Mansur Gavriel made its name in bags. A few simply designed, frills-free "Made in Italy" handbags that spawned expansive and utterly unexpected waiting lists. The New York-based brand, which got its start in 2012 when designers Rachel Mansur and Floriana Gavriel came together to create low-key luxury bags sans the usual over-the-top branding and price tags. Their brand, with its original line up of just a few products (which has since expanded), was remarkable not just because of the constantly sold-out status of the bags or the huge mark-ups that re-sellers were demanding for them on eBay, but because the brand's approach stood in stark contrast to most of its peers.
While Mansur Gavriel was readily winning over consumers with its small handful of bags, most other brands, including other relatively young ones, were busy following a model that was aimed at establishing a fully-fledged lifestyle brand, complete with garments for men and women, with athletic apparel, accessories, and sometimes even home goods collaborations.
Needless to say, many of the young brands that have been working towards building such expansive offerings are rarely offering up products that are distinctly their own – like say, how Mansur Gavriel managed to turn an existing design staple, the bucket bag, into something distinctly their own in the minds of many consumers.
But Mansur Gavriel is not alone. Its model is part of a budding trend of brands shunning the route of over-extension in favor of specializing exclusively on – and building their brands on – one or a few core products. And consumers are responding.
The Mono-Product Brand Success Stories
This new(ish) wave of brand building likely comes as young talents look to the success of many of the mono-product companies that came before them. Take Spanx, for example. Sara Blakely, who was named the youngest self-made female billionaire in the U.S. in May 2015, started her brand based on a single heavily patent-protected hosiery product. Speaking about the advent of Spanx, Blakely says she “wanted to invent or create a single product that [she could] sell that was her own and not somebody else’s.” She also noted that she “wanted it to be something [that she] could sell to millions of people.”
Spanx, which was described for many years as a “one product wonder,” has since expanded its offerings – albeit not enormously – to include additional hosiery products and traditional undergarments for both women and men. It is undeniable, though, that its rise was based on one core product, as opposed to fashion’s practice of introducing a new collection of garments or accessories every 3 or 4 months.
Another brand known for a core product: Ugg Australia, which famously got its start by way of its now ubiquitous sheepskin Ugg boot. Last year, the now-California-based company revealed that on average, it sells a pair of its Classic Boots every eight seconds, and roughly 40 million people own at least one pair. The company’s founder, Brian Smith, says his success is based on his ability to find the one thing he could do “better than anyone else and follow it.” For him that was a pair of rather simply-designed boots.
Havaianas, the Brazilian footwear brand known for its rubber flip-flop sandals, has a similar story, as does Moncler, which built its brand almost entirely on its pricey down coats. Ralph Lauren – now one of the most well-known American lifestyle brands – made his name focusing only on ties (and then built a lifestyle empire from there). Moleskine makes notebooks and Crocs makes ... Crocs.
The New Wave: A Mixed Bag
These success stories – and those of similarly situated companies – appear to be spawning a new generation of brands that are opting to focus on single products and in some cases, taking their brand name and the appeal garnered as a result of their early specialty and spinning it into a larger, more expansive brand – but only later on.
Thinx, for instance, is a good example – a brand that, as of now, is satisfied in offering one product. The New York-based company, which launched in January 2014, sells microfiber underwear that wicks away moisture, making tampons (and other traditional feminine hygiene products) virtually unnecessary. The company is expected to disrupt the $15 billion feminine hygiene market, after raising "multiple millions" in a December 2015 Round A of funding – all based on one line of products (three styles of underwear in total).
Billie, the subscription shaving startup that is being pegged as "the Dollar Shave Club for women," raised $1.5 million in seed funding. The company has one core product: A 5 blade razor, which has been supplemented with shave cream and body wash.
This line of company building extends into the fashion industry, as well. Consider KIINI, the Instagram-favored swimwear brand of choice, which has made its name thanks to its distinctive crochet bikinis. Founder Ipek Irgit and her brand are synonymous with that one swimsuit aesthetic – which it has since spun off into a few different styles. The brand, however, does not veer into the territory of bathing suit cover ups, beach bags or the like. It offers a handful of bikini tops and bottoms and three styles of one-piece bathing suits. And that is it.
Shrimps also tends to be a go-to example when discussing the rise of the mono-brand. The faux fur coat brand, founded by London-based designer Hannah Weiland in 2013, managed to win over the fashion industry with its one product (and small variations thereof): The colorful faux fur jacket.
“It was very much about the piece rather than the brand," Weiland told Lou Stoppard in a 2015 interview for the Financial Times.
And of course, there is Mansur Gavriel. Had the designers behind the brand come rushing out of the gate as a fully-fledged womenswear brand – complete with ready-to-wear, bags and shoes – the reception may have not have been quite as marked as their wild success as a small, measured handbag company. Or as KIINI's Ipek Irgit told TFL, in discussing her own approach, the brand’s most compelling and distinctive product may have gotten lost in the shuffle.
According to Irgit, “When I created the swimsuits that are now known as KIINI, I knew that it was a very unique and special product. If I were to launch with tons of different bikinis and cover-ups, etc. at the same time, I knew that this very special product was going to disappear amongst the crowd.”
Ms. Irgit said this mono-product approach is what felt natural to her and ultimately, is what enabled consumers to “start connecting our unique [swimwear] style I have created with the KIINI brand.” Now, even though there “are hundreds of copiers,” says Irgit, “people look at them and say, it is a KIINI copy.” That level of consumer awareness for her brand’s name and its aesthetic is significant and in a thoroughly crowded market, difficult to come by.
* This article was initially published in December 2017.