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In an Era of Viral Excess, How Do Quiet Brands Make Noise?

Like it or not, we’re living in the age of going viral, even when it comes to success in fashion.

A familiar pattern has emerged, in which a particular design or trend suddenly appears all over one’s Instagram feed. As anyone who’s ever worked in digital media will tell you, you can’t really “make” something go viral, but in fashion, there are some common denominators: It has to be photogenic and identifiable (so, a style that’s bold and a bit fantastical, like Selkie’s Puff dress, stands a good chance), or it could be nostalgic and familiar, but still playful and uncommon in the market (like Susan Alexandra’s beaded bags or OGBFF’s memorable graphic tees). One also can’t escape the “avant basic” craze, defined by kitschy statement pieces in bright, funky colors and patterns.

Perhaps it’s due to brands (understandably) wanting to experience the overnight success that virality promises, or individuals trying to game the algorithm with eye-catching looks, but it’s started to feel like everyone on Instagram is trying to upstage one another. Well, not everyone.

Like an introvert in a group of extroverts, quieter brands — those defined by a sensible, timeless, minimalist aesthetic — can be trickier to find and remember, but that doesn’t mean they can’t reach their people. They just have to find unique ways to cut through the noise.

Amid shortening attention spans and overwhelming amounts of content, how does a chic, conservative blazer, a perfect white tank top or a delicate black sandal compete with colorful psychedelic prints, puff sleeves, comically small pastel purses and micro mini skirts? 

With even Parisian runway brands like Jacquemus and Miu Miu pursuing and achieving viral Instagram domination, one can’t rely on elevated, luxury positioning alone. To start, it helps to look at the brands that have succeeded while holding steadfast to their classic, understated proposition. Discretion-obsessed The Row, fashion’s gold standard of quiet luxury, just clocked in 15 years. It’s now the 20th anniversary of Vince, the contemporary brand that recently turned itself around after its reliance on department-store basics (and little else) nearly destroyed it. Anine Bing is celebrating 10 years in business, having never strayed from the Scandinavian-simplicity-with-American-energy vision of its namesake founder. It’s not easy, but once they do find an audience, these brands are arguably in a stronger position than those trying to stretch out a single item’s proverbial 15 minutes of fame.

Finding that audience is the hard part.

The founder

A founder who’s well-known or well-connected can provide a head start. 

When Bing, a former model, launched her brand out of a humble garage in Los Angeles, she had begun building a small personal following on Instagram, and became one of the first founders to build a brand on the then-new platform. She now has over one million followers. 

“In the early days, it was just me wearing the products and showing how to style it different ways,” she tells me. “And I had a lot of connections back then. I knew lots of stylists and the early influencers — Aimee Song, Sincerely Jules, Chiara Ferragni — who came by my garage, picked out pieces and started styling different celebrities. The influencers came and just supported the brand organically.”

Similarly and more recently, celebrity stylist Chloe Bartoli had her own following and a direct line to famous faces before launching Eterne, a line of seasonless essentials, in 2020.

“Chloe’s relationships helped us kickstart the brand,” says her business partner, Adam Bernhard. “We did some gifting to her former clients and friends, and everyone was immediately obsessed with the brand. It helped us start off with really great momentum.”

Even though Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen have tried their best to keep themselves out of The Row’s messaging — and out of the spotlight in general — they’re still celebrity designers (albeit exceptionally good ones). 

The product

A quiet brand doesn’t necessarily need a famous or famous-adjacent founder — nor does having one guarantee its success. 

Founders we spoke with emphasized a product-first approach, predicated on the idea that if the product is good enough, it can speak for itself. (The Row wouldn’t have lasted 15 years without its famously excellent quality and fit.) Of course, it doesn’t hurt to also talk about that approach when the opportunity arises in interviews and brand messaging.

“We started Eterne focused solely on product,” says Bernhard. The brand sells little more than T-shirts and tank tops in black and white, but the fit and quality set them apart. “I put an enormous amount of care and attention into the quality and details,” says Bartoli. Eterne’s press releases boast its “guiding principles of high quality craftsmanship and quiet luxury.”

When debuting her line of delicate, strappy sandals in late 2017, Emme Parsons knew she wanted to manufacture in Italy — and that she wanted to talk about it. 

“I think that most consumers associate Italy with high-quality footwear, so we try to make sure that we message that quite a bit in our communications strategy,” she tells me.

Vince recently partnered with Nordstrom on “Crafted by Vince” installations that highlighted its quality knits. In an e-mail, Jack Schwefel, the brand’s CEO, writes that “by leaning into the quality and craftsmanship Vince is synonymous with, we were able to tell a really powerful story through a combination of emotional product, in-store pop-ups and activations, and compelling creative that resonated across multiple touch points.”

Annika Meller, Anine Bing’s chief strategy officer, advises: “If you’re selling a product, make sure that you’re proud of that product from a quality perspective.”

Sustainability also aligns nicely with this messaging, and is increasingly folded into conversations around timeless design, as fashion’s rapid trend cycles and breakneck production pace draw growing criticism.

vince spring 2022 2

The consistency across the board

Consistency, from product to messaging, is also key. If you’re not going to be loud, splashy or trend-driven, it’s important to stay in your quiet, timeless lane — even though, in fashion, it’s not uncommon for designers to feel pressure, whether internal or from retail partners, to veer out of it.

“We have had the conversations in the office — it could be a wholesale account that might want something — but to me, it has always been really important to stay true to ourselves and to the brand,” says Bing, “and not do something just because it’s trendy one season.”

“If you’re passionate about something when you design and you try to be consistent in your branding, then I think people start to understand what you’re trying to do,” offers Parsons.

That’s not to say that occasional newness isn’t important: In addition to reintroducing bestselling items each season, designers like Parsons and Bing incorporate subtle updates into collections, whether it’s a new color or fabric or a fresh take on a signature silhouette.

Even when a changing retail landscape and new consumer habits necessitate a shift or refresh from an older brand like Vince, it’s important not to change too much, per Schwefel: “Much of our success is derived from staying true to our original brand concept of creating timeless, luxury essentials at an accessible price point.”

ETERNE-53

The imagery

That consistent point of view can also be communicated through distinctive imagery, which is especially important for brands whose understated product might not always grab the attention of zoned-out Instagram scrollers on its own.

Parsons, whose brand is still young and self-funded, devotes the majority of her marketing budget to shooting beautiful look books and images for social media — which hopefully convey the craftsmanship of the product and set it apart.

“In the beginning, it was challenging to figure out how to cut through all the other imagery. There was so much eye candy on Instagram,” she says. “I think that it’s just working with really talented photographers that can make quiet product feel engaging visually through the way that they shoot it.”

“We use social media to showcase the brand and our vision,” says Bartoli of Eterne, whose mostly black-and-white campaigns have a cool, nostalgically-sexy ’90s feel.

Few Instagram accounts are as cohesive as Bing’s black-and white grid, which features her looking excellent in her own designs. (Being a former model can help here.) The separate Anine Bing brand account focuses more on editorial imagery, featuring models and brand muses.

The right influencers and celebrities

Another valuable source of content is influencers and celebrities showcasing the product, or even participating in collaborations. But they have to align with the brand — “otherwise [partnerships] might not really be successful,” notes Meller, describing Anine Bing’s Influencer strategy, which started with seeding to existing “friends of the brand.” It’s evolved to include some paid arrangements as well.

Many founders have lamented declining engagement and payoff from basic influencer tagging, perhaps due to oversaturation and algorithm issues. They have to be more strategic, and potentially put more money behind social media marketing, than Bing’s team needed to in the early days of Instagram. 

Eterne, which so far doesn’t do any paid influencer marketing, has become a go-to among highly visible celebrities like Hailey Bieber, Emily Ratajkowski and Zoë Kravitz. It’s been interesting to see how, despite their simplicity, Eterne’s pieces stand out on these stylish, beautiful women. Immediately after seeing a paparazzi photo of Kravitz in a simple, perfectly cropped black tank last year, I was consumed by a need to find out who made it — and once I did, I bought it… from Eterne. To be fair, my personal style skews minimal, and I often obsess over great-fitting basics, but there’s something to be said for seeing something on a celebrity you love and then being able to easily buy and wear it, because it’s accessible in design and price point, at least compared to the custom or off-the-runway pieces they might wear for the red carpet or photo shoots.

An exception to this, pricing-wise, is The Row. It’s so exorbitantly expensive that it’s become fashion’s quietest status symbol, adopted by a small group of celebrities who can afford to buy it and may be reacting against the tendency of the fame-hungry to dress for attention. Even Kendall Jenner has been wearing it recently, prompting Vogue to ask, “Is The Row the New Celebrity Status Label?”

“Think of it as the ‘speak softly and carry a big stick’ of fashion, which often acts against things like Instagram tags. Yet, here we are,” wrote Liana Satenstein in the piece. “In a time of funky, street, and vintage, it’s refreshing to be timeless, sophisticated, and minimal.”

The retail partners

Wholesale partnerships are especially important for quiet brands to get in front of potential customers — and an effective one, since their product is often rooted in wearability and commercial appeal. The Row wouldn’t be where it is today without Barneys introducing the line to its discerning, moneyed shoppers early on. The right retailer can also help elevate and legitimize an emerging brand. 

“After establishing our [DTC] business, we launched with Ssense, which felt like the perfect partner for us in so many ways: their curation of brands, top notch merchandising, the editorial aspect of their brand, and generally speaking their customer felt really aligned with ours,” says Eterne’s Bernhard. “It gave us the right retail exposure with another brand that people trust and look to for newness.”

The customer 

The magic of a quiet, product-first brand, is that (assuming the product really is good), once a shopper discovers it, they’re probably coming back. Take The Row shopper who, as former Barneys Fashion Director Marina Larroudé told The Cut, once bought 30 of the same crewneck sweater, which made her realize, “if you’re a super-wealthy woman in New York? The way we go to Uniqlo — they go to The Row.”

“Our whole collection is best-sellers, and we find that a customer will buy one item and come back pretty quickly to reorder other colors and the same item again,” says Bernhard of Eterne. “Our repurchase rate is over 50%.”

Alongside effective community-building through social media and retail, reliable product makes it possible for these brands to build a truly loyal customer base, which ideally translates to a long-lasting business.

Slow and steady wins the race

In building a “quiet” brand, founders are unlikely to experience the overnight success of one with an attention-grabbing viral product. Additionally, fashion-week publicity stunts and splashy marketing campaigns don’t really fit into the quiet-brand ethos. Slow growth is pretty much the only option.

“We’re committed to growing [Eterne] organically,” Bartoli says, using a word favored by every founder I spoke with.

“The whole concept for the brand was very slow, organic growth,” echoes Parsons. “Trying to be super consistent in the branding and the storytelling and having that catch on, and then [growing through] word of mouth.”

The hope is that slow growth, coupled with an uncompromising dedication to a timeless (but not stale) point of view, translates into longevity — something few fashion brands ultimately achieve.

“I think it’s better to grow a little slower, but have consistent growth,” says Bing, “and create a brand that will last over time, and that’s not just hot for one season because you do something crazy.”

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This post In an Era of Viral Excess, How Do Quiet Brands Make Noise? was original published at “https://fashionista.com/2022/03/quiet-fashion-brands-marketing-business”

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