Wednesday, June 17, 2009

TALK IS CHEAP: Designer Diffusion, Part I

Following the much-hyped (and in my opinion overblown) line launched this March by Alexander McQueen, it looks like Anna Sui will become the second in Target’s “Designer Collaboration” series. As we all know and love, Target is no stranger to high design. Having premiered Isaac Mizrahi’s (recently ended) initiative in 2003, the retailer also pioneered Go International, successfully showcasing young designers like Luella Bartley, Proenza Schouler and Erin Fetherston, now for more than three years – and still going strong, with Tracy Feith’s line in stores now.

It was Isaac, along with Target, who paved the way for a “cheap ‘n chic” mentality, and inevitably, the growing excess of diffusion or “capsule” collections under the umbrella of big-box retailers including H&M, Kohl’s, K-Mart, JCPenney and others.

In September 2007, Michael Stone, CEO of The Beanstalk Group, a New York-based licensing consulting firm, told Brandweek reporter Eric Newman: "It has become apparent that a designer can bring [his or her] line downstairs without negatively impacting the integrity, authenticity and credibility of the upstairs brand."

Does that still hold true? Ms. Sui’s line (which I’m excited to note pays homage to the ladies of “Gossip Girl”) will debut September 13, 2009, two very tumultuous years after Mr. Stone wagered that statement. The economy has taken a serious nosedive since, luring more designers into the realm of diffusion, which provides ample brand exposure and accessibility, not to mention the added revenue stream.

But now, five years after Karl Lagerfeld launched one of the first capsule collections for H&M, the market for secondary lines has surmounted to a point of over-saturation. (Important note here: after Lagerfeld’s collection sold out faster than you could say “old man with a pony tail,” ol’ Karl was famously PO-ed at the Swedish company, who refused to produce more of his line, choosing instead to rarify the pieces that were sold in stores and had quickly escalated to eBay; what the Chanel designer said amounted to “snobbery created by anti-snobbery.”)

My question in all of this: Do designers just now entering the game risk losing their previously established cache – both in quality and luxury? I think so.

Customers may have beat down doors for COMME des GARCONS last year, and even slept on Fifth Avenue for a shot at that glorious Matthew Williamson belt this spring, but designers perpetually run the risk of an instant brand downgrade when they work with lower quality fabrics and construction. I’m not exactly used to haute couture myself, but when my pearl-embellished Simply Vera grey cardigan started shedding like crazy, the $30 I spent suddenly seemed a bit steep. Is it fair that I ask for Kohl’s clothing to last through the season, or longer, or am I holding this item to a higher standard just because Ms. Wang’s name is on the label? And, if I am, what is so very wrong with that? Isn’t that why these designers joined major market retailing in the first place; to bring their eponymous brands – and all that is implied in that name – to the masses?

If it’s just about their annual bottom line, maybe Christian Lacroix should give H&M a call.

*I’m keeping this short and sweet because:

a) I am short and sweet, so it’s kind of a branding thing.
b) I want to know what you think.

-Do diffusion lines help or hurt luxury labels?
-What expectations do you have of these secondary lines in terms of quality and affordability?

Tell me what you think, and I’ll press on.

Photo credit: Commes des Garcons for H&M advertisement, November 2008.

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