Exclusivity has always been one of fashion’s fundamentals - a key pillar that drives hype, intrigue and most importantly, business, for the world’s biggest and smallest brands.
But the pandemic changed things. As shoppers were forced to take their window-shopping online, so too did retailers embrace e-commerce as an alternative shopfront. Suddenly, anyone could start a brand, market their products and connect with insiders – all from their internet browser.
Traditional exclusivity drifted into a collision course with online inclusivity - but can the two exist side by side? We asked Rebecca Morter, founder of ethically-focused retailer Lone Design Club, how she thinks things will pan out in the great inclusive/exclusive debate - and how sustainable fashion can find its place between the two.
Anyone who has spent any time in fashion will know that we’re on the cusp of seeing a big change when it comes to exclusivity and inclusivity.
In 2015, I launched my first business at London Fashion Week. Everyone wanted to be a part of LFW and we had been lucky enough to be selected by the BFC to showcase.
Back then, showcasing felt like the only way to start a brand, and really, the only way to get to buyers. All of the prestige and credibility that came with a spot at fashion week was too much to turn down, regardless of the risks involved - risks like giving up a job and acquiring funding.
Fast forward to 2022 and the post-pandemic landscape: Brands are walking away from the most esteemed stockists, turning their back on fashion weeks and instead choosing to set their own retail rules, speak to their customers directly via whatever channel they want, produce for whomever they want and set their own values. It’s bold, it’s brave and it’s inclusive.
We’re seeing more and more established labels ushering in this new DTC - Direct to Consumer - rebellious retail model that’s rapidly taking over the industry. More businesses than ever are going online in this age of high street disruption and the re-evaluation of physical retail’s role, with every generation waking up to the immense potential the digital world has to offer.
Anyone with a shopify account can sell fashion quickly, and at low cost, without sacrificing their profit margin to a wholesaler. At Lone Design Club, we’re playing our part in this online/offline retail revolution by breaking down the barriers of traditional retail to make way for an industry where emerging designers can succeed without a major financial sacrifice.
So does this mean that the fashion industry has finally become truly inclusive? The days of exclusivity are a distant memory, where getting into Fashion Week as a VIP, designer or anyone at all was the absolute greatest of achievements?
The rise of post-pandemic inclusivity
E-commerce has changed the rules of the game turning down well known stockists and opting for building their brands DTC only.
Thanks to platforms like Facebook and Shopify, we all now have access to e-commerce and social media marketing opportunities. Anyone with an internet connection can create and sell instantly to international audiences.
It’s an exciting time to be an independent fashion label. A brand can quite literally be built in a year using instagram alone – take Hackney-based House of Sunny as an example.
So without any reliance on big industry players to say who is up and coming and who is not, the pendulum has swung dramatically from the exclusivity of 2015 to the inclusivity of 2022. That accessibility is one of the big reasons why I started Lone Design Club; new models like us offer lower barriers to entry for accessing the high street, carving out space for smaller brands within a retail giant monopoly.
Just before the pandemic, our pop-up was on Sloane Street, sat proudly between Chanel and Valentino. This kind of access is irresistible to small brands and we can make it happen.
Both intentionally and unintentionally, between big tech, inspiring fashion entrepreneurs and retailers like Lone Design Club, we have ushered in an inclusive and wholly accessible fashion environment for all to follow their dreams.
The need for exclusivity in an inclusive landscape
Of course there is a flip side to this. Fashion needs exclusivity to survive.
Exclusivity is often how brands actually get their success in the first place. It’s a curiously ironic fact in itself, that a successful inclusive industry is built on product exclusivity.
How? Because most DTC brands grow due to limited product, inaccessible price points driving the ‘want, but cant have’ factor and of course, sustainability.
In a recent Fast Company survey, the majority of respondents (87%) believe that luxury brands would fare better at becoming more inclusive by focusing on fair pay and workers’ rights. One brand we work with, Studio Pia, is a prime example of this; beautiful, ethical and sustainable lingerie, yet the higher price points make the brand very exclusive.
This drives the desirability and limited nature of the product.The slow fashion approach, also creates a ‘when its gone its gone’ model, driving demand with no excess stock. What all of this means however, is that Studio Pia products are not readily accessible to everyone.
Most of the time, what makes the most successful products as successful as they are is the fact that not many people have them. It’s inclusivity relying on exclusivity for success that makes for the modern paradox of post-pandemic fashion retail.
The problem of exclusivity in sustainable fashion
While exclusivity is a cornerstone of fashion and a driver for its success, when it comes to sustainability, there will always be conflict.
Girlfriend Collective, a sustainable activewear brand, joined Lone Design Club in 2021. As a brand built on social media, Girlfriend Collective focuses heavily on sustainability, using tangible metrics to communicate to customers why their brand supports lesser impact on people and planet. Yet a sports bra costs £35, a price that, while considered very accessible within the sustainable fashion industry, is high for the majority of buyers.
In this case, sustainability is being priced out of the market by exclusive price tags.
Birdsong is another good example of a brand heavily focused on producing sustainable womenswear clothing that lasts - using organic, natural and low-environmental impact materials along with ethical manufacturing - supporting and employing local London seamstresses and women from disadvantaged backgrounds into work. For all this, their T-shirts are priced starting at £32 RRP.
The real challenge here is that while we aim to build an inclusive industry, much is still needed in the way of education and government legislation. A t-shirt for instance shouldn't cost a mere £5 (as it does across many fast fashion e-commerce sites) - when actually the minimum we should pay for a sustainable and ethical t-shirt is in fact around the £32 mark at the bare minimum. Whilst this RRP is fair for the materials to be organic and sourced responsibly, the supply chain and ethical manufacturing - this cost becomes inaccessible to lower income families.
However you look at it, with the current price exclusivity of sustainability, someone will always lose out, and not be able to pursue their ethical fashion choices.
So, whilst the fashion industry has moved to be more inclusive with brands having more accessible routes to market, from a customer perspective, exclusivity reigns supreme, hampering sustainability in the process.
Going against the grain means brands are more reliant on hype, buzz and exclusivity as a means to grow and sell - but for a more sustainable fashion industry, something has to give.