Hacking the system
The initial question behind the new collaborative project by designers Alexander van Slobbe and Francisco van Benthum is deceptively simple. And fairly recognizable for anyone who has been following Dutch fashion in the last 20 years. Why is it so difficult for the best fashion designers in the Netherland to find a market for their collections? And – by extension – why is it that they barely succeed in achieving the necessary continuity for their labels? The quality of the designs has not been an issue for a long time now. They can hold their own at an international level and are appreciated in the professional world as innovative and distinctive. The number of platforms continues to increase, there is media attention and the fashion sector even enjoys support from the government on a modest scale. Nevertheless, the professional development of established labels and young talents too often stagnates.
In recent decades, various causes have been indicated. These were often related to shortcomings in the independent labels’ business operations (creative, but not very commercial); the inaccessibility of production and distribution channels (too small to participate); the lack of suitable sales locations (conservatism of retailers); with as recent addition, the increasingly fickle consumer (altered buying behaviour, partly due to the continuing growth of online shopping). Countless initiatives have been devised to strengthen the weak links in the chain. But significant results were not achieved, perhaps also because an investment fund for the Dutch independent fashion labels never got off the ground, in spite of several attempts.
The Fast Fashion doctrine
All these handicaps have been cast in a different light, now that the global fashion industry has developed a model that seems to close the door once and for all for the independent designer. In particular, the position that globally operating brands such as Mango, H&M, COS, Zara and various others have acquired with their Fast Fashion system, puts the small label at a serious disadvantage.
While these brands shamelessly plunder the latest collections of independent designers for their ‘design credibility’, at the same time they are monopolizing the physical and virtual distribution systems. Retailers who for years offered a ‘multi-brand’ designer collection, and also the shops of established designers are quite simply being overtaken by a growing network of the fast-fashion brands’ own shops where they roll out their ‘single-brand world’. The presentation in these shops and online stores employs aesthetics and finish that hardly differs at all from their sources of inspiration. But the price difference has made the playing field very uneven indeed.
Influenced by the pricing of chains like Zara, multi-brand shops feel obliged to adjust the composition of the goods they offer; the difference in price would otherwise be too significant. This results in retailers buying in cheaper brands, which reduces the proportion of independent labels in the collections. But what about the designer who perseveres with running his own store? He will probably have to adapt his collection as well, if he wants to stretch the commercial adventure for another few seasons. Lower production costs provide the key. But is that possible if the quality of the product may not suffer?
How much room is there for competition, in other words, at the level of production? The fast-fashion brands depend on instant manufacture for their strategy to succeed: as soon as a design has been spotted and copied, it must be able to hit the shops within the shortest space of time in large numbers and at low costs. That can only work if there is a perfectly controlled production system and there, too, the Fast Fashion doctrine seems to be dictating terms. Manufacturers supply in return for minimal payments and don’t have much choice in the matter. For many, it means joining in or giving up for good.
Producers like this are lost to the small label. Even if only because it’s impossible to fit the production of a small series at the desired moment into the strict production schedule imposed by the chains. And so the same decrease in quality in the retail business caused by the fast-fashion system also becomes apparent with the manufacturers. Time and the means to continue making the collections of independent labels is becoming increasingly scarce, less accessible and therefore more expensive. And provided production facilities are available, the brands that specifically operate in the higher segment of the market are certainly given priority.
Using their coherent process of stealing, coercing and squeezing, the chains are successful in bringing their products to the attention of millions of fashion-conscious consumers via their websites and high-street stores. This is the current picture. The garments range from satisfactorily made up to extremely well made. The entire operation is supported by expensive marketing campaigns. And the clothes can be bought for a price that the small brand that originally developed the product can never hope to realize.
As a result, the fast-fashion chains have become an irresistible but false competitor for the original designs that meanwhile continue to nourish these commercial bulldozers. Years of development and personal investment by independently working designers are cannibalized within a few short weeks and subsequently spat out in order to embrace the next copy. The system reduces designers to suppliers of raw material. They provide a random ingredient for the preparation of fast-fashion snacks. And unlike the manufacturers who at least receive a minimal payment, their services are free.
Time for a countermove
And so the idea for a countermove was born. An initiative that once again places the independent designer in a central position. There is little point in competing with the supremacy of the chains by climbing even higher into the ivory tower of an aggrieved designer role. Instead, the designer could nestle into the fast-fashion system as an unwanted guest to see how he can utilize this perfectly organized complex to regain the legitimacy and originality of his work. By becoming part of the system he is competing with, on his own terms. ‘Hacking’ the opponent, making use of his production facilities, pricing agreements and marketing techniques. That is the essence of VAN SLOBBE VAN BENTHUM, a collection of accessories, knitwear and jerseys that will be available from the spring of 2015 via an online store and pop-up shops.
Alexander van Slobbe and Francisco van Benthum have proved themselves as independently operating designers. For years they have sold their collections in their own stores and other locations. They have also both worked with the industry. This combination of roles (independent designer, commissioned designer and commissioning client for the industry and retailer) has been essential for the creation of their initiative. After all, this is about more than the start of yet another new website for online shopping. Much more than the collaboration between two respected names in Dutch fashion.
The VAN SLOBBE VAN BENTHUM label is first and foremost a response to the cynicism of the fast-fashion industry and the overproduction that this system causes throughout the entire sector – perhaps even by the luxury brands. The project holds the genuine ambition to recapture the domain of the design, and to do that in such a way that original makers acquire the means to preserve their independent position, in the long term as well.
The key question is: would it be possible to embed the fast-fashion system in the designer’s own way of working and subsequently add a design quality? In this scenario, the surpluses that the system creates form the main source. Francisco van Benthum and Alexander van Slobbe have employed their knowledge of the production chain to gain access to these sorts of remnant batches: off-the-peg products, semi-manufactured products and even tools such as dies and lasts left behind at manufacturers in South-east Asia or Southern Europe.
In many cases, the products involved are of good or even excellent quality. Gradually, the designers suspect, even the Asian manufacturers will get used to the surprising idea that two European designers come asking for the surpluses of the Western fashion industry, in Asia of all places. For the designers, it's an adventure, not starting from scratch with a collection this time round, but composing one principally by responding to what crosses their path during their search.
The first VAN SLOBBE VAN BENTHUM collection, which carries the name ‘Hacked’, will be presented in 2015. Initially it will consist mainly of a limited number of jersey and knitwear items and accessories (belts, shoes, scarves, bags etc.). Each found item will undergo a treatment, where the designers will add their interpretation. That could be with a perfect basic product, but also with a piece that has been rejected due to a slight production fault. The layering created by the treatment is characteristic for the collection. The picture will be complemented in each case with garments from the luxury menswear collection by Francisco van Benthum or with dresses, shirts, tricots or knits by Orson + Bodil, Alexander van Slobbe’s renowned label.
The choice of the pieces that are suitable for a place in the VAN SLOBBE VAN BENTHUM collection will be strongly linked to the season: fashionable and clearly visible. Each season will have a theme and a season colour, supplemented with the designers’ own colours. As soon as a piece is sold out, the collection will be replenished with a new design. In every case, the source of the original product, which has been transformed in the hands of Van Slobbe Van Benthum, will remain recognizable in the final design. Original packaging will be reused and given a graphic addition that again will not conceal its origins. In this way Van Slobbe Van Benthum will embed itself in the chain of copy after copy after copy, and hopes to confront the major labels once more with the quality of the original designer’s work. Perhaps to achieve actual collaboration ultimately.
Connection with today’s culture
With this strategy, the VAN SLOBBE VAN BENTHUM collection has a connection with a development that is being revealed in more places in today’s culture, and which was illustrated early on by French film director Agnès Varda. Her portrait of the gleaners of affluent society (Les glaneurs et la glaneuse, a documentary from 2000) follows the people who go into the fields after the harvest to gather the forgotten ears of corn, or who carefully collect and reuse restaurant kitchen leftovers. Certainly in the circles of young designers, this reaction to overproduction has become a source of inspiration for projects they like to refer to as ‘social design’. Recycling and upcycling are proven methods in this area. Whether they embrace the imperfection of the so-called ‘seconds’ from the ceramics industry or admire the pragmatism of the illegal structures in the favelas, it is clear that the ‘waste’ from the extremely perfected Western industry offers a fruitful point of departure.
Products like these are too easily labelled as fundamental criticism of the existing production and consumption systems. As if every form of beachcombing is a protest against the wasteful flow of goods in world trade. On the other hand, a thorough analysis of the system, as carried out by Van Benthum and Van Slobbe in the fashion sector, certainly does demonstrate the chances for a countermove.
Where the Mangos and the H&Ms pursue acceleration and are prepared to accept wastefulness, the designers concentrate on the remnants left behind. They look at the unfulfilled potential of the surpluses in the production chain, which are destroyed on a large scale to protect the market. Because the costs of the basic pieces are low – after all, they are stipulated by the chains – a good product can be created with a clear design signature that is still attractive in terms of price for a broad group of interested parties. The chains have already guaranteed quality control and the buyer can therefore be confident that the piece may be cheap but has been made under decent working conditions and with ‘clean’ materials. What’s more, because VAN SLOBBE VAN BENTHUM offers the items in limited batches, the uniqueness of each product is ensured.
VAN SLOBBE VAN BENTHUM develops collections with these lost products and is actually reacting to the fashion image both name-givers have contributed to creating with their own independent labels, which was subsequently adapted by the fast-fashion brands and taken into production and which is now – via reinterpretation – being given a new signature and returning to the fashion chain. The copy from the fast-fashion circuit is being transformed into a new original. To put it another way: the designers are taking back their own work from the collections of the fast-fashion chains; not as an art project for a museum, but as a purely commercial proposition.