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Abercrombie’s mistake has been about evolution, not just sex

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Abercrombie & Fitch is looking to ditch its focus on “sexualised marketing”, moving away from the half-naked models it has used across its website, store windows and shopping bags for years.

By July, both the Aberbrombie & Fitch and Hollister brands will also no longer hire their sales staff based on body type or attractiveness, nor refer to them as models, but rather brand ambassadors.

Frankly, it’s about time. “Sex sells” might still be a relevant concept (the recent runaway success of 50 Shades of Grey as proof), but nowhere near as blatantly as it was in the 90s and early 00s, and Abercrombie hasn’t evolved much since.

Back then, it was powering forward through a world that also saw Tom Ford dominating at Gucci; reviving a brand based on another version of that very same sexualised notion. Its 2003 campaign featuring model Carmen Kass with a ‘G’ shaved into her pubic hair is still one of the most memorable.

For both brands at that time, associating clothing and accessories with a touch of the controversy worked. Gucci under Ford evolved from near bankruptcy to a group valuation of $10bn in 2004. Abercrombie led by CEO Michael Jeffries became one of the most recognisable global teen retailers, with 965 stores in 20 countries.

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Comments in a 2006 interview are indicative of Jeffries’ focus on this sexualised, or if you’d rather, “exclusionary”, marketing. On sex and sexual attraction, he said: “It’s almost everything. That’s why we hire good-looking people in our stores. Because good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don’t market to anyone other than that.”

He continued: “In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don’t alienate anybody, but you don’t excite anybody, either.”

His formula however didn’t stand the test of time. Abercrombie sales have plummeted since – falling in six of the past eight years, with profit down 5.1% for 2014, and same-store sales by 10% last quarter. Shares have tumbled accordingly, down 39% over the past 12 months; all of which led to Jeffries departure in December of last year.

But the error Abercrombie made wasn’t in this strategy – it did after all work for quite some time – it’s in the fact it’s never changed it (the same could be said for the product, though that’s almost another story). In fact, walking into one of its stores in Manhattan this weekend, it might as well have been 15 years ago. Not only for the models, but also for the fact its powerful trademark aroma and exceptionally dark lighting were still the same – two other features also on their way out.

Marketing and communications have significantly evolved in the age of Instagram and other social media platforms. Where once it was all about the hard sell on aspirations to look like one of those oiled, buff bodies, now it’s arguably more about the “selfie”. There’s still aspiration there, but on a much more attainable level.

It’s your consumer’s contemporary, their friend next door, not the model hired to work the door. That’s why Brandy Melville does so well in this same market for girls, or why Nasty Gal took off to such an extent – products consumers want, sold to them in a way that absolutely makes sense to their lifestyle today. It’s hashtag marketing: your brand through the eyes of the very person you’re selling to.

In short, Abercrombie missed one vital thing in its revolution… evolution.

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But its time warp is representative of a whole wave of other US retailers at risk of meeting a similar fate. American Apparel is forever in the headlines for the same reason.

Even Victoria’s Secret, though still a marker leader, continues to run the same campaigns, with the same Angels, with the same fashion show. It’s becoming a tired model on the one hand, but it’s also one consumers are starting to push back against. A campaign in the UK featuring the line “Perfect Body” splashed across a shot of supermodels led to 27,000 signatures on a petition about body shaming in late 2014.

At some point, these brands will realise it’s not the same world it was 15 years ago, even if a hint of sex will always go a long way in marketing.

This post first appeared on WGSN.com/blogs

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Why Matthew Williamson’s new in-season e-commerce-only business plan makes sense

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Matthew Williamson is to close its flagship store in London and refocus on a direct-to-consumer e-commerce business based on instantly-shoppable collection releases.

The announcement from the 18-year-old British company might mean a big shift in strategy (presumably resulting in job losses alongside), but it’s a restructuring that makes sense. The new business model will see six collections presented a year to suit what the label calls the “buy-now-wear-now mentality” of today’s consumer. A showroom will be opened in central London in place of the store, operating as an appointment-only boutique for online shoppers.

The ready-to-wear industry today is debilitated by fast fashion retailers, but also by the ever increasing speed of our digital communications cycle. Where a six-month time lag between the reveal of the new season’s line and its arrival in stores once made sense, now it doesn’t. The social media hype of fashion week season – whether it’s a live-stream, a sneak peek on Snapchat, or a highly perfected Instagram shot – is all very well, but by the time that collection comes around, consumers have all but forgotten the excitement they once felt. Numerous businesses are trying to figure out how to address that challenge.

As highlighted by Fashionista today, Williamson isn’t the only brand to be downsizing and restrategising accordingly, nor will it likely be the last. Over the years Tibi has shifted towards an “advanced contemporary” label releasing new collections in store now about once a month; both Marc Jacobs and Kate Spade have recently announced the closure of their lower-priced contemporary lines; and Jean Paul Gaultier and Viktor & Rolf have stepped out of ready-to-wear altogether to refocus on couture and fragrances. Elsewhere we’ve seen the likes of Tamara Mellon also launch an eponymous line based on monthly deliveries and a similar buy-now-wear-now concept.

“Over the years, the industry and consumers have changed and we’re keen to address and respond to that. The aim is to refresh what’s there, and to create a lifestyle brand that we’re truly proud of both creatively and commercially,” said Williamson and the company’s chairman Joseph Velosa in a joint statement.

It’s a big opportunity for the company. While the closing of the store suggests it wasn’t performing, and the overall shift in strategy makes it clear the business is struggling, e-commerce sales at Williamson are reportedly up 290% year-on-year since 2014, only serving to highlight the fact this is a shopper increasingly willing to buy online. The idea that luxury products – Williamson’s colourful dresses typically retail upwards of £1,000 – don’t sell on the internet is of course now a giant myth.

Williamson also has a strong social media following for a small brand, with just shy of 100,000 followers on Instagram, followed by 43,000 on Facebook and 30,000 on Twitter. Its greatest success story has been on Pinterest, gaining a huge 963,000 followers in less than four months since launch.

Rosanna Falconer*, newly-promoted business director at the company, formerly communications director and the one responsible for the brand’s digital strategy, is heavily focused on channels that drive referrals and conversions on the website. Of the new plans, she added the company would continue to focus on bringing a “personal, offline experience” to its e-commerce customers. The showroom will be accompanied by the launch of a new website in early 2016 that will offer free shipping worldwide and same-day delivery in London.

At a time when established brands in the fashion industry are facing an ever-competitive landscape ripe with start-ups who have the ability to adapt at a far faster pace, those willing to demonstrate the fact they too are relevant by being brave enough to make such strategic decisions, might just be the ones who have the staying power.

This post first appeared on WGSN.com/blogs

*Falconer is also co-founder of the #fashmash events series associated with Fashion & Mash