Want to Build a Lifestyle Brand? Build a Lifestyle.

For most bloggers, linking to last week’s story is sort of like wearing last season’s clothes. But let’s be honest, I do wear last season’s clothes, and Rebecca Mead’s ramble through Brunello Cucinelli‘s Umbrian kingdom of cashmere, in the March 29 New Yorker is already a classic, much like Cucinelli’s casually elegant clothing.

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The philosopher-king of cashmere’s unusual approach to his business–applying his Greco-Roman values to his home, his office, his sample factories and even establishing a small surrounding city in his vision, made me wonder why we don’t see this more often with American designers, so keen on ever-lucrative lifestyle brand. So why not build lifestyles?

Sure, Betsey Johnson had Betseyville and Ralph Lauren has Telluride‘s Double RL Ranch (and Round Hill in Montego Bay and the beach house in Montauk and the Bedford estate), but these holiday homes and resorts are available to but a few privileged guests.

As long as Ralph Lauren is branding bed sheets, house-paint and 1500 cattle, why not brand his own supply chain, and maybe even build a little colony around it? I’m serious. Imagine if American designers established enclaves for producing high-end capsule collections where the entire supply chain–and not just the look–aligned with their values. Now that would build a brand.

Here are my proposals for a few I’d like to visit.

Image from Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY

Donna Karan’s Pure Peru: Donna Karan could establish a small factory in the mountains outside Máncora, Peru, to produce her existing DKNY Pure line. She could use naturally colored organic Peruvian pima cotton to create heavenly cotton tees in the sandy beiges and whispery pinks she used for the collection in the ’90s.  Mead mentioned 90-minute lunch breaks at the Cucinelli factory–enough time for pasta, salad, grilled meat and wine (for less than five bucks in the cafeteria), followed by a nap. Maybe Karan’s macrobiotic chef could whip up meals in an outdoor kitchen, and factory workers could re-energize with afternoon meditation breaks. The designer could host guests for retreats at Samana Chakra, a little beachfront spot I visited after a production trip for Edun a while back. Pure Peru? Sign me up, the shirts and the retreat.

Ralph and Ricky Lauren, Image by Gilles de Chabaneix, Architectural Digest

Ralph Lauren Red, White and Blue Label: For his All-American collection, Lauren could make it…wait for it…all American. He could bring down some of the beef cattle from Double RL and start a little cotton farm in South Carolina. Since organic cotton can only be harvested once per year (as opposed to conventional cotton’s three yearly harvests) Lauren could rotate his crops with grain to feed the cattle in the winter. Naturally, they would be grass-fed the rest of the year. Lauren could find some  old equipment from the area’s historic mills and make fabrics to send to factories in nearby Surry County, NC, a community that’s been hit especially hard by job losses in the textile sector. (BLS predicts the job market will lose 71,500 sewing machine operators between 2008 and 2018.) He could follow Steven Alan‘s lead and resurrect the old-school Made in the USA tag that’s sewn into some of Alan’s signature pieces.

Ms. Mead wrote of Cucinelli’s commitment to his country, where 100% of his collection is manufactured. When the financial crisis hit, she said, Saks showed their support for Cucinelli by dedicating its windows to his brand and hosting an event with the cuisine of his Umbrian home. What could be more American than an organic cotton dress farmed from land that helped raise a (branded) burger in the off-season? I’ll have one of each, and come down for the cattle round-up.

Yvon Chouinard, Image from Ben Baker Photo

Patagonia’s Camp Cleanest Line: Okay, I’m cheating, because The Cleanest Line is already the brand’s blog, but the double entendre is too good. As you can read in his book, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard applies his philosophy–which involves a great respect for the outdoors and his employees, and providing the time for the latter to enjoy the former–to his business offices in Ventura, California. Camp Cleanest Line could appeal to Pata-groupies who not only love the clothing and want to observe this management technique in action, but also want to take a break to surf Rincon if conditions are conducive. Visitors could participate in a beach clean-up like the one the Patagonia employees recently did, and the trash they collect could be recycled into fleece. Patagonia produces largely in China, but they take the dramatic step of making their factory list public, so any camper who really wanted to follow their soda bottles overseas could. Come to think of it, I’d say Patagonia’s sort of already established a lifestyle brand, which might be why I’m sitting here in the garment district longing for, well, that Patagonia lifestyle.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Want to Build a Lifestyle Brand? Build a Lifestyle.

  1. I think that the answer to the title query is a simple one: Authenticity. American designers by and large are asked by the marketplace to replicate authenticity but at a price point to satisfy the need of the profligate consumer base. It all boils down to the manufacturing base. We have none to speak of left in this country. If you want authenticity in design you have to be able to execute it in a small specialized shop but at a price that is attainable and those two things are diametrically opposed to each other. If it does happen it will be an organic process. Ralph is not going to change his model because the marketplace is perfectly fine with the one he has.

    • Hi Jamie. But don’t you think customers might respond if someone like Ralph, who has taught us about lifestyle, ramped it up a notch and took a margin hit for the team while helping the US manufacturing base?

      • If it were to happen it would have to be someone like Ralph who could sustain a margin hit like that in a trade off for the marketing benefits. Also the economic environs that we exist in today (and I am not blind to the analagous state of the actual environment ) would never allow any kind of financing for a start up of this nature on the level it would need to be sustainable. The only real hope for something like this would be someone like J Crew who control their own production and sales margin as opposed to Ralph who by and large sells through a second party (who often want margins guaranteed). Even though there is hope of a rebound in the consumer markets margins are still razor thin and discounting is the norm. I would look at it from a different perspective. Who are the lifestyle brands ? What is their core competency ? Typically the answer is going to be accessories and fragrances. Chanel. Hermes. Louis Vuitton, etc etc. So I think that the answer lies somewhere in between. A label that controls its own sales avenue but has a business that is margin friendly that can absorb those costs of scaled production.

  2. I agree that it could be hard to make these idea financially viable… but I would still like to imagine visiting Donna Karan’s Pure Peru..

  3. Ken

    I think the answer may lie in evangelism. If a core group of people is willing to spend a little more to get a little more, and a manufacturer is willing to invest in providing for this group, then it may become the nucleus for a broader movement.

    Still you wind up with chicken/egg problem–why should a group form without a reason, and why should a manufacturer create something without a market?

    I suspect that more of the boutique-style providers will generate a market, and when it gets big enough the Ralphs of the world will scarf them up. At the same time, there will be efforts to dilute the movement, by branding business-as-usual with something new-Xfinity or ATT, for example-thus selling sizzle sans steak.

    No, I am afraid that the path will be long and slow, like organic food unless a wealthy believer steps in with a truly transformative program.

    • And what would that transformative program look like? Seems like there are a lot of wealthy believers out there, who’d like to be associated with something sexy like fashion, no?

  4. Pingback: The Broken Fashion Calendar « CLOSETTOUR

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