The Luxury Fashion Industry: The Balancing Act of Artistic Credibility and Corporate Expectations

New York Fashion Week came to a close this past weekend, and like many industries, between COVID-19 and a rapidly changing social and political climate, the luxury fashion industry has had to break with traditions and reimagine itself and its relevance in our new world.  

Finding your footing in an ever-changing landscape is not unique to luxury fashion or, for that matter, any company or individual in 2021; however, the path forward is not one size fits all. It requires constant calibration and assessment, utilizing a diverse set of strategies and tools to navigate the unknown, while at the same time not losing touch with your unique identity. 

Luxury fashion has always had a unique place in the world – a cross between commerce, art and aspiration. No one element can overrule the other, thus creating a potent mixture that captures the imagination while still maintaining the practicality of creating apparel that people can live their lives in. Nevertheless, the balance of those key elements has only become more challenging in our current communications and political climate. 

Luxury fashion brands must balance the pressures of corporate expectations while still maintaining artistic credibility. Unlike mid-level or mass market clothing brands that mainly repurpose trends, luxury fashion is expected to create and define those trends. It also is not a necessity; therefore, its appeal is built on the power of its mystique and ingenuity. Yet, with most major fashion labels no longer being private and instead owned by publicly traded companies, brands must adhere to the pressures of the investor community, which looks for consistency and prudence. Further complicating things is social media and its democratization of a once-insular industry. Previously, all that mattered were the opinions of the industry elite and clientele; now, their reputations can be impacted by the wide-ranging opinions from broader segments of the general public.  

So how does a major luxury fashion label continue to keep its creative edge while contending with an ever-expanding set of stakeholders, many of whom do not even buy its products, but have increasing influence on the label’s brand reputation? 

The answer: Diversify perspective and strategy. 

That may seem like an obvious statement at this point in our current social and political environment, but diversification can take on many layers and requires a brand to think beyond the traditional norms at all levels of its business. The most important element of diversifying is through representation both on the creative and corporate side, which the fashion industry, like many others, is working to address. And from a communications perspective, diversifying can also mean recalibrating the standard strategies and tools, and opening up to thinking from outside the industry.  

At Ketchum, we work with high-profile luxury fashion brands to help them navigate the rapidly changing reputational landscape. Traditionally, people may not equate expertise in corporate communications with the specialized world of luxury fashion. However, as our work has grown over the years, one of the biggest assets we bring to our luxury fashion clients is our experience both inside and outside their industry.  

As fashion labels have used social media to elevate their brand awareness, it has also made them more susceptible to widespread public criticism. As corporate communications specialists, we draw upon best practices gained from our work on large-scale product campaigns and high-profile crises across a range of industries. Our experience has helped our luxury fashion clients anticipate how situations could escalate and be interpreted by an audience that may not have brand or industry knowledge. This perspective has been an essential tool in assessing and attuning to changing public expectations and immediate challenges brought on by pandemics and other world events. And at the same time, as counselors, we must safeguard what makes luxury fashion special – its creativity. At our best, we can help navigate the pitfalls, strengthen and standardize processes, and ensure we do not heavily tamper with the artistic spark that drives the whole industry. 

Ultimately, the challenges facing luxury fashion are a reflection of our times. No company, organization or industry is fully insulated from broader public opinion and there is no one-size-fits-all solution to issues. Instead, navigating our rapidly changing environment requires constant evaluation and modifications, as well as expanding beyond traditional walls and comfort zones to get outside perspectives – whether it be insights from such Ketchum specialists as DE&I, Environmental/Purpose, Public Affairs or Issues & Crisis – in addition to industry expertise.  

Maintaining positive brand awareness is only going to become more complex. Though the natural inclination is to want simple solutions, the reality is it truly takes a village of experts to effectively protect a company’s reputation.