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October 22, 2017
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A Revival of the Fashion Pragmatist

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Nigel Cabourn Collection for Fall/Winter ’11 (Source: Trés Bien Shop).

On September 10, 2011, at exactly 7pm Eastern Standard Time, Paris fashion house Hermès released, "Hearts and Crafts", a documentary aptly named so as to properly account for the men and women who ardently work to bring the revered goods to market.

One after the other, workers at Hermès tell their personal tales of craftsmanship, and what it means to them, often taking the audience back to their roots as a young apprentice in the field. One would be hard pressed to miss a different kind of lineage at Hermès, one that does not only reside amongst their products, but its people. "I was an apprentice since I was 16 years old, and it's 33 years at Hermès.  My father was a fabric printer, and my Mom a weaver," claims a drawer of the elegant silk scarves. The same is true for a leather cutter of Portuguese origin, who has been at it since he was 14 years old, just like his father before him. And he has battle scars to show for it. Like a treasured watch passed down from one generation to the next, a craftsman at Hermès belongs to a line of craftsmen. And so begins short minutes of courting the sensible consumer, one with a new found appetite for a some product back-story romance. 

Germans want proof. They want to believe in you. They'll try you out first, stand back and watch to see if you are who you say you are.

At best, the documentary humanizes the brand, and it is perhaps a calculated strategy on Hermès’ part, but it could not have come at a better time and to a more receptive audience. Today, with the ethics of fashion being continually debated, the stage belongs to fashion brands whose DNA is based on craft, heritage and quality. The audience? The pragmatic fashion buyer, of course.   

Fashion ethics is not new ground, and certainly not arid territory amongst the socially and environmentally aware. Discourse has taken place amongst many analysts and journalists, including editor Sophie Grove, who, via her Monocle business report, "Moral Fibres", takes a microscope to the lifecycle of fashion products and the consequential human cost. In the same vein, Sarah Forden, luxury goods analyst at Bloomberg and writer of the book The House of Gucci claims that the issue of how products are produced and how people were treated is a potential minefield for the fashion industry, calling out a production system that has become splintered and in need of organization and standards. The control of products once made in smaller workshops close to home is lost, as bigger brands try to keep costs down by outsourcing, often with little knowledge of the quality controls, or lack thereof. In the absence of transparency when it comes to product quality and honest labeling, Forden suggests agency set-ups with standard certification processes. Niche brands, and certain luxury brands such as Gucci, who identified this problem (they certified their supply chain in 2004) are coming out in front of that pack.

The debate comes back full circle to a new breed of consumer, the fashion pragmatist. These consumers are not wooed by a good retail bargain, or even tailoring. It's not about money in this equation; it's about function and practicality. This collective of early adopters are shedding much more socially conscious buying patterns. They are multi-functional beings. Co-founder of Trés Bien shop, Hannes Hogeman, fittingly describes their customer as men who are interested in clothing, but also architecture and music. Evidence of this customer can be spotted on the streets of Stockholm, New York, Paris, London and Tokyo. It’s an international tribe sporting a functional aesthetic. It’s the kind of workwear look that pays homage to detail, craftsmanship and heritage. Hannes says this style is here to stay, perhaps longer than others, because of the ease of looking sharp without the hassle of being "too dressy". Both men and women are now equally keen to know the story behind the clothes they buy. Though not focused on environmentally friendly clothing, Hannes claims he often advises his customer to buy less, and only the "good" ones. 

Not far from Stockholm, in Berlin, is a brand that is capitalizing on the market's social and environmental sensibilities. dbdonnabrown is a high-end yoga line that boasts organic and natural fabric made from bamboo.

From dbdonnabrown's Lifestyle collection

Donna Brown, of the eponymous label, is a Canadian transplant who, since arriving in Berlin five years ago, had to swim her way out of the deep end in order to adapt to the radically different ways in which her new audience would receive her line. "Germans want proof. They want to believe in you. They'll try you out first, stand back and watch to see if you are who you say you are". This is why word of mouth is the strongest form of marketing for dbdonnabrown.

Knowing the inherent market expectation for product standards, Brown is intimately involved with her supply chain. She handpicks her fabric partners, each of whom must be certified producers in sustainable material. Manufacturing goes through the quality assurance ringer twice, once at the plant and once in her own home where she receives samples to tug, pull, wash and work up a sweat in.

Donna Brown in her studio
Donna Brown in her home studio

Quality assurance in check? Indeed. However, if utility and practicality are pillars in which the whole German structure stands on, how does a brand distinguish itself from a competitor? Sure, men and women want to know the story behind the product they are purchasing, but Brown ascertains it's not enough. "You have to go deep. They [consumers] need to feel connected to you personally, so you must become a part of their own story". Not a difficult feat when you're small and agile enough to respond to market lifecycles and behaviour.

If today is about targeting the fashion pragmatist with craftsmanship, utility and éclat, perhaps the secret sauce to weather all consumer trends is by weaving the brand story.

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