How the Contemporary Market Got Its Groove Back

The "contemporary" moniker used to have a negative connotation for fashion labels, but a new class of buzzy brands at approachable price points has helped change that.
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Photo: Courtesy of Ganni 

Photo: Courtesy of Ganni 

Comb through a street style gallery from any one of the recent fashion weeks around the world and you'll no doubt spot a few pieces making recurring appearances: Shirred Ganni dresses in eye-catching prints; ruffled Maggie Marilyn blazers; checked, broad-shouldered Tibi suits; and Staud bucket bags in every shape and color.

Aside from their "It" status among editors and influencers, these items have one thing in common: their relative affordability. Most of them cost less than $500, and only a handful of the aforementioned brands' pieces surpass the $1000 mark. Zara prices these are not, but they do stand out among the designer offerings on sites like Net-A-Porter, Matchesfashion and Farfetch. In fact, a cadre of mid-price brands are breathing new life into the contemporary market, a tier once dominated by names like Vince, Alice + Olivia, Marc by Marc Jacobs and Theory that's largely struggled in recent years with declining sales and over-distribution.

The brands breaking through the noise at this level today tend to be very social-media savvy, of course, but also laser-focused on who they are and what their customer wants. Three-year-old Rixo London, for instance, has established itself as the go-to for printed party dresses in vintage-inspired shapes, while Budapest-based Nanushka can be counted on for clean, easy pieces in directional silhouettes. Currently, Rixo London boasts 131,000 Instagram followers while Nanushka has 143,000; both labels' feeds feature some of fashion's most influential faces dressed head-to-toe in their wares, including Aimee Song, Danielle Bernstein, Tamu McPherson, Susie Bubble, Reese Blutstein and Pernille Teisbaek.

While the contemporary market was long a haven for secondary lines like Marc by Marc Jacobs, DKNY, D&G by Dolce & Gabbana, T by Alexander Wang and Kors by Michael Kors, retailers today are looking for far more than just cheaper versions of designer goods.

"It is more about an aesthetic and an attitude," says Natalie Kingham, fashion and buying director at Matchesfashion. "Contemporary collections are no longer just diffusions of mainline collections — the brand mix we have curated within the contemporary edit all have strong brand image and identity."

She points to Ganni's dresses in particular as runaway successes, with many selling out within a week of launch. The Copenhagen-based label was founded nearly 20 years ago, but its recent ascendancy can be credited to husband-and-wife duo Ditte Reffstrup, the brand's creative director, and Nicolaj Reffstrup, its CEO, who took over the company in 2009.

Today, you can name any of the best fashion retailers — from 200-year-old department stores to cutting-edge boutiques — and odds are, they carry Ganni. But Reffstrup says that in the early days, very few luxury stockists were receptive to the accessibly-priced upstart, particularly in the risk-averse wake of the recession.

"It took persistence and a lot of creativity," he says of their early dealings with buyers. "But when they saw that we'd rather wait than work with runners-up around the corner, they gave us a chance and we performed not only sales-wise, but also in terms of how we treated our brand within their context." This meant behaving like a luxury brand — staging runway shows, putting out campaigns and keeping distribution tight.

Photo: Courtesy of Rixo London

Photo: Courtesy of Rixo London

Since then, Ganni has expanded significantly, reaching $50 million in sales last year (a drop in the bucket compared to many American middle-market brands, Reffstrup points out, but hardly pocket change), while still being conscientious about its positioning, trimming 100 wholesale accounts off its list of more than 400. It also got a recent infusion of cash thanks to an investment by L Catterton, a consumer-focused and LVMH-linked private equity firm, which acquired a majority stake in the brand last December.

Its biggest challenge now? Competition. "Some of these wholesalers have had such commercial success with us that they are now opening up to a whole range of other contemporary brands," explains Reffstrup. "They are obviously entitled to do so, but we worry how that will affect the customer's perception of the context we've created along with those retailers."

Indeed, many retailers that once pioneered the sale of $15,000 handbags and $20,000 gowns over the internet are now home to brands that shoppers don't have to be millionaires to afford. Net-A-Porter, for instance, has added a slew of these buzzy labels to its offerings this season, including a select group dubbed The Vanguard, which the retailer will provide mentorship to in addition to carrying their collections online. While the team says the brands are chosen for their potential rather than their price point, the initial four members of the incubator include handbag designer Gu_de, whose croc-effect cross-bodies cost an approachable $480, and New York label Les Rêveries, which makes both romantic floral slips ($665) and cool graphic tees ($150) to layer underneath.

Bringing under-the-radar names into the fold adds a "discovery" factor to shopping the site, which appeals to both new customers and seasoned luxury clientele, says Net-A-Porter's Global Buying Director Elizabeth von der Goltz: "What makes these collections exciting for new shoppers is the fact that they have an accessible price point, are new names in the fashion industry, yet still deliver such strong, distinct design aesthetic."

Striking that balance was key for New Zealand designer Maggie Marilyn when she launched her line in 2016 — along with the savvy addition of sustainability and ethical sourcing. Her timing, she says, couldn't have been better. She landed Net-A-Porter as a wholesale account in her first season, and found luxury retailers were eager for new contemporary collections that were both elevated and exciting. (It didn't hurt that at prices ranging from $150 to $700 in her first season, she could tap both teenagers saving up for designer T-shirts as well as middle-age women looking for more interesting alternatives to their standard tailored blazers.)

The test since has been keeping prices around the same level, since even a relatively small fluctuation — to cover more expensive fabric, for instance, or a more detail-intensive design — can be the difference between keeping a customer and losing them to a competitor.

"As a designer, there's always that balance of wanting to design beautiful garments to your heart's content, but then realizing it still needs to be a commercially viable brand," says Marilyn. "Our blazers are our best-selling category at the moment, and that's been a really interesting thing, seeing the difference between selling an $800 blazer as opposed to an $1100 blazer and the pricing pushback that you can get not only from retailers, but also from your customer."

E-commerce shoppers, she's found, are particularly price-sensitive, which she reasons is probably because it's harder to part with money when you haven't tried something on in real life. They also tend to gravitate towards the brand's signatures, like colorful stripes and ruffled details — "things that look more interesting online," she explains. Simpler pieces, including more expensive offerings like outerwear, tend to do well in stores, where they can stand for themselves. "If you get to try it on, you can kind of fall in love with it, and then maybe pricing is not so much of an issue."

Photo: Courtesy of Nanushka

Photo: Courtesy of Nanushka

For new, untested labels building their brands online, coming into the game at too high a price point can be a risky move. When customers buy a Chanel bag or a Saint Laurent jacket, they're buying into a house with history, whose brand value has been scrupulously maintained for decades.

"If you're a new brand and you price yourself too high, then you will lose out to the competitive set," says Steve Frank, CEO of Launch Collective, a company that advises emerging brands on strategy, marketing and operations. "For the same price point, why would someone buy you as opposed to someone with a more established brand name?" Millennials, he adds, often "don't see the value in designer at very high-end price points — it doesn't necessarily mean as much to them as it means to older generations."

At the contemporary level, brands can speak to the customer where they are, which today is largely on social media. And with prices that aren't prohibitive, a shopper can buy a dress, post it on Instagram, and still have enough left over for a new pair of sneakers to show off in her next post. Her followers are also far more likely to follow suit if they can afford to do so. Plus, many of these labels go the extra mile when it comes to influencer marketing: Ganni has its own hashtag, #GanniGirls, that's populated with "Look of the Day" posts from both the influencers they dress or gift product to and enthusiastic customers who want to share their personal styling techniques with other fans of the brand. Last year, Nanushka designer Sandra Sandor told Fashionista that she would reach out and send pieces from her collections to women on Instagram who she felt aligned well with the brand's aesthetic — a strategy that steadily helped build international name recognition and awareness.

Still, Frank argues, "you don't want to be too inexpensive, because then people don't take you seriously in the market." Tibi, for instance, bumped up its price point around 2012 to get some relief from the relentless competition posed by fast fashion retailers and instead run alongside the likes of 3.1 Phillip Lim and Acne Studios. It was a savvy move: the brand's shows are now among the hottest tickets at New York Fashion Week, and creative director Amy Smilovic reliably zeroes in on styles that women across the country want to add to their wardrobes, including many that ring in at less than $400.

Nanushka, which relaunched in 2016 after more than a decade in the business, kept pricing in mind when it set its sights on becoming a global brand. "Most of the major fashion houses were built at least one or two generations ago," says CEO Peter Baldaszti, who runs the label with partner and Creative Director Sandor. "I believe our generation needs its own heroes as well, stories of creativity, entrepreneurship, purpose, and passion. The new generation of luxury customers are looking for this new approach to be able to connect, for brands which are relatable and they feel close to." On this front, fast fashion can't compete.

Homepage photo: Nanushka

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