Fashion and marketing: From paper models to brand building

In this third post in our series, we continue our investigation into the forerunners of contemporary fashion marketing. In this post, we will start at the digital age, which has been characterized by major  upheaval.

At the end of the previous post we launched a sort of provocation: what if travelling dolls, stickers, and style magazines were nothing but fashion marketing in action? What if, among them, some of these, for example ladies’ magazines, precisely because of the quality of the stories we tell, were, even more so, Inbound Marketing in action? In this post, we will look at future customer-centric strategies.

 

Fashion marketing: A short recap

Before we move ahead, let’s make a quick recap of the historical precedents that contributed to the current fashion system. 

Pandoras: Since the 15th century, these “dolls” travelled from Paris to London to New York, crossing oceans and even enemy lines, to provide powerful and demanding customers with everything they needed to be “fashionable.” They were among the first advertising vehicles of style in the world.

Fashion figurines: From engravings to photographs, and illustrations. Costume portraits provided a detailed illustration of the style of clothing for specific circumstances. They played an important role in the communicative flows of fashion in different eras, because they are able to effectively portray reality and to incorporate even very complex social meanings. Today, translated into glossy and pixelated images, such images are an exceptional tool for even the most sophisticated sales processes.

Boutiques: Attracting attention, in passing. Boutiques were first used to capture the attention of the “well-dressed” and even the newborn middle class. It was the dawn of fashion as we know it, for its two distinctive traits: seasonality and the constant search for novelty.

Ladies’ magazines. Fashion magazines were never purely a matter of gender, not even in the beginning when they were referred to as “ladies’ magazines.” And, they have never been devoid of content, but instead, have used certain content to target a very specific audience in direct and indirect ways. Magazines began to involve brands, not only as advertisers, but as co-creators in telling the stories of fashion.  

Within the ladies’ magazines, paper patterns, which are used to create embroidery, packaging, and clothing, make their appearance. Along with the introduction of the sewing machine, they will become part of the heritage of tools available to women to expand the boundaries of the domestic environment. 

Paper models: new clothes for new women

Madame Demorest was a woman worthy of her own Netflix miniseries. This fashion innovator was an entrepreneur, successful milliner, marketing expert, and also an educated representative of the most enlightened American bourgeoisie, convinced abolitionist and fierce supporter of women’s rights. Madame Demorest, born Ellen Louise Curtis, had a huge impact on American fashion and the way fashion itself began to be dressed, consumed, experimented with. She built an empire by advertising a wide range of products in women’s magazines (even more so in the monthly magazine she founded), she created an affordable line of hoop skirts, she invented the Imperial Dress Elevator, a dress whose long voluminous skirt was built with a series of ribbons “ballasted” by a system of small weights, so that it could be discreetly lifted and lowered to avoid dirtying the hem while walking along the muddy streets of New York. 

For a complete profile of Demorest, see this article published on the website of the Museum of the City of New York. What Demorest is remembered (and celebrated) for, and which we would like to highlight, is the mass production of the first paper patterns that, since the mid 1850s, have made high fashion accessible also to the middle class. 

Modes of production and distribution, low prices, and advertising all contribute to a coherent strategy for building the reputation of Demorest products, not yet a brand but certainly a well-defined communication system that included press ads artfully hooked to major news events to public speeches that become disruptive actions staged to break the balance of the men-only clubs of American business. 

One last observation on the arrival point of Demorest’s funnel: its ideal consumer is a Buyer Persona more imaginary than realistic, an “aspirational” model rather than a statistical fact: curious and attentive to all that is the topicality of style (fashion, art, events) independent and emancipated, the Demorest woman is often on the road but lives in a city, and is, inevitably, wealthy.

Catalogs

In the United States, mail-order sales expanded after the Homestead Act of 1862, which pushed settlers west, as territories grew up along the national railway system. The Montgomery Ward catalog made its debut in 1872, first as a single sheet of paper that displayed 163 items. Twenty years later, more than 20,000 items were sold on 540 pages. The Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog was launched a few years later in 1888. 

These catalogues sold a bit of everything, from wigs and baby strollers to wheelchairs, and life-size prefabricated houses, but owe their overwhelming success above all to the sale of clothing: dresses and hats, skirts, belts, blouses, underwear, gloves, shoes. 

 

In Italy: Postalmarket and La Rinascente

Postalmarket has been the Italian leader in mail-order sales. Born in 1959 from an idea of the Milanese businesswoman Anna Bonomi Bolchini, it grew in the 1960s and 70s and its catalogs mainly include products by Carosello. Since 1980, it has faced a series of crises until it declared bankruptcy in 2015. In almost 50 years in business, it has more than 1400 direct employees, advertises the clothing of important designers such as Krizia, Coveri, and Biagiotti and is also available online with 22,000 products. Celebrities such as Giorgio Gaber, Ombretta Colli, and Lea Massari appeared on its pages.

Before establishing itself as one of the largest Italian department stores, La Rinascente was an editorial project that balanced illustration with typographic mastery on every page.

Department stores

The department store is designed to be an experience where customers can purchase a variety of items all under the same roof. Although many customers are shopping online, the physical store continues to be an important touchpoint. In fact, in recent years, traditional retail and online retail have increasingly merged into a single shopping experience, as demonstrated by a study by the National Retail Federation conducted by Forrester Research just over a year ago.

Until a few months ago, the main driver of retailers was the combined use of online and offline platforms for a better customer experience. The relationship between consumers and retailers has inevitably changed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The way it will change again, in terms of social distancing and new consumption patterns, is already beginning to be questioned, and the composition and distribution methods of fashion will also be influenced, perhaps even transformed, by legal provisions and sensitivity for safety.

With the emergence of the European concept of the department store, Ready-to-wear clothing became a giant business. In addition to standardization of sizes (from made-to-measure to ready-to-wear fashion), retailers devised and implemented a series of pure marketing innovations: 

  • the shift from bargaining to fixed price 
  • attention to the customer’s service and shopping experience,
  • the creation of a strong brand image

If the concept of the store, articulated in spaces destined to different products and different targets, comes from Europe, in the 19th century United States the department store comes into the shopping mall: gigantic, labyrinthine, and full of things to buy. Alexander Turney Stewart is the entrepreneur who, in 1848 in Broadway, gave a precise form to this citadel of desires, introducing some key marketing practices that would become standard practice: setting fixed prices for items and organizing promotions and fashion shows.

The department stores of the turn of the century sold almost everything, but they were created with a certain customer in mind: the middle-class woman, who for the first time have a “respectable” public place to meet. These emporiums, which almost exclusively employed female staff, change society: shopping becomes an acceptable pastime and the taboo of working outside the home begins to crumble. As women see their spending possibilities increase, advertisements gradually begin to focus on them, to segment them. 

 

Advertising

At the end of the 19th century, fashion illustration, which began with figurines a long time before, has now fully become advertising: flyers, posters, billboards, and ads in newspapers and magazines. Every advertiser claims basically the same narrative structure and the same tone-of-voice: the consumer has a problem, one that he can’t solve alone. It’s products that come to his rescue.

Until 1860, ads were in black and white and had a lot of text. Eventually, with the introduction of more refined printing techniques, advertisements are made in color. The “memorable slogan” is also born. 

Jules Chéret, a French painter considered the father of the modern poster, spreads the use of stone matrix lithography for printing, which becomes simpler and cheaper, and elevates ads to a true art form, with dynamic compositions and layers of luminous pigment. After him, other artists of the calibre of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Alphonse Mucha will try their hand at illustrated advertising, including clothing.

Alongside the popularization of the department store, ads are establishing themselves as effective vehicles for fashion communication that are used to advertise not only products but lifestyles, to be achieved through consumption. Every lifestyle to which clothes refer is studied, designed, and communicated by designers and the people who work for them, i.e. marketers.

 

The brand in fashion: Charles Frederick Worth

The most prestigious brand, before what we now call a “brand (with its corollary of visual identity, mission, and vision) was that of Charles Frederick Worth, who, according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was the “first couturier.” After earning a considerable fortune through mail-order sales, Worth founded his fashion house in Paris in 1858. At the time, this was the capital of Napoleon III’s reign, in a period of great change.  

Worth dressed the most illustrious Parisians (including Empress Eugenie) and designed sumptuous clothing according to the tastes of the time. He overturned the relationship between tailor and customer: the customers who used to give orders now go to Worth to know what is really fashionable, trusting him. 

Worth is probably the first to sew labels with his name on clothing. With this gesture, which has a lot to do with the claim of his copyright, the substance of the brand is materially affirmed: the consumer recognizes and appreciates its visual identity and his relationship with the brand becomes more solid. Ahead of his competitors, Worth also uses live models to show his couture collections. He designs both personal wardrobes and stage costumes for celebrities such as actress Sarah Bernhardt and singer Jenny Lind. 

This is a textbook case of perfectly successful personal branding: Worth himself, beyond the success of his maison, is a celebrity who appears in magazines in Europe and America.

 

The history of fashion marketing: continuity and revolution

The story of fashion marketing that we have told so far has developed in a fluid way, one that may appear seamless. In reality, the most diverse historical events—epidemics, wars, economic crises, natural disasters, scientific discoveries—have undoubtedly influenced its course, causing accelerations, slowdowns, and interruptions. 

What we know for sure, because it is the recent past, is that in a time much closer to ours, there was a real earthquake of sorts. The advent of digitization, first with the affirmation of the internet and then with the spread of social networks, has determined a deep cultural divide in fashion communication. We will talk about this in our next post.