Fashion heritage: how relevant is it today?

Thursday, 03 May 2012
The latest thwart of a high street brand invading a sought after boutique space in a location rich with historic fashion, tradition and distinction brings to mind a case in point. Does fashion heritage really mean anything these days? Do traditionalist brands need protection and nurturing and more importantly is it something that influence’s a consumer’s purchases?

Looking at the latest woes of British heritage brand Aquascutum, now being sold for the third time in less than four years, perhaps heritage isn’t a sustainability factor in keeping a brand alive. It seems the Aquascutum history of waterproof outerwear, founded in 1851 and once favoured by royalty, aristocrats and celebrities, is not enough to entice modern shoppers to flog to its Regent Street store to buy a parka. It is fair to say that both in marketing and product, the brand hasn’t moved on, failing to appeal to a new generation, not the shopper of yesteryear.

By comparison Burberry, another outerwear business with a heritage dating back a century, is a success story. Burberry of course has spent the last decade honing new consumers and markets, using its heritage to make it’s product relevant today. But for every heritage brand that understands today’s consumer, there is a handful that relies more on its archives than the newness expected from an ever-crowded marketplace. Well-documented brands that soared in the 20th century but struggled in the 21st, include Halston, Ungaro, Daks and even Vionnet. All have been given the reinvigorating treatment, with well-known creative directors and investors, but none have soared like their contemporary, Burberry.

But consumer’s do have eyes for heritage. Credibility in fashion is rare when so many labels on the market are not upstarts from a labour of love, but brands founded by investment groups, celebrities and off-shoots, with one purpose only, to make profit.

And that is where tradition and distinction become relevant. Craftsmanship and luxury in fashion and fashion’s services is highly in demand. Just look at Hermes and other luxury brands who are quoting double digit growth in tough economic times. Businesses that uphold the qualitative over quantitative, the beauty of fashion over its fast disposal, is something that must be kept sacred.

The British fashion industry as a whole is a complex market, where on one hand luxury and heritage brands eschew the higher echelons and at the lower end sit the British high street brands, such as Primark, Topshop Group and other imports of fast fashion businesses. There isn’t really a mid market in the UK, so to keep the lower end from spilling into the higher end, there must be a distinction.

That brings to mind French high street brand The Kooples, who are keen to move into a retail space on one of London’s last destinations of craftsmanship and history: Savile Row. Heritage, as a characteristic, may not be sustainable, but certainly a street full of tailors who’s practices and traditions of bespoke product have been a destination for over a century, ought to be kept special. Why make this street like every other? Surely the purpose of the French brand is to expand its lifestyle product and to make profit with its retail ventures, whereas the tradition of Savile Row is to create a unique English luxury product. But it is also one that forms the training base for young craftsmen and women who will go on to become tailors or designers themselves.

If Savile Row became an open marketplace for any high street brand it would be a sore loss. The rents and rates would sky rocket, and slowly but surely, each of the tailors would be forced to leave. But if The Kooples were prevented from opening their store, would it make any impact? Likely not, and neither would there be any regret in the next century.

Image: Savile Row