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For Fashion Brands in 2017, Authenticity Has Never Been More Important

We asked four designers — Rebecca Minkoff, Cinq à Sept's Jane Siskin, Misha Nonoo and Cult Gaia's Jasmin Larian — about what it takes to (successfully) operate a label today.
Fashionista Assistant Editor Whitney Bauck with Rebecca Minkoff, Cinq à Sept's Jane Siskin, Misha Nonoo and Cult Gaia's Jasmin Larian at FashionistaCon 2017. Photo: Ashley Jahncke/Fashionista 

Fashionista Assistant Editor Whitney Bauck with Rebecca Minkoff, Cinq à Sept's Jane Siskin, Misha Nonoo and Cult Gaia's Jasmin Larian at FashionistaCon 2017. Photo: Ashley Jahncke/Fashionista 

We speak a lot on this website about authenticity, especially as the younger and increasingly more influential generations prioritize it in their own shopping habits. Retailers, of course, are tasked with keeping up — with that, but also with all the myriad of ways in which the greater retail landscape is changing each and every day. Launching a clothing line specifically has always been incredibly difficult, but now, with varying business models and shifting retail calendars, there's no right way to do it. Is there a right way to run a (successful) fashion brand, and to what extent does authenticity come into play while doing so?

In the case of the latter: a lot, as has been the case for our four panelists at the "What Does Having a Brand Mean in 2017?" conversation at Fashionista's 2017 "How to Make It in Fashion" conference in New York City on Friday. For the occasion, Assistant Editor Whitney Bauck moderated a discussion with Rebecca Minkoff, Cinq à Sept's Jane Siskin, Misha Nonoo and Cult Gaia's Jasmin Larian to discuss all that and more. Read on for the highlights.  

It's crucial to pay attention to the nitty-gritty of what your consumer wants, from the influencers they trust to their interests and hobbies.

When asked about best practices for getting your brand out there, Minkoff referenced micro-influencers, or those users with no more than 25,000 followers. Minkoff's team only just started working with micro-influencers recently, but she's already noticed that the group has had much more of an impact when it comes to both getting new customers in and creating an authentic dialogue between the influencer, their followers and the product in question. Instead of paying one mega-influencer anywhere from $25,000 to $100,000, Minkoff mentioned that they now try to campaign to have one that's paid from $3,000 to $20,000, which actually gives them 10 times more revenue.

Looking beyond sales, Minkoff recommends that brands determine what other "crossover alliances" people have with your label. "We did a deep-dive and we figured out that the affinities that other people are interested in with our brand [are] spa, interior design and food," she said. "So, how do we align our marketing?" It might be marketing that you'll never see, she said, but you might if you have any one of those interests. "We can really hone in and target our customer."

Catering to what your consumer wants might just entail changing your business plan altogether.

When Nonoo launched her eponymous contemporary label in 2011, she did what she thought at the time were all the right things: participating in incubators, including the 2013 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, working with wholesale retailers and showing at New York Fashion Week. But two years ago, Nonoo realized that this wasn't why her customer was shopping with her, so she made some changes and relaunched as an in-season, direct-to-consumer business in 2016. Now, she utilizes on-demand manufacturing to offer a wider size range — and a very impressive two-day turnaround time. 

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"This is a bold statement, but social media has basically informed my business plan," said Nonoo. "It was in speaking to and learning about my customer, and having that direct response through e-commerce and social media, that I really realized that actually, taking a reductionist approach to what I did was what my customer was looking for, and that was the gap in the market that they were gravitating toward." In response, Nonoo created her Easy Eight, or eight items that can be mixed to create 22 different outfits, which debuted last month.

A celebrity following can certainly help grow a business, but it's not the only tool — especially if it's done inorganically.

Siskin is a bona fide industry veteran: Before debuting the sexy, advanced-contemporary label Cinq à Sept in 2015, Siskin and her Los Angeles-based company Jaya Apparel Group also helped launch Seven for All Mankind and Elizabeth and James. Siskin's labels have had no shortage of celebrity interest — Elizabeth and James was even founded by two of them — but today, with the star-studded Kitson days long gone, it isn't wise to rely on a famous following to do your marketing. 

Celebrities of varying levels of fame, however, can help in certain respects. Siskin mentions her lower-priced dress brand Likely, which is rather popular with the women on "The Bachelorette" who tend to move sales. But per Minkoff's point, more A-list celebrities — perhaps, those lacking authenticity — don't. "[You see] different reactions for different markets," said Siskin. "You don't really see a bump when a celebrity wears something; you get interest, but you don't get sales."

And sometimes through all of that, you just find yourself in the right place at the right time.

Larian rehashed the explosive trajectory of Cult Gaia's now-ubiquitous Ark Bag, which put her brand on the map earlier this year. When the bag didn't sell in wholesale retailers, she needed to offload product, so she began gifting it to influencers when they bought flower crowns or turbans from her other businesses. Finally, the Ark Bag took off — way off — and Larian realized Cult Gaia's niche.

"Our stuff's not functional. We don't make functional things," she said with a laugh. "Our girl's a little bit irrational. She wants things that are pretty and look good in pictures and that someone will just stop her and be like, 'What is that?' Kind of a conversation piece. So, it has to be shown worn."

She compared her current state of business to being in a "hype machine," where she's still not yet clear what's driving sales and what's driving buzz. But as retail continues to evolve, that's okay; at least she knows who's buying her bags and what they're looking for when they do it. 

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