Independent or boutique designers may never show on the catwalk, but they should still be classified as designer fashion, argues Rebecca Glenapp of Lux Fix.
Arguably for all but those with the highest disposable incomes, top luxury designers are becoming a rare treat. A Chanel quilted handbag, for example, was $2882 in 2009, five years later it’s gone up by 70%.
Ensuring appeal for the phenomenally wealthy across the globe is a continued explanation. But does it have to be?
One of the key reasons for buying designer fashion is the effort and expertise put into the pieces by the creative director and their team. Boutique owners were originally local independent designers selling specialist product direct to customers. Their knowledge covered every minute detail about their pieces, from the provenance of the cashmere fibres to the fit of a particular sleeve. While that group is now much expanded, they maintain that core principle of intimate knowledge about their product and accordingly their customers.
Like today’s big luxury brands, they spend a huge amount of time working to understand their customer, to produce collections that are as well targeted and relevant as possible. They aren’t aiming for the international fraction of “one percenters”, but a much broader demographic of women still after premium, often more unique product. This means even selling within their domestic market – if the price and product is right – they can shift enough to make the business viable.
Premium womenswear (the category boutique designers come under) is a £5bn global market, according to Mintel, with six million female shoppers in the UK alone. It’s defined as fashion relevant to the AB demographic, 30-60 year old women, with high quality production (fabric, fit and design).
The giants in this space in the UK include high street names like Reiss or Jigsaw, as well as mail order brands including Boden, leaving clear room for independent designers who provide alternative original options. In the UK alone, there are hundreds of these; the antithesis of faceless brands that sell everything from jeans to candles.
While not trying to replicate the time (days, sometimes weeks) or materials (rarefied) it often takes to create a luxury designer piece ready for the catwalk, these boutique designers do have a lot of common ground with the luxury designer world, and should be credited accordingly.
For example, boutique label Eden Row was founded by two friends: former Liberty’s buyer Michelle Kneafsey and dressmaker Anjelica Poole. Michelle’s industry connections ensure their collections are made in a factory that also produces for Sonia Rykiel and Kenzo. Their target customer “loves clothes with a classic with a twist style, but she also likes to be comfortable and practical, which is why our collection is made from a bi-stretch crepe which can be machine washed”. Clearly targeted at the AB demographic woman, their bestselling item is the Lourdes dress at £139.
An example in a different category is Lucy Choi, Jimmy Choo’s niece, who having spent years at French Sole, decided to set up her own shoe label with a similar focus on “affordable luxury” at under £200 for most of her pumps.
Many of these designers have personal relationships with each of their pieces and are able to share details on design and inspiration as a matter of course. Nancy Mac designer Hannah McMahon for instance, used a much loved and worn vintage lace tea dress from her wardrobe as the basis for the core piece of her current collection (£165).
While catwalk pieces are sometimes produced (and sold) in mere single digits, the small quantities boutique designers like Nancy Mac produce, accordingly make the products feel special and enable consumers to feel unique. And it’s this that is at the core of what makes boutique designers so different from their price-comparable and often ubiquitous high street counterparts: buying their individualistic designs is still buying into the concept of original designer fashion, just at a different price point.
Rebecca Glenapp is one of the two co-founders of LUX FIX, the UK’s largest collection of boutique women’s fashion designers.
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