IHT \t \t\t\t\t "Keeping ahead in fashion's slow lane By J. J. Martin TUESDAY, JUNE 28, 2005 MILAN Fashion, like Flash Gordon on a good day, is currently moving at the speed of light. Using methods first championed by low-end giants Zara and H&M, luxury fashion companies are becoming savvy purveyors of fast fashion - speeding up their deliveries, and reinventing themselves and their designs nearly every six months. The potential spoils of this business model are tantalizing: Stimulate an easily bored customer with a red-hot new aesthetic, a brand-new set of "must-haves," and they will gladly clear out the closet and pay to make way for the new. This fashion isn't just fast, though, it's nearly disposable - last season's prized hits, no matter how high their price tag, become duds before the season is over. Not everyone, however, is up for an exercise in velocity. In fact some brands move happily at a snail's pace, and base their successful business strategies on extended, if not permanent, shelf lives for products. Hallowed luxury brand HermÃ¨s, of course, serves as the benchmark for this type of strategy (think of the 75-year-old Kelly bag and its famed wait list or the classic men's ties which are sold in bundles year in and year out). Many Italians are also in the business of evolution, not revolution, and they aim to create hits that will last a lifetime. "I like to talk about permanent fashion," says Sergio Loro Piana, CEO of the high-end cashmere company Loro Piana. "Something that is not thrown away every season. Our items can stay in the closet - and must stay in the closet - of our clients for a very long time." Loro Piana's luxurious cashmeres, its precious vicunas, its rigorous attention to quality, easily drive prices into four-digit territory. As Loro Piana points out, his clients, whose large pocket books are eclipsed only by their common sense, have no intention of retiring these items after a single seasonal debut. One tactic employed by "slow brands" is to create a stable of signature pieces that are repeatedly offered every season and barely, if ever, change. In Loro Piana's case, that includes the company's Horsey jacket first created in 1992 for the Italian Olympic equestrian team or the Icer jacket made for New Zealand's sailing team, their Roadster T jacket, the Martin Galla coat, and numerous others that are put back on the shelves every season. Sometimes they are fiddled with - done in new colors, given a new fabric, smattered with new details - but by and large, they remain the same. And a substantial chunk of the company's growing business (in the last year, sales for the company rose 19.5 percent to â‚¬276 million, or about $330 million) is done on these slow favorites. The same approach is taken by the recently revamped Italian accessories house, Valextra. Once the company introduces a product, it remains forever part of the exclusive offering. For spring/summer 2006, Valextra will present only one new article for men - a soft shopping bag - to accompany the other pieces that have amassed since the company's beginnings in 1937. You can't get much slower than that in this business. "It's the Italian way of expressing luxury," explains the Valextra CEO Massimo Suppancig. "Based on the Italian DNA, product can not change every season." Even more important than creating signature hits, these brands are resolutely focused on a single style and point of view for their products. Fashion brands, particularly fast ones, love a seasonal flip-flop. One minute they espouse aggressive sexiness, six months later it's nerdy intellectualism, then a dandy becomes the man of the hour, all of which creates seismic shifts in the clothes. "We're about style, not fashion," clarifies Umberto Angeloni, CEO of the venerable Brioni brand. "We're about long term, timeless products that evolve the way men themselves evolve." Which means that an influential fashion designer's cry that "the suit is dead." has very little meaning for this 60-year-old company. Brioni has been constructing its bespoke and ready to wear suits in the same way since 1945, when the company was founded, and the shapes, save a nip here and a tuck there, are essentially the same as they were back then. Changes, as Angeloni notes, come from the customer, not the whims of an easily bored designer. Fabrics used at Brioni, for example, are now lightweight, more resistant and wrinkle-free, since the increase in men's travel and activity has demanded it. A traveler's jacket, first commissioned by a customer in 1965, is still offered in the collection with the same stitching and all 17 original pockets. So how exactly does product stay on the shelf without getting stale? Much of it has to do with matching your product with the mentality of the consumer who ascribes paramount value to quality, functionality and prestige. "There's a wealthy consumer today that wants product that are the best of class," says Robert Burke, vice president and senior fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman. "And they're willing to pay for it. They want the most perfect jacket, or perfect piece of outerwear. They don't want the products to change. They are looking for products that they can depend on." Once a product has reached its apex in terms of design and functionality, why mess with it? Valextra's 24-hour bag, a slim briefcase that is designed to hold work materials in one compartment and a change of clothes in another, was launched 50 years ago and continues to be one of the company's top sellers. "It's hard to improve upon perfection," remarks Burke of these steady classics. Part of the slowness of these brands is the fact that they are not looking externally for inspiration. Most cling fervently to their rich pasts, and find their inspiration from a single, unwavering source - their own heritage. In Loro Piana's case, that means focusing on the lifestyle of a certain type of gentleman, of which Loro Piana himself is a stellar example. The company creates classic, but highly functional, products for sailing, equestrian riding, and motoring, all of which are passions of the CEO and his brother Pier Luigi. "It's all based on the needs of a consumer that we know very well," he says of his product line. "We know what they want in the boat, in the air, on the mountain. We know it better than anyone else because it's our own lifestyle." And those needs, unlike trouser width, usually don't change. "Most brands today tend to promote the brand per se, and not the heritage, because they're looking to move their production elsewhere," argues Brioni's Angeloni. "What good is it to say, 'Yeah we actually started out as artisans in Tuscany doing everything by hand' when you're actually doing it, or thinking of doing it, in China?" Brioni, obviously, has no intentions of moving its production to Asia. The soul of the brand is in the ateliers of Rome and Milan where old school tailors still cut fabric to precisely measure the bodies of their bespoke clients. In two months time, a suit that will last a lifetime is painstaking constructed - nearly the same time that a fast fashion item's shelf life has officially expired. \tCopyright Â© 2005 the International Herald Tribune All rights reserved"
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6/28/05 at 2:39am