Marketing in the fashion industry: Communicating fashion is ancient history

Fashion industry companies, whether luxury or fast fashion, are using a mix of physical reality and virtual reality to provide their target audiences with a cutting-edge shopping experience. But how did we arrive at this point? Today we kick off a series of posts where we will look at the world of marketing in the fashion industry and how it has evolved over the years.

Where we are now…

Digital transformation, with the development of sophisticated data analysis techniques, has determined the urgency of increasingly customer-centric marketing strategies able to create segmented and targeted messages for a brand’s customers. As a result, companies are able to respond both quickly and accurately to the demands of customers. 

Today, marketers are able to make decisions based on results of algorithms, which give the impression that customer behaviors are objective, far-sighted, even predictive. The last frontier, likely to be crossed, seems to be that of artificial intelligence. Even fashion companies, from the most unconventional to historical brands, will also have to take advantage of this trend.

 

Creative Artificial Intelligence

For example, “Thought Experiments” was a project by photographer Alberto Maria Colombo who used an algorithm, the GAN (Generative Adversarial Networks) to produce its own original visual creation by mixing and comparing a sample set of images. 

It is the first successful attempt to bring AI into the moving images of fashion. According to the Instagram page of “Vogue Italia,” where it was presented: “Although following a mathematical structure, the results are unpredictable, random, and abstractly beautiful, just like a chemical reaction, or the growth of a flower. We allow an electronic machine to learn how to recognize the human shape, the clothing they wear, and independently create an organic flow of images, starting from a rational thought, and ending in a visual and aesthetically pleasant chaos. More than AI, it would be best to call it “ACI”: Artificial Creative Intelligence.”

 

The fashion fortress conquered by digital 

Today’s fashion companies use a variety of tools to communicate identity, style, and products over an ever-expanding system of display, mobile, video, premium advertising formats. Marketing in the fashion industry is more than ever social, data-driven, immersive, and interactive, where it is using the latest generation technologies to reach its consumers. This is striking for an industry that, for many years, was resistant to digital, whether in the form of technologies or touchpoints, or influencers themselves who used social networks to promote themselves (and fashion brands that they love). 

 

…where we came from

Even before today’s consumer society and the world of magazines, fashion shows, or Instagram, the economic and social system of what we call “fashion” found a way to use the available media to reach those who had the resources to buy ready-made clothing. 

Even with an inevitably narrow target and limited means of communication and logistics, the process was similar to today’s contemporary marketing: create a demand, qualify it, and retain it. Marketing in the fashion industry, much like other industries, had to evolve, from travelling mannequins and later large scale fashion shows, to magazines, to apps, and personalized online ads. 

 

1. Pandoras: Travelling fashion dolls

For 400 years, nobles throughout Europe who wanted to be updated on the latest styles, relied almost exclusively on Pandoras or “fashion dolls” that were sent to the most important courts in Europe to display the latest styles. The use of pandora dolls is traditionally attributed to Marie-Jeanne Rose Bertin, a “dressmaker” under Queen Marie Antoinette.

The miniature dolls had the features of the gentleman or lady from whom the tailor had received the important commission. They wore detailed outfits, meticulously reproduced, at scale, for the clothiers of the other courts. The tailors could then copy the design, which resulted in the transfer of skills necessary to reproduce, for example, the elaborate headdresses of the 15th century and the empire-style silhouettes of the late 18th century. These dolls travelled a great deal: from Paris to London to New York, crossing oceans and crossing enemy lines thanks to diplomatic passes that were recognized among warring states to ensure their customers access to everything they needed to be “fashionable.” 

 

2. Fashion plates: from engravings to photographs

In addition to the Pandora, fashion plates have ancient origins; we could almost define them as fashion illustrations in their embryonic state. A fashion plate is a portrait that was used to illustrate and communicate a style of clothing to a potential buyer. 

 

The Origins

According to the “Origin and Early History of the Fashion Plate” by John L. Nevinson, fashion illustration began in the late 15th and early 16th century. Here, the fashion plate “is a generalized portrait, indicating the style of clothes that a tailor, dressmaker, or store can make or supply, or showing how different materials can be made up into clothes.” 

The interest in fashionable clothing goes back to at least the 16th century, where it was noted in dialog by a relative of Pope Pius II who said that fashionable dress should be marked by high quality material and tasteful, both in style and in terms of how it is worn. The function of “fashionable dress,” according to Nevison, was primarily to serve as an indicator of one’s social status or profession and to attract attention. Practical purposes, protection against the weather, for example, were secondary requirements. This also reveals the promotional capacity of the illustration.

 

Fashion at court

After a period of incubation, therefore, fashion figurines triumphantly entered the scene. At the end of the 17th century, during the reign of Louis XIV of France, where the modern fashion industry was born at court. Nobles from all over the country were concentrated in Versailles, kept away from their castles and estates by a king who demanded that his rivals remain close to him, and forced to demonstrate wealth and status exclusively through their clothing. It was at this particular juncture, with a court populated by bored aristocrats anxious to assert their social standing by use of wigs and lace, that fashion began to identify with the general style of clothing appropriate for a specific person, at a particular time of day, for a specific occasion or purpose. 

For the next 200 years, fashion plates were the main method of marketing in the fashion industry, especially during the reign of Marie Antoinette in 18th century France. As in a kind of blog, court fashion was copied for posterity, captured in a drawing, engraved on wood, or printed to represent the latest advances in style.

As we look at this in a marketing context, it is important to underline how these illustrations played an important role in the communicative system (the “advertising,” even) of different eras, where it was capable of incorporating even very complex social meanings. It transferred a general sense of fashion; by showing a certain type of clothes as they were actually worn or that would probably have been worn, it defined the norms that those in society may want to comply with. 

 

An exceptional sales tool

Generalized yet incredibly varied in its infinite combinations of materials, cuts, and decorative elements, the design could be imitated by a tailor and end up for sale in a shop. The image was reproduced mechanically over time:  engraved in wood, printed on paper, and made by hand, next it was impressed with lithographic processes. Today, in the form of a photograph or digital image, it still retains its ability to ignite desires and channel them into increasingly complicated funnels, confirming itself as an exceptional tool in support of sales processes, even the most sophisticated ones.

 

3. The boutique: attracting attention, in passing

The increasing presence of fashion plates led to a turning point in terms of sartorial creation: in the middle of the 18th century, some fashion brands no longer limited themselves to using their shops as a place to trade fabrics and ribbons but launched into real entrepreneurial ventures. Based on the safe and tested example of the fashion plate, which were sold by subscription in collections, seamstresses, tailors, milliners, and small business owners began to experiment with new decorations. 

The most famous of these stylists, already mentioned above, was Rose Bertin at the court of Louis XVI of France, where she was referred to as “fashion minister” by her contemporaries. Her boutique, Le Grand Mogul, was on a busy Parisian street, and its large windows created a scenic backdrop, where clothes were artfully displayed, with the aim of attracting potential buyers. 

The boutiques spread the ideas of “well-dressed” even among the newborn middle class. Here is where two traits of fashion as we know were born: “seasonality” and the constant search for novelty.

 

What do these details have in common?

The function that Pandora dolls, fashion plates, and boutiques all have in common is this: they served to capture the attention of potential customers. 

They are all formats for promotion and sales, communicative objects that have been enriched with new features and potential over time. The trend that unites them is the one that continues to inform even the most evolved marketing strategies: the attempt to decipher the signals in order to reach consumers in the most rapid and precise way, the origins of future customer-centric strategies.

We will continue to examine the history of marketing in the fashion industry in our next post, where we will look at the role of magazines. Stay tuned!