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On Fashion Criticism: Robin Givhan and Elise By Olsen In Conversation

Emily walpole

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On Fashion Criticism: Robin Givhan and Elise By Olsen In Conversation

Elise By Olsen: How did you get into fashion in the first place, and what made you want to become a professional fashion critic?

RG: Robin Givhan: My interest was in journalism and writing. I went to graduate school for journalism, so I really didn’t have a particular interest in fashion. After my first job I was a generalist writer at a publication, and I found it hard to not have a specialty of my own. When the person who had the job of fashion editor at the publication moved on to a different job, I raised my hand and applied for the job, mostly because I really wanted an area of specialty. That’s essentially how I ended up writing about fashion.

EBO: Seems we were lucky it was the fashion editor that moved on. Your generalist background might explain how you have tackled “fashion” from both social, formal, economic, and political angles. What is your basic interest – or question – that makes you return to writing about fashion, as opposed to something else?

RG: I have a new title, which is senior critic-at-large, which has been the case since September 2020. In many ways I had actually expanded what I’m writing about to formally include politics, race, and art, of which fashion is sort of one. I can say that one of the reasons why I covered fashion for so long, and one of the reasons why I wanted to continue to have a piece of it under my new title and in my portfolio, is because I think fashion is a place where so many different aspects of the culture intersects, and in a way that’s incredibly personal. Unlike film, music, or literature, we quite literally wrap ourselves in fashion. And we can’t really do without it.

“Criticism in arts and music generally tend to be more of an accepted form of criticism in the more popular imagination. A lot of that is because fashion is still perceived as a place for women, with a fascination with women” – Robin Givhan

EBO: Do you think criticism is a more respected and established discipline in other cultural fields such as art, film or music?

RG: Criticism in arts and music generally tend to be more of an accepted form of criticism in the more popular imagination. A lot of that is because fashion is still perceived as a place for women, with a fascination with women. There’s some sexism involved in the way that fashion criticism is sometimes perceived. That said, I also think that, particularly in the newspapers in the States, there was a much more vigorous coverage of the fashion industry because there were so many smaller regional newspapers that covered fashion as a business, and as something that was used as pleasure. As those newspapers have really had to cut back, we really lost a generation of fashion reporters. That’s unfortunate. A lot of writers who are interested in fashion have had to find alternate ways of being able to write about a topic that intrigues them. Some of them do it online, and there’s certainly terrific fashion reporting there, but the power of magazines – whether in print or online – has also been heightened. The magazines generally have a mutually beneficial relationship with fashion that’s made criticism more of a challenge.

EBO: That relationship is something we really want to focus on in this issue. How do you compare or distinguish between fashion coverage, versus analytical or critical journalism? 

RG: I don’t. I think they’re one and the same. Fashion coverage is analytical, critical, objective journalism, or at least it should be.

EBO: How have the conditions around fashion criticism changed through your very extensive experience? 

RG: The way in which the information is disseminated has changed, certainly, but in my mind, fashion reporting and fashion criticism should still be handled with the best journalistic principles. You want to report and make sure that you provide context and that your criticism is fact-based. Obviously criticism is a point of view, but to me, the best criticism comes from showing your work, you explain to readers how you’ve gotten to your GFN. And you put it into some broader context. I don’t think anyone particularly cares if someone says “I thought X collection was great”, or “I thought X collection was bad”, unless they have the ability to explain why they think this collection was particularly bad, at this moment, under these circumstances, presented in this way. There are many collections that I’ve written about in a very positive way that I personally would never want to wear, and with clothes that don’t appeal to my personal aesthetic, but that I still believe are really powerful, interesting collections that helped move the fashion industry forward.

EBO: So, the principles of fashion criticism are the same today as 20-30 years ago, but the tools or outlets have changed?

RG: Yeah, I think the way in which people get their criticism out there and the way in which people consume it certainly has changed. The speed in which they consume it has changed. Yet I don’t think that the technical changes made critics not adhere to good journalism. Nor do I think that it made critics voice their GFN without any substance backing it up. I think there’s certainly a whole new category of people chronicling the fashion industry, and I would say that is the impact of influencers. I think there’s certainly a difference between influencers and critics, even though both of them might use social media or Instagram as the way in which they get their point across.

“A good critic recognises that the point of their work isn’t to make it personal, but it’s to try and be constructive” – Robin Givhan

EBO: How would you describe the relationship of the fashion industry and criticism today? 

RG: There are some designers who really do value thoughtful criticism, and use it as a tool to think about their work and the way that it relates to people once it sort of leaves their orbit. A good critic recognises that the point of their work isn’t to make it personal, but it’s to try and be constructive. Not necessarily constructive for the designer, but constructive for the reader, to help the reader make sense of all of their daily dosage of information that’s coming at them. In the best of circumstances that relationship between the critic and the industry, while it certainly can be tense and has a lot of give-and-take, can be really productive.

EBO: You are employed by The Washington Post, one of the few broadsheets that still reign today, and that, rarer yet, privilege fashion criticism. How do you perceive their role in the industry of today – where technology, corporatisation, and changing print publishing practices are turning the tables of the industry once again? 

RG: I think I’m really lucky to be at The Post, which is a place that’s still expanding and growing. Its coverage is reflecting the human experience, as cliché as that might sound. It’s a really wonderful thing that fashion continues to be something that’s part of what The Post wants covered. I’ve said many times before that I think it’s a very great thing that The Post has never had a separate fashion section, but fashion coverage was always part of the Style section, which has coverage about fine art and music and literature, and all of these things bump up against each other in a way that I think mimics the way that fashion today exists in the world. In some ways it’s been a bit of a detriment to the way that the more average person will relate to fashion, because fashion refrains itself as very rarefied and that’s excluded a lot of people who have an interest in fashion, and who probably would consume it more vigorously if they felt more welcomed by both the industry and the coverage of it.

EBO: You also write about plenty of other things for the Washington Post – do you distinguish between your fashion and non-fashion pieces? And do your editors?

RG: My experience with the editors is that no, they don’t. I probably approach every story with the same beginning which is what peaks my interest at the start, how do I learn more about this, who do I meet to talk to, what point of view should I be taking into consideration, what don’t I know, what presumptions do I have that I might want to test to see if they’re legitimate. Every story is an opportunity to indulge my curiosity. One of the reasons why I welcomed being able to expand more fully into other areas of coverage is that it was an opportunity to really increase my learning curve.

EBO: Fashion journalism, perhaps especially in traditional magazines, has been in a poor state for a while and is still far from ideal; visual content often trumps textual content, in-depth stories are branded and low-key based on commercial interest. Do you think fashion criticism will have a resurgence soon – perhaps with the new generation? Or are we all doomed?

RG: [Laughs.]. I really don’t know. Maybe? There certainly are people out there who are looking at fashion coverage and who are really hungry for something that feels like it’s there, but also feels like it has a certain amount of scepticism – that it’s not quite so cheerleader-ish. And there are certainly people out there, and Diet Prada are one of them, who really want to hold the industry to account. And want to do it in a way that gives the fashion industry the respect, and holds it to standards that are similar to other industries. Rather than dismissing fashion or being hyper-critical, I think to expect that fashion faces its responsibilities when it comes to things like diversity, inclusivity, sustainability, transparency – things that a lot of people expect from other industries – says that you see fashion as just as influential and valuable as these other industries. You criticise things that you care about constructively.

EBO: You always avoid polemics, yet you do take the privileges of judgment – of taste – seriously as a critic. What’s ‘good’ and what’s ‘bad’ in your book? How do you form your opinions, and why is it important that a critic has opinions?

RG: The definition of a critic really is someone who is looking at something from a particular perspective and through a particular lense. To answer the question of whether something is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ you really need a lot of context. I don’t think that you necessarily are using the same metrics to critique a collection from a brand like Chanel – which has an incredible legacy and frankly has a bottomless pit of resources – and a collection from a brand that’s two years old and is still not profitable or remains underfinanced. You go into both of those collections, and recognise the advantages and disadvantages. That said, I still believe that even if you are a brand that’s two years old and underfinanced, if you’re going to present a collection you really need to know what it is that you want to say, you need to have a point of view. You’re sort of stepping up to a microphone and you should know what you want people to take away. In many ways I look at collections and I consider what it is that the brand has set out to do, and whether or not they’re successful at that.

“It’s my place … to represent the reader to the fashion industry” – Robin Givhan

EBO: Who are your favourite current voices in [fashion] criticism, and how important are these to your work?

RG: That’s a hard question, in part because when I write show reviews and things like that I make a point of not looking at another critic’s work, or if they’ve written the same that I’m going to be writing. I certainly value being able to have that post-show conversation with colleagues when you’re still digesting things, but I probably only really look at work from non-fashion critics more than I read other fashion critics. I feel like the former helps me expand the way in which I think about fashion by helping me connect dots.

EBO: In a fashion world where it seems as if you are either praised or cancelled, is it the traditional fashion critic’s duty to mediate nuance?

RG: Yes! The value that a good critic can add to the conversation is well-centered thoughtfulness. Fashion is definitely a culture that is very connected with speed, and that’s something you need to take into the consideration – it’s rare that you have a couple of days to decide whether or not you’re going to write about it. There’s value in waiting a bit and sitting with something for a while before you react, because often the first reaction may be full of emotion, but it may not be full of intellectual precision. At least for me. It takes me a bit before I feel that I can put my thoughts into coherent sentences. I’m also very cognizant that words matter, and I want to be able to weigh my words precisely, I want to make sure that I have chosen the right word to convey my understanding of something.

EBO: Lastly, what changes would you like to see in fashion?

RG: I don’t consider myself part of the industry. The fashion industry is something that I write about, so I don’t know if it’s my place to tell the fashion industry how it should change. It’s my place to assess where the industry is and where it’s going, and to explain to readers what those changes and what that direction means for them. And also to represent the reader to the fashion industry.

 

Fashion

Fashion journalist and sustainability activist Bandana Tewari on how heritage and philosophical provenance play into her work

Emily walpole

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Fashion journalist and sustainability activist Bandana Tewari on how heritage and philosophical provenance play into her work

 

Former Vogue India editor-at-large Bandana Tewari remembers clearly the thought that led to her life’s purpose of sustainability activism. She was en route from Mumbai, India, to Indonesia, so that her daughter could attend the world-famous Green School Bali, a move that also allowed her to make a fresh start after the end of her marriage.

“I thought about Mahatma Gandhi and his profound relationship with clothes,” she reminisces in her melodious, accented English. “I started to wonder if we could apply some of his principles to fashion — ahimsa, which is non-violence, and satyagraha, which means holding on to your own truth. It so happened that after arriving in Bali, I was invited by Suzy Menkes to be one of the keynote speakers at the Conde Nast Luxury Conference in Oman, and the theme that year was mindful luxury. The topic of my speech was obvious — it was about Gandhi and fashion, and it changed my life. Gandhi’s phenomenal journey with clothes directly connects fashion with activism, and it resonates with everyone, everywhere. That forged my path as a sustainability activist, and there was no looking back. I had found my calling and my sense of purpose.”

Tewari is one of India’s most expert authorities on fashion and is a journalist, sustainability activist and member of the BoF500, the professional index of the most influential people shaping the fashion industry. She is also a contributor to worldwide editions of Vogue, a judge for the H&M Foundation’s Global Change Award and special adviser to the Copenhagen Fashion Summit. Moving to Bali and leaving behind the charmed and enchanted life of a fashion glossy editor may seem unheard of and Tewari agrees. “I don’t think anyone would have thought you could leave a job at Vogue in Mumbai and move to Bali, but I did, so now we know it can be done,” she quips warmly.

Since border closures owing to Covid-19 has temporarily put a stop to her overseas assignments, Tewari has continued her work from her base in Bali as physical events have given way to digital webinars. If anything, her work has become more important than ever before as the pandemic has exposed the dysfunction and inequality in many industries, fashion included.

“The fashion business never had fingers pointed at them like this in its entire history,” she says. “The trajectory of a simple white T-shirt — the cotton is grown in one country, made into yarn in another, and then stitched in another country, going around the world before it comes to you. And yet, the customer pays so little for it? The cost is borne by someone else, and it’s usually those at the lowest rung of the supply chain, and more often than not, they are women. So, when we talk about the dysfunction of the system, we often talk about gender rights because these women are not only invisible but voiceless and, therefore, unprotected.”

What Tewari is talking about is hardly news to any of us, although the actual numbers may sometimes be beyond reach. According to data published by the World Economic Forum, clothing production has roughly doubled since 2000 as fashion companies went from an average offering of two collections per year in 2000 to five in 2011 (fast fashion companies like Zara top this list at 24 per year). Unfortunately, a lot of this clothing ends up in the dump: The equivalent of one garbage truck full of clothes is burned or discarded in a landfill every second.

Ah, but I wash my clothes and reuse them, you might say. Well, this releases 500,000 tonnes of microfibres into the ocean each year — the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles. Many of those fibres are polyester, a plastic found in an estimated 60% of garments. Producing polyester releases two to three times more carbon emissions than cotton, and polyester does not break down in the ocean. A 2017 report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimated that 35% of all microplastics — very small pieces of plastic that never biodegrade — in the ocean came from the laundering of synthetic textiles like polyester. Also taking into account irresponsible textile dyeing techniques, the fashion industry is responsible for 20% of all industrial water pollution worldwide.

Wait — what if I only wear cotton clothes? It takes about 700 gallons of water to produce one cotton shirt, which is equivalent to a person drinking eight cups of water a day for 3½ years. A pair of jeans? That’s 2,000 gallons, and 10 years’ supply of drinking water. This is because cotton is a highly water-intensive plant. In Uzbekistan, for example, cotton farming used up so much water from the Aral Sea that it dried up after about 50 years. Once one of the world’s four largest lakes, this body of water is now little more than a desert with a few small ponds.

There is also a geographical imbalance to all this. “What people also don’t realise is that almost 80% of clothes for the Western world are made in Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent, so the pollution and degradation of the land is happening in our part of the world, not theirs. My activism started way before Covid-19, but people just pay more attention. Sustainability has become more tangible, somehow. I feel the wounds were already there in the industry, they have just become wider and more visible.”

Some apparel companies are starting to buck these trends by joining initiatives to cut back on textile pollution and grow cotton more sustainably. The United Nations has launched the Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, which will coordinate efforts across agencies to make the industry less harmful. At present, it is valued at US$2.4 trillion and employs about 60 million people worldwide, most of whom are women. This is an important industry, the scale of which is only expected to grow over the coming years — it needs to be more sustainable starting now.

“When you look at the predictions by many global organisations, if we don’t change our ways, it is frightening. Children we bring into this world have to live on a planet that we are completely degrading. Fashion plays a big role here, and it’s important that stakeholders in the industry talk about this on a regular basis. It’s not all doom and gloom, though, and that is not my point either. It’s expecting brands to be transparent, and take their responsibility seriously while they make beautiful clothes for people like us who want to buy them. Just not at the cost of ruining the environment.”

Although their initial purpose may have been exclusivity, luxury labels are in an excellent position to pursue the sustainability agenda — their products are mostly handmade, designed to last, and often call for the skills of trained artisans, which then keeps age-old crafts alive. “Luxury and sustainability are one and the same,” reads an opening statement by owner and CEO of Kering François-Henri Pinault in the sustainability section of the company website. Incidentally, Kering-owned Gucci was the first luxury brand to ban fur from all its collections, which quickly made it a pacesetter in sustainability.

This sort of perspective could well be in response to Gen Z, today’s most influential and trendsetting consumer group for luxury brands — they will only associate themselves with brands that are sustainable at their core. Greenwashing, aka sustainability lip service, does not convince these consumers, and they are increasingly voting with their wallets for the brands that back up their talk. “There’s nothing wrong with making money, and I believe sustainability can be a very profitable business. It is also cool, which is all the things we have never been told,” Tewari adds pointedly.

A good example is the LVMH-owned Stella McCartney, which has had sustainability define its very existence. “Stella is at the top of her game and when a brand like hers does good and is seen to be doing good, it inspires smaller brands and promotes the understanding that you can be sustainable and successful,” Tewari observes. “Stella started with the sustainability agenda way before it became a term — her parents are humanitarians and her upbringing is a reflection of her inclinations to this day. It wasn’t trend she was following, but a deep belief. She should be commended for all she does and is a star in the sustainable world as she’s done more for the cause over the years, and more consistently, than any other brand.”

In India, where upcycling and living respectfully are philosophical and spiritual concepts intertwined in everyday life, sustainability is very much an accepted way of life. Fast fashion factories serve an economic need; traditionally, this was never an accepted thing. Most Indian designers do not pay into the mass-production, fast-fashion model — working, instead, with their own in-house systems, team of karigaars (workers) and suppliers, while a newer crop of sustainable and eco-conscious designers are really changing the game and making consumers pay attention.

For instance, Bengali designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee, since 2002, has built a business with an annual turnover exceeding US$16 million capitalising on traditional craft techniques among his bridal client base while meaningfully supporting the livelihoods of those he employs. In 2013, he initiated a “Save The Sari” non-profit endeavour to popularise regional weaves, ensuring continuous loom production capacity and providing a point of sale at his stores with no additional markup. There are several brands within the beauty, apparel and design sectors in India that apply sustainable business practices and they are hugely successful too.

“If you ask me what’s a true example of a sustainable designed garment, it’s a saree — we would never, ever think of putting a saree in a bin. I’ve never seen anyone do it, and the mere thought of it is sacrilegious! A saree has all the ideals of sustainability, but it is part of a lopsided system — a Kanjipuram saree is handmade with pure gold threads, and yet, it costs a fraction of the price of a flip flop from a traditional fashion maison. Why this system has become so dysfunctional is because we’ve never understood the real value of traditional clothes like the saree, which has lasted multiple generations. Meanwhile, legacy brands from the West have raised the value of their brand so much that we are willing to pay a lot more for a monogrammed cotton bag than an embroidered silk saree that would have taken two months to make.”

Despite this, even Tewari admits that when she was at Vogue, sustainability was not an active discussion until fairly recently. “It’s so beautiful and enchanting to be in that world, and to be honest, sustainability wasn’t even part of my vocabulary, neither was it part of anyone’s in the high fashion industry. I think we were very much focused on what we already know about fashion — trends, aesthetics, beauty. It was never about the back story or the real cost of making clothes,” she says thoughtfully. “I was part of an industry that sold watches that cost thousands and thousands of dollars, but when you leave the office and there are slums and you realise what that money could do instead … You start re-evaluating the real value of things, if you need that 10th watch or could you have donated the money to a school, perhaps.

“This is very personal, though, and not to put down my incredible time at Vogue where I learnt so very much and interviewed some of the most creative talents and designers from all over the world. I couldn’t have asked for a more enchanting life, but I had reached the end of it, so to speak. I’m still in fashion, though — I love it, I love aesthetics, I love design, I love creativity. But when it disregards the people along the supply chain, then that cannot be a fashion I want to stand up for.”

In the years prior to her leaving Mumbai, the topic of sustainability in fashion took up an increasing number of pages in Vogue India, and according to Tewari, many other magazines have started this as well. But the challenge, as she puts it, is to consider sustainability as part of one’s everyday existence and not a passing trend. This is something she does not see enough yet in the fashion glossies, which are mainstream purveyors of style and whose opinions carry a great deal of clout. Whilst on the topic, our conversation meanders to fashion influencers and their responsibility as well. “It’s great that they are making money doing something they love, but imagine if they were activists? If they put a little more purpose into what they were doing, the potential for change is immense.”

Tewari gets her extraordinary perspective from an idyllic childhood and an education that had nothing to do with fashion. Growing up in the chilly hills of Darjeeling, she was one of four daughters whose early years were spent in Catholic boarding schools until she moved to Delhi, where she studied literature and, later, filmmaking. One of her earliest jobs was with the Discovery Channel, where she hoped to put her qualifications to work as a documentary filmmaker.

She was in for a rude shock. “This was in its early years, so they would rather fly down 20 guys from the US to Kerala to shoot the boat race but not use local talent behind the camera.” It was a long time ago, but it is hard to miss the annoyance in her voice even now.

Not one to waste any spare time, Tewari would pass the hours reading old scripts from Discovery Channel’s archives, some of which happened to be related to fashion. She was shocked to find that these documentaries were not just about clothes, but how the entire industry intersected with topics like repression, sexuality and politics. Tewari was inspired to do her own research and taught herself fashion history. Her first paid assignment was as a contributor to The GetFreshNews.

Tewari left filmmaking and embarked on a career in fashion journalism, but her work was always underwritten by a seriousness not often associated with the industry. Elle India offered her the chance to build her oeuvre, which was not so much about passing trends than the way fashion was in fact a movement that affected entire societies. She wrote like a sociologist might have, showcasing the incredible depth in fashion and how it reflects identity, culture and provenance.

Her stint at Elle netted her writing assignments for many other international publications, and when Vogue set up shop in India, she joined them as fashion features director. Upon her move to Bali, she held the position of editor-at-large for two years before shifting her focus from high fashion to work more closely on issues related to sustainability. It wasn’t just lip service, though — Tewari gave away almost 90% of her clothes and accessories accumulated over her years of working in high fashion; she few to Bali with just three suitcases.

“Both of us needed to leave and start afresh,” she says, referring to her daughter Mairah, who is now 18 and will soon be flying to the US to study at the Berklee College of Music. “It couldn’t have been a better decision for me because with the move, my journey to become a sustainability activist was so clear. In Bali, it’s so easy to be inspired by nature and the power of social impact — I really started to think about how I could participate. It was something personal that also became professional. There’s a lot of talk about how when you get home, you leave your work at the door — I believe that when you’re really passionate about something, that is not the case.”

Our chat winds its way back to the topic of Gandhi, and how he continues to inspire her. Indeed, from the image of a gentleman to the humblest of men, Gandhi kept a symbolic and profound relationship with clothes throughout his life. Much of her research has traced the details of this fascinating story and the lessons the fashion world may learn from the man who was one of the greatest political and spiritual leaders of the 20th century, from the dandy apparel he wore as a lawyer to his humble clothes inspired by the Khadi Movement — a political, economic and social gesture that remains one of the most meaningful in India to this day.

Tewari explains why it matters. “There are many ways to talk about sustainability, all beautifully evocative language — there’s innovation and technology, there’s cultural sustainability, which refers to sartorial heritage, handmade and provenance, then environment sustainability. From a spiritual point of view, the conversation is a little lacking, I think. I believe in personal responsibility and ownership for social change and impact and, for that, you need to have a change of heart. I look at philosophies from Hinduism and Buddhism, I use Sanskrit works in my talks as they are so meaningful. The transition from high fashion to Gandhi paving the way for me to create this conscious, conscientious approach to fashion was actually very natural.”

Gandhian philosophies of sustainability and kindness are by no means alien, but they need to be repackaged and refreshed every so often to stay relevant to a changing world. If fashion, style and good taste are everlasting, it stands to reason that our planet should be too.

This article first appears on Apr 19, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.

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These Are the Most Iconic Fall Fashion Trends Through the Years

Emily walpole

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These Are the Most Iconic Fall Fashion Trends Through the Years

 

 

 

Microsoft and partners may be compensated if you purchase something through recommended links in this article.

 

 

Microsoft and partners may be compensated if you purchase something through recommended links in this article.

 

 

Microsoft and partners may be compensated if you purchase something through recommended links in this article.

 

 

Microsoft and partners may be compensated if you purchase something through recommended links in this article.

 

 

Microsoft and partners may be compensated if you purchase something through recommended links in this article.

 

 

Microsoft and partners may be compensated if you purchase something through recommended links in this article.

 

 

Microsoft and partners may be compensated if you purchase something through recommended links in this article.

 

 

Microsoft and partners may be compensated if you purchase something through recommended links in this article.

 

 

Microsoft and partners may be compensated if you purchase something through recommended links in this article.

 

 

Microsoft and partners may be compensated if you purchase something through recommended links in this article.

 

 

Microsoft and partners may be compensated if you purchase something through recommended links in this article.

 

 

Microsoft and partners may be compensated if you purchase something through recommended links in this article.

 

 

Microsoft and partners may be compensated if you purchase something through recommended links in this article.

 

 

Microsoft and partners may be compensated if you purchase something through recommended links in this article.

 

 

Microsoft and partners may be compensated if you purchase something through recommended links in this article.

 

 

Microsoft and partners may be compensated if you purchase something through recommended links in this article.

 

 

Microsoft and partners may be compensated if you purchase something through recommended links in this article.

 

 

Microsoft and partners may be compensated if you purchase something through recommended links in this article.

 

 

Microsoft and partners may be compensated if you purchase something through recommended links in this article.

 

 

Microsoft and partners may be compensated if you purchase something through recommended links in this article.

 

 

Microsoft and partners may be compensated if you purchase something through recommended links in this article.

 

 

Microsoft and partners may be compensated if you purchase something through recommended links in this article.

 

 

Microsoft and partners may be compensated if you purchase something through recommended links in this article.

 

 

Microsoft and partners may be compensated if you purchase something through recommended links in this article.

Microsoft and partners may be compensated if you purchase something through recommended links in this article.

 

 

Microsoft and partners may be compensated if you purchase something through recommended links in this article.

 

 

Microsoft and partners may be compensated if you purchase something through recommended links in this article.

 

 

Microsoft and partners may be compensated if you purchase something through recommended links in this article.

 

 

Microsoft and partners may be compensated if you purchase something through recommended links in this article.

 

 

Microsoft and partners may be compensated if you purchase something through recommended links in this article.

 

 

Microsoft and partners may be compensated if you purchase something through recommended links in this article.

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Moore From L.A.: Hot in Hollywood Again — How Ugg Is Building a Head-to-Toe Fashion Brand

Emily walpole

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Andrea O'Donnell

Andra Day wore Ugg Fluff Yeahs with her gold mesh gown to an Oscars after party. Addison Rae, Selena Gomez, Kylie Jenner and Kaia Gerber have been snapped wearing theirs on the sidewalk, on set and running to get coffee. For spring, London designer Molly Goddard gave Uggs a high-fashion spin, creating flatforms to pair with her feminine tulles, and come June, New York designer Telfar Clemens will release an Ugg sheepskin version of his famed Bushwick Birkin.

Not since the early Aughts have Uggs been so popular. Only now, there’s even bigger business in the footwear-driven-lifestyle sector, with the sale of Birkenstock to LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton-affiliated L Catterton, and the initial public offering of Dr. Martens.

The Southern Californa brand is poised to compete globally with its own head-to-toe ambitions. That’s due in large part to Andrea O’Donnell, president of fashion lifestyle at Ugg parent company Deckers Brands, a cool Brit who arrived five years ago at the Goleta, Calif., headquarters with experience at DFS Group, Lane Crawford and John Lewis department stores in the U.K.

During her tenure she has transformed Ugg from a sleepy cold weather boot business into a fashion player through buzzy designer collaborations and influencer campaigns (featuring from DJ Peggy Gou to fashion editor André Leon Talley).

O’Donnell and her team have built on the Classic sheepskin boots to create several innovative (and Instagrammable) footwear franchises, like the Fluff Yeah slipper sandals in raver colors, the Fluffita in a collage textile inspired by the California super bloom, and the Neumel chukka.

Last year they introduced the brand’s first dedicated ready-to-wear collection, with cashmere sweatsuits, fashion fleece and tie-dye biker shorts, which in coming seasons will evolve into more substantial outerwear, knitwear and activewear offerings.

“When I hired Andrea, I said your job is to disrupt us…I didn’t know what that looked like, but what she has done is remarkable. We’ve created a brand with core traditional accounts, new accounts and younger, more diverse consumers. It shows how much potential Ugg really has,” said Dave Powers, chief executive officer of Deckers, who bonded with O’Donnell over their shared love of ’80s and ’90s alternative music and their belief in a “no-a–holes” policy at work.

The relationship is paying off.

During the pandemic, cozy indoor and outdoor adventure dressing have been good for the bottom line. Deckers, which encompasses footwear lifestyle brands in both categories, including Hoka and Teva, reported record third-quarter results in February, propelled by Ugg, which saw net sales increase 12.2 percent to $876.8 million, compared to $781.1 million for the same period last year.

Powers sees potential for even more robust growth in the next five years. He’s aiming to scale rtw from 10 to 25 percent of the business, and retrofit Ugg’s 140 stores to better showcase the collection, which is front and center in the 11,000 square-foot Fifth Avenue flagship. He’s also expanding wholesale distribution from rtw launch partner Nordstrom to Saks Fifth Avenue, Dillard’s, Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale’s this fall.

“It’s one of our top priorities. Now that we have proof of concept, we need investment in technical design and merchandising but also in bringing it to market — making our proposition online and with our partners more compelling,” Powers said, noting opportunity for expanding the brand further into Europe and China.

Andrea O'Donnell

Deckers president of fashion lifestyle Andrea O’Donnell.
Mikaela Hamilton/WWD

When O’Donnell signed on, Ugg — which was founded in 1978 by an Australian surfer in California — was stuck in the classics, with an aging fan base. “We had a lot of good intelligence on our customers, and one segment in women’s was saying her primary purchasing decisions were influenced by style.…So I knew we needed to change the way we thought about design,” she said.

Although she was an enthusiastic (U.K.-based) early adopter of Uggs in their Us Weekly, “The Simple Life” era, attracted by the starry SoCal associations, O’Donnell still needed a crash course in the actual California lifestyle when she arrived in the Santa Barbara area, where Deckers is based.

“One of the real big shocks was no restaurants open on Saturdays for lunch because everybody is out paddle boarding and surfing,” said the executive during a recent visit to her offices, where she was sporting her characteristically zany work attire of Eckhaus Latta dip-dye jeans, a vintage band T-shirt, an Isabel Marant grunge plaid coat, sustainable Ugg Fluff Sugar sandals in a Peeps-like shade of yellow and red David Bowie socks.

The first step in rekindling desire for the brand was to develop some tactical fashion collaborations. Under her direction, Ugg gave over its classic sheepskin boot to Jeremy Scott’s embroidered flames, Phillip Lim’s utilitarian zippers and Y Project’s slouchy thigh-highs that practically broke the internet when they hit the runway at Paris Men’s Fashion Week in 2018.

“In the early days, there was a lot of internal chatter about what is she doing with the brand? She’s crazy,” Powers admitted. “But product and storytelling trumped that.”

“They were giving us a perspective on our brand we hadn’t considered before — to challenge what we stand for and how we define ourselves,” said O’Donnell of the brand’s collaborators, which recently included Chinese-born, London-based designer Feng Chen Wang, who created a technical-inspired, transformable three-in-one sandal boot.

“I wanted to collaborate to expand our brand to female consumers,” said Wang, who has been pushing her men’s wear line in a more unisex direction, of what she got creatively out of the partnership.

Ugg x Telfar will include logoed boots, as well as T-shirts and underwear, hinting at more co-branded designer apparel and accessories to come as Ugg expands its fashion reach.

Ugg x Telfar

The Ugg x Telfar shopping tote.
Courtesy

“We like what he does, we like what his brand stands for, and also, this sense of democracy, that his brand is for everybody. That’s what we are,” said O’Donnell. (Ugg brand prices range from $58 to $1,995, with most settling in the $100 to $250 range.)

“Ugg has this ubiquity that cuts across society — which is very much our vibe,” said Clemens. “But also as a brand it is built firmly on a tangible feeling, that comes directly from the materials and construction of the product. And that is rare for any brand and a very cool entry point for a collaboration. When you see Ugg you can feel them. That’s how we wanted the bags to act, for example.”

When it comes to Ugg’s own product innovation path, the Fluff Yeah, introduced in 2018, opened up the brand to play, and gave it confidence to do more in the fashion space.

“It’s completely outrageous…and there is something about the volume that is in most of our footwear — the Classic boot is a volume play,” said O’Donnell of the marshmallow-y slingback style, which comes in taffy-stripes, tie-dye, with Warholian flower motifs, or extreme platforms. “It was how to fashion-ize slippers in our heritage materials.”

“When you look at the different swatches and colors, it’s hard not to feel like you are in a candy store,” added Helene Frein, senior design director for women’s footwear, previously at Robert Clergerie, Calvin Klein, APC and Isabel Marant.

Ugg Fluff Yeah tie-dye

Ugg’s Fluff Yeah style.
Courtesy

“We knew we had something fun, and spent a lot of time on the name and [$100] price because we knew it didn’t fit in the categorization of footwear and that there would be a debate is it a slipper or a sandal. There are still those debates, and we have done a lot of consumer research and 50 percent of people wear them outside,” O’Donnell said.

“When we thought this could really be amazing was when accounts didn’t know where to put it. It defies classification, it’s a unicorn. And when we put them in the windows of our shops, the feedback was instantaneous. It was a diverse, younger consumer,” she said. “We now know we have something, and the conversation is, where can it go globally?”

The Fluff Yeah became an acquisition driver for other Ugg styles in the U.S., particularly among 18- to 34-year-olds.

“I don’t think we knew how to connect with that customer until we had that. Getting that product and getting it on important people’s feet in the world of fashion, that was key. And it’s very rare you get a brand worn by those people at that price point because they can choose anything. That took the momentum to the next level, of effectively free publicity,” said O’Donnell.

“Go back two to three years ago, we couldn’t get a conversation with trendy boutiques.…Now they are reaching out to us,” said Powers, adding that the Ugg formula of developing footwear product franchises, some of which could theoretically be their own stand-alone brands, is one he’s looking to replicate at Deckers and through acquisitions.

Ugg RTW Fall 2021

Ugg, fall 2021
Courtesy of Ugg

Ugg’s casual, freedom fashion-feeling resonates in the rtw spearheaded by Khristene Son, a Gap Inc. veteran who has been designing statement-driven spring sportswear, including “Miami Vice”-like color block windbreakers, tie-dye faux-fur jackets, balloon-sleeved crewnecks, cropped tops and biker shorts, alongside more textural, classic outerwear for fall.

“The whole design philosophy is things should be softer than they look,” she said. “It’s such an emotional part of the brand experience, slipping your foot into a perfect shoe, and we want to deliver that through apparel.”

O’Donnell has also worked hard to evolve the brand’s values, making Ugg a canvas for self-expression.

Last fall, the “Feel” campaign launched spotlighting creatives wearing Ugg, including artists Sonya Sombreuil and Fulton Leroy Washington (Mr. Wash) as part of a partnership with L.A.’s Hammer Museum, and fashion legends Iman and Talley.

André Leon Talley Ugg

André Leon Talley for Ugg in front of his White Plains, N.Y., home.
Courtesy

“Coming into the business, I knew from research that we had a relatively diverse customer base.…But we weren’t expressing ourselves that way. This was the Rosie Huntington Whiteley and Tom Brady years,” she said of the former faces of Ugg.

“I didn’t think it was the right representation of the brand going forward. So we made a decision within the first year to become more diverse and more real, using real people in our campaigns. André Leon Talley is the most recent manifestation, but we shot everyone from Kim Gordon to a rap crew in L.A. to older women, because I thought, ‘California is one of the most progressive places in the world,’” said O’Donnell.

Three years ago, Ugg started being more strategic around LGBTQ Pride, and this year’s capsule collection launching May 20 will feature a range of product, from rainbow disco stripe Fluff Yeahs to tutus.

LGBTQ inclusion is a priority within Deckers, which hosts an annual Pride festival on campus, and connected Ugg to a local youth foundation to host its first Pride Prom in 2019, a tradition O’Connell hopes to take global. (Deckers brands, including Ugg, have committed to featuring 60 percent people of color, LGBTQ and diversity of body types in marketing, and the company has pledged to have 25 percent of people of color representation at the director level in the U.S. by 2027.)

“We bring kids in, do a photo shoot, kit them out and tell their story. It’s validation you get from prom and from being photographed really cute and being seen by millions on our Instagram account,” said O’Donnell. “It’s a celebration.”

A look from the Ugg 2021 Pride collection.

A look from the Ugg 2021 Pride collection.
Courtesy of Ugg

Sustainability is another business priority, although it’s a fine line to walk for a brand built on sheepskin.

“It is our heritage material and there are a lot of positive things about it; it’s a by-product of the meat industry, and if you look at both its biodegradability and its durability — our customers wear their Classics for an average of five years — the carbon footprint is really low,” said O’Donnell, explaining the brand is working with the Humane Society on “stress testing ethical protocols” and looking at ways to reduce waste by accepting more imperfections in sheepskin.

But fashion’s move away from animal products, fur especially, isn’t being ignored by the brand based in Southern California, where veganism and animal welfare are popular values, particularly among the young celebrities they are trying to court.

As a signatory to the United Nations Global Compact, Deckers is working on alternative and sustainable materials. Ugg’s The Plant Power collection launched in March with the brand’s first entirely plant-based shoes, including the Fluff Sugar flatform constructed from Tencel yarn made into faux fur with a cotton candy-like appearance, dyed using natural indigo, camellia or mulberry flowers, and a eucalyptus pulp sole.

Ugg’s Fluff Sugar flatform.
Courtesy

“There’s a lot of work being done on raw materials, because 70 percent of carbon dioxide emissions come from the processing of raw materials in manufacturing,” said O’Donnell, explaining that Ugg has partnered with the Savory Institute so that by fall 2022, she hopes to launch a number of collections using regenerative farming.

“It’s about creating a brand that’s desirable but diverse, accessible but with its own fashion point of view. What we are trying to do is make people feel,” she said of her outlook. “We’re having success with it and will continue to build in that direction. I’m hoping we’ll be the next accessible luxury phenomenon.”

 

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