Fashion labels are increasingly towing the corporate line to meet customer expectations. Does this stifle creativity?

For me, art is equivalent to transgression (Quentin Tarantino – Cinema Speculation)

In fashion, the current economic climate frustrates and fascinates in equal measure. The USA, China, and the Middle East are predicting growth through 2023, but across Europe, the mid-term picture is less positive. 

Wrestling the Zeitgeist

Moschino’s SS 2023 collection provided a case study of the anxieties currently gripping the luxury sector. Jeremy Scott comically addressed inflation with inflatable (oh dear) hearts and mid-mounted rubber rings in a brave wrestle with the zeitgeist; and a sly admission of major label uncertainty.

It was also a metaphor for creative energies being reigned in across the sector; although the economy is not the only reason it’s happening.

Holding companies like Kering (Gucci, Saint Laurent, Bottega Veneta, Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen) and LVMH (Tiffany & Co., Christian Dior, Fendi, Givenchy, Marc Jacobs, Stella McCartney, Loewe)  manage creative risk through corporate strategies that focus on stability, in-house hires, and consolidation of their iconic labels’ looks.

Big Brother’s House 

Of course, companies parenting their charges has multiple benefits, including the mitigation of financial risks. A similar approach is seen in the automotive industry, where the sharing and consolidating R&D around nascent alternative energy sources is a logical and cost-effective way to proceed during economic uncertainty,  where radical design and construction changes are necessary.

But such umbrella management comes at a cost, as Demetri Thomas of marketing firm D-Cap points out, “Major companies can absorb risk and deficits; Kering supporting Gucci’s underperformance is a good example. But big brother generally implements measures that are reasonably predictable.” 

Not allowing fashion brands to make their own mistakes, and potentially fail, ensures survival and stability, but it also precludes the kind of risk-taking that lead to innovative change. 

“I think the days when we saw radical and sweeping changes in luxury fashion, whilst still apparent in some experimental collections, are all but finished in the commercial arena, ” says Thomas. 

Customer Controlled 

Social media and the utilization of data have also exacerbated a move toward more responsive and customer-centric (and less impulsive) design tendencies.

This has arguably fostered an environment in which customers are less interested in risk-taking propositions from brands they love, and are less tolerant of the kind of risks that don’t pay off.

Says brand advisor Janice O’Rourke, “It used to be that brands built a relationship with consumers predominantly through aesthetic reputation. But now there is much more at stake.” 

Hot Water

The recent Balenciaga controversy is evidence of consumers and critics turning against a brand for perceived wrongdoing because of the power of social media, and the perception of the brand as a corporate entity. 

This politicization also feeds into runway ideals that also have a pseudo-political base – equality, sustainability, and gender fluidity. 

While these elements are fascinating and far-ranging, they lead arguably lead to the consolidation and narrowing of stylistic ideals. 

“Equality has allowed more people to wear great clothes, which is commendable but hasn’t led to innovation in the way clothes look. Likewise, sustainability is industry/material relevant, not stylistic,” says O’Rourke.

Consolidation to Revolution


Perhaps a good way of dealing with the paradox – that customers want something new but don’t want to risk the house – whilst also ensuring both holding-company control and potent creativity –  is the kind of internal revolution evident at Saint Laurent.

The brand’s menswear collection (images) is in many ways a simple androgynous extension of the successful womenswear collection from their — show. Rather than radical style shifts, YSL has consolidated key fashion motifs for a new customer base, that offers a radically different outcome.

In an era where predominantly customers from socially conservative countries have money to spend on non-essentials, it will be interesting to see how major European brands respond to their owner’s and customers’ demands for consistency whilst also doing the things that made them famous in the first place.

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