Fashion Is an Instinctual Art – Straight From the Jungle

John Fairchild, founder and owner of the fashion publishing empire Fairchild Communications, is considered the arbiter of 20th century style and taste in the fashion, beauty and design world. His many publications provided the last word on the history, trends and forward looking direction that these notoriously fickle categories would follow. Mr. Fairchild was a visionary in a world of creative geniuses and risk takers.

In his 1989 book, Chic Savages, Mr. Fairchild observed the following: “Fashion is a sub-art and is not intellectual. Fashion is a business and operates best when born out of instincts. Fashion appeals to the senses and comes from gut feeling…true fashion comes straight out of the jungle”.

This quote, which summarizes John Fairchild’s observations of the creative instincts essential to become a successful cosmetic, fashion or design entrepreneur are applicable to any form of entrepreneurial endeavor. Any widget invented to fill a market void requires a certain cunning instinct on the part of the creator to not only visualize a product, but to create the thing in reality, sell and market the piece, and fully commercialize their unique creative drive.

The world of high fashion is built on product exclusivity. Most people would love to own a Ferrari, Balenciaga gown or a Cartier, even though it is not realistic given their personal financial circumstance. We aspire to these luxuries. We know of these, and many other limited distribution, high end fashionable brands.

Recently I read a history of the rise and fall of the iconic Ungaro house of fashion. Ungaro, in the 1970’s and 1980’s was one of the leading haute couture brands in the world. Ungaro fashion ensembles were extremely successful in this ultra-competitive, stratospherically priced space. Ungaro himself came to exemplify the ideal of the uber-creative Italian fashion genius. The family was ultra-successful in licensing the brand name to dozens of products including cosmetics, fragrance, bags, jewelry and household goods.

There was a constant look and feel to all goods that carried the Ungaro label. They were of the highest quality, sold only in a few of the best stores, exuded artisan craftsmanship and offered the gorgeous Ugaro-look that emanated from the fashion houses couture lines. Ungaro was the ultimate aspiration-al brand. The more expensive and exclusive the distribution the more consumers sought and desired Ungaro products.

In the mid-1990’s, at the height of the bubble for luxury acquisitions, Ungaro was sold. The family gave up creative control, was paid handsomely and believed that the new investment bankers that had bought the firm would continue the traditions that they had employed to make the brand a world-wide phenomenon. They were soon to be proven wrong on every count.

The new owners brought in a new design team and began to apply modern finance and cost control measures to production and to control overheads. In order to support the debt service incurred in the purchase greater sales volumes needed to be achieved. The result was a classic push-pull between the creative side of the business and the operations side. The need for more sales meant the need for more distribution which began to diminish the exclusivity that had been so important in building Ungaro.

These business pressures resulted in a constant churn on the creative design team and ultimately a lack of direction and loss of the styling edginess that made a garment an Ungaro. Retailers, and more importantly consumers, started to notice these changes and walked away from new Ungaro collections. The family looked on in dismay as sales plummeted from hundreds of millions of dollars in the 1980’s to only a few million dollars at the turn of the 21st century.

Ultimately the House of Ungaro has been bought by a Silicon Valley, tech industry multi-millionaire with no, nada, zero fashion industry experience. The brand was purchased for 85 million dollars and the descent has only accelerated. The outlook, especially in the current economy, is grim for Ungaro.

Investment bankers and technology barons are great at asset utilization, reading balance sheets and designing software to make life easier. But entering the fashion jungles as described by John Fairchild is a completely different universe requiring a completely different set of creative skills.

The instinct for design and fashion greatness possessed by Ungaro, Valentino, Ralph Lauren, Charles Revson, Pininfarina, Enzo Ferrari or Harry Winston is not transferrable like the ability to read a blue print or follow a schematic outline in manufacturing. It comes from the gut, and appeals to the senses in ways that are not easily described. The rise and fall of the House of Ungaro is a cautionary tale that all entrepreneurs can and should learn from. Vision is a rare and beautiful thing that cannot be readily manufactured.