Saturday, November 22, 2008

Fashion & Media Come Together at the IFCSF Mixer









The Innovative Fashion Council brought together members of local fashion media and the design community last Wednesday night at the W Hotel San Francisco for a night of networking, discussion and a fashion show. The mixer was an opportunity for the fashion community to mix and mingle while hitting on a big topic - "Does Eco-Fashion Matter in a Down Economy? Retail and branding strategist Bertrand Pellegrin from Gensler (and author of upcoming book Branding the Man) moderated a panel of fashion insiders which included: Samantha Durbin - Editor, Fabsugar.com; Nerissa Pacio - Associate Editor, Fashion & Beauty, 7x7 Magazine; Dino Ray Ramos - Fashion & Entertainment Contributor for AsianWeek Magazine, 944 and Stylehive.com; Melissa Davis - Founder of Ruby PR and Past Contributing Editor for Lucky magazine; Riley John-Donnell - Founder and Publisher of Surface magazine; and Audrey Mansfield - Style Contributor for The View from the Bay (ABC-7).

Pellegrin opened the panel by saying that while the evening’s topic was originally focused on the relevance of eco-fashion, he was interested in hearing whether fashion itself still matters, and are people even thinking about fashion today? He shared with the group some staggering numbers on the industry - retail sales were down 2.8% in October from September and 4.1% from this time last year, quite a substantial decline. Online sales are down at a rate of 5% every month, Neiman Marcus is down 28%, Abercrombie & Fitch is down 20%, and every week we hear of another large chain closing or falling into bankruptcy. So with prices for high fashion not dropping anytime soon and magazines losing more advertising pages and condensing their editorial spreads, how can fashion survive the impending recession? And finally, how to keep the importance of sustainable and eco-fashion alive when shoppers are drastically cutting their budgets to allow only for the basics? The good news is that fashion is indeed still very relevant and more meaningful than ever.

The first question addressed by the panel centered on the changes in consumer buying habits and how shoppers are thinking differently about fashion. In response, Davis pointed out that shoppers are looking for that one key piece to take them through the season - that "look for less." Shoppers are still paying attention, but they're choosier about what they decide to purchase. Ramos brought up the point that "sustainable fashion is essentially an oxymoron, because sustainable is all about longevity and fashion always changes." He went on to discuss the area of "fast fashion" which is essentially how stores like H&M and Zara operate - they see the collections for the next season, copy it, and have it on the racks before the original pieces even hit the stores. John-Donnell made the point that certain capsule collections like Stella McCartney or Comme des Garcons for H&M not only create a buying frenzy among all fashion devotees, they are also likely to last longer in someone's closet because of the unique nature and better quality of the clothes. In regards to the launch of the Comme des Garcons collection earlier this month, the almost entertainment value of shopping must continue to increase to keep shoppers engaged.

Pellegrin addressed that given eco-fashion is still on the fringe and seen as a trend (even with luxury retailers like Barney's promoting eco-design, it's still at a price point higher than what the average consumer can afford) how do we keep championing the idea of sustainable fashion as a movement and not just a short-lived fad? Pacio said that as a fashion editor she always tries to pull in pieces from local designers that are chic and sustainable, yet still mix well with high-fashion looks from mainstream designers. But as the magazine industry gets hit harder each day with loss of ad sales revenue, editors are forced to cut their pages and the amount of looks they can feature. In a similar sense, Durbin for her web site, always looks for the sustainable angle when reporting on mainstream brands like Banana Republic and the small eco-collection they launched earlier this year. The panel agreed that more importantly, people need to be educated about what is available today in sustainable fashion and shown that it has moved past the hippie factor. What is refreshing is that the media is very engaged with eco-fashion today and that price points for these items will come down as awareness increases.

For new designers, Pellegrin stated that many larger retail establishments are not bringing in new talent with the current economic client. So how can a new designer get out there and capture attention? It’s all about having an amazing press kit and beautiful photography. For someone like Durbin at Fabsugar, if she receives gorgeous, high-quality photos and excellent copy she can have a new post up the same day. Pacio and Mansfield, who both receive requests each day from designers for editorial coverage, feel that professionalism in the pitch is key. Mansfield also pointed out that on "View from the Bay" an eco-centric show never works for their ratings, so she must incorporate sustainable design as a "by-the-way" portion of a fashion segment. The rise of fashion blogs has also made it easier for new designers to get cheap and fast advertising - an advertisement in Vogue may be out of reach, but a banner ad on a fashion blog is an easy way to drive traffic to a new fashion start-up.

Another interesting point made about the changes in the industry and the place of sustainable fashion is the idea of fashion likening itself to the slow food movement. As we consume less we're more apt to find out more about what is we're buying, where our clothes are coming from, and what the story is behind them. Shoppers are looking for a meaningful experience rather than a quick buy. And so in this type of environment, new designers may be at a greater advantage. According to Mansfield, getting your designs in front of a stylist is key given the impact they have on the media. Pacio stated that in a market like San Francisco she has great relationships and partnerships with local stylists she trusts, but in a market like L.A. it's much more strategic and focused on product placement. John-Donnell pointed out that edgier designers like Rick Owens are coming to the forefront because the public is looking for a unique idea they can wear rather than something straight out of an editorial spread. This approach has already shaped European fashion - in a city like Paris it's always been about wearing what's different or unknown rather than flaunting a logo or big-name label.

Also discussed was how fashion editors are grappling with the task of balancing aspiration with reality. Readers still want to dive into the pages of their favorite magazines and fall into these beautiful and luxurious spreads, but editors need to be conscious of the fact that they must provide real options for real people at the same time. Durbin mentioned that there is a reverse trend going on in fashion consumption where she gets complimented for her vintage $5 T-shirt instead of a trendy, more expensive piece. However, all agreed that if you have a Chanel bag, by all means use it but mix it up with more casual pieces.

Pellegrin concluded with taking some questions from audience members interested in learning more about how to get their creations in front of the editors. Again, it all comes down to the designs, the photography, and professionalism. You might have the best pitch for your ideas but if the designs fall short they won't go any further. Other ideas for new designers that came out of the discussion are to treat your company like a start-up, avoid paying any overhead and consider showcasing your pieces on direct-to-designer sites like Etsy.com.

After a brief break, guests were invited back in to enjoy a special fashion show with IFCSF Members and featured designers including evening-wear appropriate vegan footwear from Kailia Italian Footwear, jet-setting eco-luxe travel bags from JenDarling, and jewelry from Hearts Desire in Oakland. Tho show also featured designer brands including Del Forte Denim and select looks from Sofie ├ślgaard, Goorin Brothers and Carrots Boutique in San Francisco. Special thanks to everyone who helped put on the show: Charleston Pierce and Claudia Hutchins for fashion show production, Rowena Hutchinson Ritchie for PR, Show Stylists Velvet Valentine and Leslie Foley, and Advisory board and show stylist Yugala Priti. Finally, thanks to our event sponsors: The W Hotel San Francisco, The Cinta Aveda Institute, The Passport Modeling Agency, Come Hither Cupcakes, Veev Life, Phuket beer, Perkins Coie, VehicleSF, DJ Melvin “j”, and Warren Difranco / After5Media.com for Event Photography.

Thanks again to the more than 150 supporters of the Innovative Fashion Council who turned up for this great event – our next networking event will be sometime in January. Until then we have all kinds of great things coming up, including an interview with Vogue’s European Editor-at-Large Hamish Bowles.

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