THE BLOG

The New Face of Fashion: Sustainable Luxury

09/19/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

While a lot has been written about the gloomy future of luxury retail, most financial experts agree that the economic "bottoming out" process is now under way. What does the future of fashion retail look like? And learning lessons from past mistakes, how can we build a model that is both profitable and sustainable?

Looking Back

It is important to recognize that for all the tumult the economic crisis has caused, consumerism is not dead, luxury is still something to which many aspire, and shopping in stores remains a significant cultural activity. That said, the Rules of Retail over the last 20 years have grown to include obsolete absolutes, such as:

• Aggressively developing a network of branded stores even in questionable markets
• Building flagship locations that were unnecessarily large and existed only for their advertising value
• Creating stores intended to have a short life span, and then relocate or significantly renovate them within 5 years

Reinforcing a message of disposability and over-indulgence, retailers promoted the concept of "fast fashion", encouraging the consumer to replace their wardrobe season to season (or even delivery to delivery) as opposed to focusing on quality pieces that last. Additionally, many brands advanced the concept of "Lite Luxury," with a more approachable and affordable product that lured a new set of aspirational consumers. This strategy created a deeper reach into the consumer market which was fueled by the expansion of available credit and the reduction of the U.S. savings rate. But these trends were not sustainable.

Looking Ahead

Going forward retailers should use available resources creatively to promote their brand's message while anticipating the sophisticated customer's tastes. This could include:
Living Green. This is an obvious facet of defining a sustainable retail landscape, but too many brands are satisfied with making minimal changes and layering on the feel-good "greenwashing" marketing messages. Instead we must look for significant ways to minimize the industry's impact on the world's resources, and it takes more than simply installing a bamboo floor to satisfy this objective. Looking at the organization's construction and operational practices can facilitate a real green strategy. For example: recycling existing construction materials before demolition of a new space.

Grow Organically: Instead of opening store locations based on the best real estate deals, retailers should be more diligent in testing markets before committing precious resources. Brands can maximize the use of pop-up shops, designed in such a way to allow them to be recycled from location to location to explore initial market penetration. This allows the brand to determine if there is a reasonable appetite for their product before investing in a full flagship. Retailers can also band their brands together, gathering co-owned labels in one space, essentially creating a mini specialty store. This allows for shared services and reduces the amount of space and resources required for each separate brand.

Build Stores that Last : As resources become increasingly scarce, each store must increase its life span. Retailers should focus on designs that transcend trends and allow for timeless designs that will endure. Design should simultaneously allow for flexibility, minimizing the need for future physical modifications. The environment should convey quality and value to the consumer rather than disposable ostentation

Edit the Product : The size of a luxury store is largely determined by the breadth of the product line. A tight and targeted edit allows for adjusting a store's size to better fit its specific market.

Be Fun and Accessible: The "new retail" should not be indulgent, nor can it be boring. Stores must be filled with surprise and discovery, revealing new things with each visit. Rather than the current obsession with brand consistency, focus instead on testing different ideas in different marketplaces and responding to local cultures and communities through design.

The New Rules

The future of Luxury retail will need to include a few simple principals:

• Not So Fast: Reconsider the pace of growth and test markets to determine that full resources should be expended.
• Not So Big: Rethink the size of product lines, operations of the retail store and other in-grained assumptions in the current retail paradigm to allow appropriately sized stores to be designed and built.
• Not So Disposable: Focus on designs that are flexible that can transcend current trends and live longer.
• Not So Indulgent: Reinforce quality and heritage in developing creative environments that are fun and surprising.

It is brands that take these tenets to heart that will be poised to thrive in the emerging environment. Embracing sustainability and crafting a new face of luxury need not be at odds; indeed, by exploring ways to achieve both simultaneously, an exciting new era of of design can be borne.