Buying clothes is no longer just about creating a wardrobe, it's about turning to designers knowing that you are going to get a certain something from them. In a vast and saturated fashion marketplace, is it a designer’s singularity that ensures their success? And is this thanks to the reign of the micro-signature?
"There are so many good designers, especially in London so you need to propose something different," says Faustine Steinmetz, who was a finalist for this year's LVMH Designer Prize, and is known for her artisanal-made hand-woven jeans and deconstructed denim.
"In a competitive market with so much choice, knowing how to position your brand is just as important as creating beautiful clothes," agrees Octavia Bradford, buyer at Net-A-Porter. "Having a strong identity gives the customer a reason to come back and shop with you again and then you gain loyalty, which is so important for emerging brands." She points out it's about being recognisable and cites Pallas for its suiting and For Restless Sleepers for its silk pyjama separates as good examples.
But cast an eye over this past London Fashion Week schedule and there are a crop of designers who you would be able to sum up in a sentence what they do – because it's specific.
Take Molly Goddard, who graduated from Central Saint Martins in 2012 and has quickly made a name for herself since. For her it's all about the dress. She says they "are naturally the first thing I design or want to make. I like the simplicity of a dress. You put a dress on and you are done." Simple, to the point. "I’d say my signature is gathered fabric and sheer layered dresses." If you're in the market for a party dress, she is your go-to gal.
Palmer Harding, too, is a label that started out niche: the shirt was their tool of choice when they launched back in 2011.
"We felt it important to have a unique point of view in terms of our business strategy as well as creatively," explain the duo, Central Saint Martins-trained Levi Palmer and Matthew Harding. "The shirt is seen as such a staple garment and so it is interesting to see how we can modernise it." And while initial collections were purely shirt-orientated they moved on to create a "world around the shirt" – something they had to do so that they weren't in fact too pinned down by their own focus. "It’s definitely had its pros and cons! It’s more exciting for us to tell a story through a whole look, so branching out was always our plan."
And with branching out, came regrouping too. Step forward The Shirt Series collection – just shirts and shirt dresses. They’re more commercial and enable Palmer Harding to all at once be known for something distinctly signature while freeing themselves up when it comes to ready-to-wear, "which we are now able to use as a more experimental forum to play and enjoy,” they say. This, they point out though, wouldn't have been possible without the shirt as their core to begin with.
"It is imperative for a young designer to have something to say, a 'signature' if you want to call it so," says Willie Walters, Central Saint Martins BA Fashion course director. A great many names have passed through her doors. "Every young designer who dares to present their own collection has to have faith in their vision and this is often down to the conviction that 'there is something missing out there, no one is designing the sort of clothes that I want to see, or indeed wear myself'."
That idea of there being something missing is of course quite a personal one – so it makes sense that these micro-signatures should then develop.
"I always wanted to design and create my own fashion brand: it is only when I realised the need and want for a 'cool tuxedo' that I knew it was time to start and just went for it," recalls Racil Chalhoub, a Beirut-via-Paris designer whose tuxedo-only line has recently launched on Avenue32.com. "Personally I've always liked specialised brands. I think it has a certain twist in a way. I would like to become the go-to brand for every girl who wants to add a tux to her wardrobe."
But it's important not to become repetitive, points out Bradford or as Steinmetz notes, pigeon-holed. "It's good in the way that people connect your label with something and they think of you straight away when that subject comes up," but then, "people only want to see what they know you for." That's no problem for her though as she says she's always striving to push herself further. "It's what actually excites me about doing a label, trying to create an identity. And I feel like every season I get a little closer."
For Goddard, too, identity keeps it interesting. "It maintains excitement between seasons even more because then people are looking to see how designers will develop the things they are already good at." And as you well know, no one dress or one pair of shoes, jacket or shirt is ever the same. Even a singular(ish) train of thought leads to a fashion flowchart of ideas.
Text by Jessica Bumpus