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What can high street fashion brands learn from a brave new wave of independents?

Jay Topham
22 September 2021

There’s been a sharp rise in exciting independent fashion brands over the last few years. Brands that are stealing valuable market share from the big players, one audience at a time. Why? Because they understand and cater to the fashion consumer of today, in all the right ways.

A trending appetite to shop small, combined with an increased consciousness around consumption, set the perfect foundation – and then even more so following the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. Closure of the high streets due to the ongoing lockdowns has also opened up a line of digital-first consumers who are searching for meaningful connections with their favourite brands. Buying into the lifestyle experience first, and the product second.

So, what are the independent brands doing to resonate? What can the big fashion houses learn from the new kids on the block?

Brand Purpose

The green mentality of these young brands, often less than five years old, equates to a clear focus. Fast-growing start-ups tend to have a clear purpose; an obvious reason for existence that consumers can really get behind. It flows through everything they do and put out.

Tekla, the sustainable homeware brand, is one of the many examples. Its tagline: "we make thoughtful products for your home", provides the customer with the confidence that they can shop guilt free and be part of a sustainable collective that resounds across the brand and its products.

Another is Lexxola, an innovative eyewear independent, with a tagline of "Tools for the city" (main image); directly targeting city dwellers and positioning sunglasses as an all-year-round accessory. By taking holidays out of the equation altogether, Lexxola has developed a unique purpose, and in turn a unique aesthetic for its campaigns and a clear confidence in its storytelling.

Finding or refining your brand’s purpose helps to cut through the noise, but also connect with your followers better. Established brands should take stock of what works in their ecosystem to simplify their positioning. Creating a digestible yet exciting proposition and letting it influence every single operation and communication means the brand experience is more meaningful and more impactful, beyond the product catalogue.

Cole Buxton

Cole Buxton

Cut-through content 

It’s hard to stand out in a saturated market like fashion. But the indies are not disappointing. We are seeing a new approach to curation and delivery of content that is both innovative and effective.

Firstly, the agility of the smaller brands means they can capture and share moments instantly. These brands know the potential of various social platforms and move quickly on them. Celebrating the behind the scenes and producing bitesize, unpolished, day-to-day content enables customers to be part of the brand’s development. Not many are better at this than clothing brand Cole Buxton, which has made the studio aesthetic inseparable to its brand. The team captures most of its content literally while they work; whether that’s product development in motion or sharing teasers of finished garments in the corner of the studio.

On the theme of un-polished, low-investment content: Sporty & Rich has an innovative approach too. When it was first established, Sporty & Rich was a visual mood board, sharing existing content which represented the brand in the light it felt was right. Fast forward several years, and it’s now a global lifestyle brand found on Farfetch, End Clothing and more, still sharing existing content. Back to Lexxola, and we see another strategy – the brand’s content is focused on the relationship it has with its community. With a focus on leveraging customer feedback, they can better develop and improve products, avoid over-production. Since launching in 2019, the brand has already changed its best-selling frame three or four times, with founder Zane Saleh talking openly about the brand being positioned between a product brand and a service company.

Content which feels fun, uncomplicated and that aligns with the brand is the master-key to cutting through. In today’s landscape, there isn’t a huge need for big budgets and overworked campaigns. In fact, by keeping content closer to home and more honest, established brands can build communities, iterate products and connect on a much deeper level.

Slow fashion

Sustainability is no longer a nice-to-have but a must-have. In a recent McKinsey survey, over three fifths of consumer consider the environmental impact caused by creating the product prior to purchase. And smaller independent brands that are often best placed to produce fashion items sustainably.

These brands are often so new that they were created with sustainability in mind; the understanding, the infrastructure and the flexibility that is required to take a planet-first approach to production is much easier to execute when built in from day one. A change that is much harder for established brands to implement.

Furthermore, smaller independents have helped to make drop culture a “thing” (such as style destination Vaabs), which is not only a popular trend and marketing tool, but a sustainable approach to consumerism. It allows brands to produce limited, exclusive product ranges, which are designed to sell out. This encourages slow fashion as consumers wait for the products, but the process also avoids over-production.



The increased price point that tends to follow from producing less at a higher quality and with better methods of production doesn’t faze today’s younger customers. As Lexxola founder Zane Saleh said to Glossy: “Gen Z is very much buying luxury products, but they’re not everyday purchases… a lot of our customers contact us, asking if [particular styles are still available] because they’re saving up for them.”

Sustainability is an ongoing process for fashion brands, and the titans have a long way to go. By making only what they need, independent brands avoid the stock-crisis that we see at large, fast-fashion outlets as well as being able to alter products as quickly as they need. With multiple benefits, a "less but better" approach could help established fashion brands to reduce their environmental impact whilst driving better relevance and reputation with the masses.

Jay Topham

Jay Topham

Jay Topham is a designer at global brand consultancy Landor & Fitch


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