn't hurt that Glossier (much like fellow millennial-favorite brand, Reformation) casts a bevy of objectively "cool" models and downtown types in its shoots — think top models, musicians, downtown creatives and multihyphenate "It" girls — which certainly adds to its desirability factor. "Glossier is a prime example here, using multiple social channels to nurture their followers and foster engagement," Owen says, speaking on the importance of brand-to-customer connection. "By speaking the consumer's language, they've tapped into the millennial mindset to feel more like a friend than a corporate foe."
Which perfectly explains why Instagram is so vital to any aspiring "cool" brand. Glossier employs a number of hashtags — including "#glossierinthewild" — so to easily find images to post on its own official channels, and much of @glossier's Instagram visuals come directly from its shoppers. Hewitt explains how this type of user-generated content allows for the most followers and engagement, as brands encourage its customers to both take and post pictures in hopes of being reposted on the brand page — a feat that, in a feed as dreamy and highly followed as Glossier's, is considered something of an honor. "Social media branding is so important, because you have a chance to constantly be feeding your customers with new product, pretty images and selling your lifestyle," she says.
Coolness, as it always has, spans across an entire lifestyle, and in 2016, it's more aspirational to have a feed filled with experiences (say, an exotic vacation) than product alone. Owen testifies that the coolest brands recognize this, "and thus lead their label from a 360-approach to incorporate all aspects of a cultured life." For Hewitt, it's not just aspirational, but inspirational, too. "With social media, everyone is getting dressed to go somewhere or do something," she adds. "Following aspirational brands and influencers encourages our audiences to want to work harder to be part of that world."
As "cool" brands grow, they can just as easily recede into insignificance as they can develop too quickly, become synthetic and lose their appeal. It all comes back to authenticity, says Distenfeld: "Besides allowing the brands staying power, it allows the brand to expand. If they go into shoes or bags or home, you're buying into the lifestyle of the brand and it's organic when they grow because people want more of that natural voice."
And there's no faking it — the customer has grown too smart for that. "You can really see through to the soul of a brand pretty quickly," Distenfeld says. "And the brands that last with their buzz and last with their cool factor are really just being true to themselves."
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