The Questionable Future of Fashion Wholesale?


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It wasn’t until recently that fashion brands reached their clients via the retail shops, which in turn operated a well-established wholesale business model. But over the last couple of decades, as online shopping has steadily increased at a fast and furious pace, and countless boutiques closed their doors and larger department stores sales suffered – many wonder what is the future of fashion wholesale?

future of fashion wholesale

Photo by Clark Street Mercantile

I love the shopping experience. Good retailers, such as Selfridges, provide brand validation and status, so my first port of call is always the Selfridges handbag department. On my way into the store, I’ll spend an hour caressing the Anya Hindmarch, M2Malettier and Sophie Hulme designs. On my way out I repeat the exercise, albeit with a couple of other designers goods.

Customers like to feel the quality of more expensive products and also love the brand experience. Retail allows you to immerse yourself in your favourite designers ‘live moodboard’ and to be a part of their world. While there are other routes to getting your goods to market, fashion wholesale is an incredibly important option for designers big and small.

Brands use wholesale accounts to position themselves.

According to Andrew Steward, sales director at Rupert Sanderson, “There will always be a wholesale model for as long as there are multi-brand, department stores and online platforms for retail. I believe all luxury brands except Loius Vuitton rely on a combination of retail, wholesale and franchise to maintain and develop their businesses. Brands also use wholesale accounts to position themselves. Just look at Valextra being on the ground floor of Dover Street Market. I also believe Far Fetch is really encouraging their retail partners to buy much deeper into brands and this is really revitalising fashion wholesale.”

Brand building is the name of the game in the 21st century. And one of the best ways to achieve that is to wholesale your collections and to receive press from the magazines and newspapers. Without representation in a brick and mortar store, it’s impossible to achieve the latter but wholesaling isn’t as easy to do as it was in the past. Shops were hungry for new products, and providing your goods were original, made well, well-priced and press worthy

Shops were hungry for new products, and providing your goods were original, made well, well-priced and press worthy you had a good chance of meeting the buyers and selling. However, the present day landscape for start-ups to wholesale their wares can be trickier to navigate. Boutiques, that are still in business, are playing it safe and choosing to stock larger brands with huge marketing budgets or smaller brands with big social media following. They’re almost guaranteed a better sell through with these familiar faces and new talent barely gets a look in.

So, what are the alternative options for these new designers who are hungry to sell?

Small brands are now finding ways to market through platforms such as Not On The High Street, Wolf & Badger and Not Just A Label.  For a monthly premium, designers can set up their own storefronts on selling platforms that have an existing customer base and community. With a global reach, this is perfect for a designer whose attempts at wholesaling locally have been thwarted.  Other direct to consumer (D2C) routes include own websites. This option is attractive but only really works if you have a wholesale or retail presence already.

It is difficult to attract customers through online sales alone, especially in the early days when nobody knows who or where you are. I discovered an American ‘technical sportswear’ brand, ISAORA who are making the online only route viable, when browsing through Barneys, online a couple of years ago. This brand had been wholesaling to well-established shops in America for a number of years but then made the decision to pull out of the wholesale game and to set up on their own. Their reasoning was to do with control of their brand image. An image that was nurtured by some of the shops they sold to but not by all.

This makes perfect sense insofar that the brand is its best spokesperson and can deliver its own message of their highly-detailed product, directly to their customer. They can design and reveal new products to their consumer seasonally and when common sense dictates. The whims of the self-important buying teams are no longer indulged. However, as a brand that had been represented in a wholesale/retail environment, they had an existing customer base already. Their decision to establish a D2C model was, therefore, less challenging than if they had no prior exposure. The Pop-up model for DTC is a great option for start-ups. With a proliferation of short term leases and empty shops available it’s achievable. Through social networking such as Instagram and Facebook it’s possible to set up shop with like-minded designers with goods that compliment your product. The main benefits include:

The Pop-up model for D2C is a great option for start-ups. With a proliferation of short-term leases and empty shops available it’s achievable. Through social networking such as Instagram and Facebook, it’s possible to set up shop with like-minded designers with goods that compliment your product. The main benefits include:

  • Connecting with and finding new customers will allow you to build personal relationships.
  • Selling more product. Apparently, 95% of all purchases are still made offline and through the retail channel.
  • Building brand awareness through the pop-up channel will generate a buzz for the media and your consumers.
  • Launching a pop-up is 80% cheaper than a traditional bricks and mortar store.
  • Testing new markets through the launching of new products.

For more established brands with shops, there are other models that are challenging the wholesale option. These include the disruptive stable of e-tailers such as Farfetch, Lyst and Style.com, to name a few. They have embraced a new marketplace model, one that provides a platform for brands and shoppers to connect. No risk and expense of buying and holding stock are taken on by them as they have established a system that allows the purchaser to buy directly from the bricks and mortar store of the represented brands.

Moda Operandi is particularly clever as it allows the customer, for a 50% deposit, to pre-order product directly from the catwalk, effectively enabling the purchaser to become the buyer. The product is made in their choice of fabric (from a selection) and their size. The item takes anything from 3-6 months to produce and is delivered, beautifully wrapped in MO’s signature packaging. It represents well-established luxury brands but also sells products from smaller, niche brands. Global fashion search engines can be added to the list above as they allow you to shop from up to 12,000 brands in one place. These include ASOS, which favours a mix of high street and mid-market brands.

The concept stores doing their own thing, are in a league of their own. Namely, Colette in Paris, Dover Street Market in London’s Haymarket, 10 Corso Como in Italy, and Joyce in Hong Kong. They stock established and new brands through the traditional fashion wholesale route. However, they offer a unique experience through the design of the store and the selection of products on offer. In Colette’s case, in particular, they style the items on the mannequins.

In spite of the challenges facing retail,  the fashion wholesale model it is here to stay in some shape or form. As it reinvents itself and adjusts to the constant changes taking place in the industry, though there may be less of it, it will remain important route to market for fashion brands. For start-ups trying to gain a foothold in this competitive arena, it’s key to think outside the box and to make themselves relevant before approaching buyers.  Without fashion wholesale running alongside e-commerce, retail and franchise, one can argue that the fashion world would be a duller place.


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