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Fashion and the Market for Curated Identities

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Nothing beats the excitement of having something made for you and you only. Marjorie's atelier is a one room shack behind an internet cafe in Labone, a residential enclave in Accra, Ghana. Her work is neat, precise and, though she'll sometimes push the envelope with jabs peppered with sexual innuendo, reflects a keen understanding of and respect for the boundaries of personal style. It's the perfect marriage and, after four days waiting in anticipation, I am ready for the great unveil of our latest mutual creation -- a wide-legged white linen jumpsuit whose minimalist design is matched by perfect fit and the holy grail of stylish comfort: lined pockets. Correction: Nothing beats the rush of having something made for you and made well -- for roughly $20.

The concept of a curated identity is nothing new, but there has been notable resurgence in recent years particularly when it comes to fashion retail. The underlying economics of this may be said to boil down to three values: Functional Value (clothes are needed for basic human survival), Differentiation Value (clothes can be used to highlight certain aspects of one's identity) and Social Value (clothes have the power to set us apart from others and manipulate others' perspectives of ourselves). Stemming from the latter and the hyperconnected consumerism of recent times, a fourth has also emerged: Cultural Value. The demand for handmade, artisinal, carefully embroidered in [insert remote faraway or exotic land here], is growing and evidenced by outlets such as Maiyet, Muzungu Sisters, OfaKind.com, ShopSoko.com and more, all offering a covetable line-up of handcrafted limited edition pieces you won't find 80 other people wearing in a five-mile radius. And they're charging a premium for it, too.

I would describe these as Culturally-luxe. While bearing similarities to luxury in that they mainly operate on limited supplies of high quality and often handmade goods as selling points, this new-yet-not-so-new crop of outlets has some notable differentiation points:

Online Operations

Dot com is the new black. By limiting operations to online (with limited distribution mainly via smaller speciality brick-and-mortar stores), these companies are able to keep costs and barriers to entering the space significantly low. They also maintain more control and flexibility when it comes to inventory production and distribution.

The New Social

Focus tends to be on production in emerging markets, highlighting traditional techniques that are often both time and labor-intensive, emphasizing the concept of an item that has been carefully and lovingly made. Makers are introduced anecdotally and their stories matter as much as the finished product.

Branding at Both Extremes

There's seldom a spectrum to scale here: Design tends to be either daringly graphic or extremely minimalist. But that's a good thing. It reflects a brand concept that encourages buyers and wearers to focus on the how and why of a product as opposed to the what and when (which fast-fashion's trend machine could be said to be ultimately based on). Advertising tends to be relatively unassuming (notable exception here being Maiyet who have featured celebrities in some campaigns), shot in natural light and often in a streetstyle aesthetic. The apparel is shown as flexible, wearable and most importantly, curatable.

Perhaps owing to a strong online presence, venture capital interest in culturally-luxe outlets has also grown in recent years. Not only are most major VC firms now said to have at least one fashion-related investment in their portfolio, but the emergence of venture capital specialization in fashion tech as seen with firms like Burch Creative Capital, is indicative of the arena's growing importance and payout value. Though fast-fashion options like H&M and Zara undoubtedly still dominate (and, if H&M's recent global store opening plans are anything to go by, will continue to do so for some time), these expansions have been more so in emerging markets, with noticeably falling growth rates in more mature markets like the U.S., UK and Canada, where the culturally-luxe concept appears to be gaining a stronger following by the day.

One possible extrapolation, is that consumers in more mature markets are increasingly overconnected and saturated with a popularized aesthetic that has somewhat extinguished the fun of curation from fashion. By virtue of being more connected, consumers are also becoming increasingly conscious of what they are wearing, where it was made, who made it and how much that person was paid. Inasmuch as they are in the market for a more personalized look, they are also looking for a more personal relationship with the maker and are willing to pay more for that added sense of proximity -- active, anecdotal or otherwise. Renewed interest in craftsmanship may also come from a desire to control and be part of the making process, mirroring a general surge of interest in entrepreneurialism. The ability to design a custom shoe online or buy one of just 30 ethically-sourced gold necklaces (featuring three conflict-free white diamond studs might I add), being just two of the plethora of examples that exist today.

But despite the growing demand, challenges still exist. Culturally-luxe companies often walk a thin line when marketing a product for its cultural authenticity versus an opportunity to make a difference in the makers' lives. Basically, avoiding poverty porn is an art and probably best approached by focusing on just that -- the artistic value endemic in the painfully etched detail on a sustainably-farmed cowskin leather cross-body bag. In addition, the premium consumers pay doesn't exclusively stem from the uniqueness of product, but more often talent. Few today are interested in or able to produce merchandise that incorporates highly labor-intensive traditional techniques. Even with those that do, issues such as product consistency, lead times and general quality assurance tend to arise when commercialization is introduced.

Yet culturally-luxe outlets have carved an undeniably important niche in fashion retail that is producing jobs, wealth and talent in markets that previously had significantly less visibility and patronage for them. The future is brimming with possibility for companies that can take advantage of technology's ability to streamline inasmuch as it disrupts, and leverage legislative opportunities like the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which significantly expanded U.S. market access for apparel goods made in Africa.

The concept of a curated identity is nothing new, but increased connectivity and consumer conscience has certainly paved the way for what is now a burgeoning market, that ultimately serves to give us more choice, control and flexibility when it comes to what we wear. As to why we feel the need to curate or if that should even be something we consciously do, well, that's fodder for another post.