For many years, designers were pushed – even expected – to build out fully-fledged lifestyle brands, ones that not only offered garments for one gender but for both and with accessories, sometimes even home goods, to go along with it. Need proof? Just look around.
Needless to say, many of these young brands that were pushing out ready-to-wear, outwear, underwear and house wares, could not offer one product or small group of products that were distinctly their own – like say how Joseph Altuzarra is known for his high-slit pencil skirts or Proenza Schouler – when they were starting out – for their must-have PS1 bag (which they have since spun off into covetable garments and footwear). And yet, many emerging labels were swept up in the trend of expanding quickly, before many of them were ready – or was prudent – to do so.
We have certainly seen causalities that serve to signify the difficulty that young brands – those roughly less than ten years old or so – face in the very competitive market.
This pattern of over-expansion is beginning to change, though, as indicated by a wave of younger brands that are shunning the lifestyle brand movement in favor of specializing exclusively – and building their brands – on one core product or a few core products that they perform really well.
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 now holds the title of the youngest self-made female billionaire in the U.S., 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.
(Note: Even the most traditional fashion seasons, Fall/Winter and Spring/Summer, have expanded to include pre-seasons – namely, Pre-Spring and Pre-Fall – in which emerging designers have come to routinely participate, another form of brand expansion. Mono-product brands are largely immune to such seasonality).
Ugg Australia famously got its start this way, with one product: 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 – got his start focusing only on ties.
The New Wave: A Mixed Bag
Yet, 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).
This line of thinking – and 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. That’s 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 – from Net-a-Porter founder Natalie Massenet to “it” girl Alexa Chung – with its one product (and small variations thereof): The colorful fun fake fur jacket. Weiland recently began expanding into ready-to-wear but not before she spent roughly five years focusing exclusively – and making her name – on outwear.
Weiland told Lou Stoppard in a 2015 interview for the Financial Times, “It was very much about the piece rather than the brand.” At the time, “there was no one doing luxurious faux fur,” she says. “People identified with us quickly as we offered a product they really wanted to own, and there was no real alternative."
Monographie, the label launched in 2013 by former Céline marketing staffer, Aude Castéja, is doing something similar. While there is certainly no shortage of shirts on the market – Castéja’s offerings consist exclusively of classic-yet-sophisticated women’s shirting – Monographie’s focus on a single category enables Casteja to offer the most competitive type of product in terms of quality, as well as price point.
A recent season took on reimagined tuxedo shirts and stripes – an inherently French offering for the Paris-based label, which boasts a list of stocks that includes Moda Operandi, Barneys, Opening Ceremony, Harrods, and 10 Corso Como, among many others.
And still yet, there is, of course, Mansur Gavriel, the New York-based accessories brand that is best known for its hot, hot-selling bucket bag. On the heels of the most recent bout of logo-mania, which saw consumers gladly toting (and then subsequently shunning) their Louis Vuitton logo-covered totes and Gucci-printed bags, Mansur Gavriel swooped in with a more discrete alternative: A line of logo-less bags, none of which would set you back more than $500.
The result was nothing if not unexpected. The brand’s Italian-made handbags became the fashion industry’s favorite bag since … well, its last most favorite bag (maybe the Celine luggage tote or the YSL monogram bag?). The media was quick to compare the waiting lists that were spawned by each new release of Mansur Gavriel’s bags – its bucket bags to be exact – to those that mythically come along with the Hermès Birkin bag.
For much of the life of Mansur Gavriel, designers Rachel Mansur and Floriana Gavriel sustained their brand based entirely on the demand for their bags and it worked. They have since launched a small collection of footwear and are slated to make their womenswear debut this month.
Had the designers behind Mansur Gavriel 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.
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.”
Building a Brand Name
Ms. Irgit, who said this approach was what felt natural to her and not the result of “a market analysis or anything,” elaborated, saying that if she had presented a fully-fledged lifestyle line, “I wouldn’t have had the chance the grasp the attention of the ADD [attention deficit disorder] social media culture of our times or the eye of exhausted buyers.”
Another crucial aspect of this approach, according to Irgit, while she says there “are always all kind of pressures” to expand, focusing on her core offerings – as opposed to trying to keep up with fashion’s sped up seasonal timeline – allows her to make sure the business aspects of her brand are in order. As soon as her brand took off – both in terms of social media fame and the long list of big-name international stockists that came knocking (Net-a-Porter, Kirna Zabette, The Webster, and China’s Lane Crawford, among others) – “I got way too busy very quickly with the business side of things,” she says. “There wasn’t much space to get creative to do other things.”
Irgit says her measured approach to releasing products into a saturated market enabled consumers to “start connecting this unique 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 will enable her to “take the brand into new horizons.”
As for whether expansion is, in fact, in the cards, Irgit says, “I want to add more products and expand into other categories – but slowly.” But KIINI fans, do not expect it to be a fast and loose expansion. “I will still go step by step and make unique products that the market needs,” according to Irgit. “I don’t think that the world needs any more junk that looks all the same.”