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News Blog

What Fashion Can Learn From California

Adrian C.

by Lauren Sherman

LOS ANGELES, United States — “California is a nation, not a state.”

The slogan, screen-printed onto T-shirts and scribbled onto handmade signs, reflects the sentiment of a growing constituency of Californians who believe that their home should no longer be part of the United States but a country in its own right. With a gross domestic product of $2.7 trillion in 2017, California has the world’s fifth-largest economy, ahead of Britain and France. Still, nationhood remains a far-fetched notion.

And yet, there’s little doubting the unique power of the place. Even as America’s global influence declines, California remains a magnet for those who believe in change. From the Gold Rush to Silicon Valley, people have long come to California to reinvent themselves, innovate and disrupt, often with the hopes of achiveing the impossible. There’s a reason both the entertainment and technology industries flourished here: California is full of dreamers.

Fashion, too, is filled with dreamers. It’s an industry built on creativity and the ever-changing notion of now. But the fashion business is also notoriously resistant to change.

As the world shifts under fashion's feet, it must adopt new ways of creating, distributing and marketing — perhaps even completely reimagining — its end product. So, what can the industry learn from the culture of California?

Casualisation is not a trend, it’s a way of being with big implications. “Today’s lifestyle is not formal, and I personally think formality is not going to come back,” Tiffany chief executive Alessandro Bogliolo recently told BoF. While California is the home of casual dress — jeans, T-shirts and, now, yoga-ready leggings — the casualisation of culture at large also comes from here. In California, there is less hierarchy, more freedom of interaction among different types of people, easier acceptance of different lifestyles and greater individuality. “The quintessential California thing is that style is individual,” said John Thorbeck, chairman of supply chain analytics firm Chainge Capital. “Casualisation was once a big market for Gap, but that market is gone, broken into many, many niches and inspirations.” California’s subcultures — its “mass of niches,” as LVMH chief digital officer Ian Rogers likes to say — reflect the market fragmentation now happening globally.

“Think different” is a 20-year-old marketing slogan, but it’s truer than ever. Apple’s 1997 advertising campaign reflects the mindset at the core of why disruptors have succeeded in California. Thinking different means good ideas can challenge the status quo — and come from anywhere. While fashion and retail companies are traditionally hierarchical and siloed, Silicon Valley technology businesses in particular operate within a flatter structure that encourages communication, collaboration and bottom-up ideation. In California, there is also far less stigma around failure. Trying risky new things is encouraged; failure is often viewed as a place where new, better, ideas begin. (Even Elizabeth Holmes, the scandalised founder of Theranos, is reportedly trying to start a new company.) It's not surprising that some of fashion’s most talked about new ventures — including Stitch Fix, Everlane and Allbirds — were founded in San Francisco, where outsiders with non-conforming ideas are welcome. A good lesson for the notoriously cliquey and closed fashion business.

California’s consumers can teach you things. From the establishment of the health-food movement to the rise exercise culture, California's lifestyle and consumption patterns have, for decades, served as a precursor to for the way the rest of the world would soon act. How California’s consumers spend their money today (experiences over things) and what they spend it on (organic food, cannabis... ever heard of adaptogens?) can tell us a lot about where consumption patterns are heading globally.

With its major cities reporting some of the highest rates of recycling in the country, California companies are already reengineering their business models to complement the circular economy. Consider Ventura-based Patagonia’s agenda-setting, no-waste efforts. When it comes to discretionary income, Californians are funnelling their dollars into the experience economy through health and wellness products — from boutique exercise classes and plastic surgery — dining out and even the recreational use of marijuana.

Good storytelling sells. In California, everything is content. Product, too, needs a sticky narrative that provoke an emotional reaction. Consider Disney, which sold $53 billion worth of licensed merchandise in 2017 according to trade publication License Global. It maintains dozens of franchises, from Mickey Mouse to Star Wars, that maintain relevancy generation after generation.

The future is often about revolution, not evolution. Fashion understands that it must change in order to survive, but how far is it willing to go? Uber is betting on flying taxis. Airbnb is reconfiguring the idea of place. What does living in "the cloud" mean for fashion? Rental services including Amarium, Flont and Rent the Runway are exploring this, as are resale sites like The RealReal, which normalise temporary ownership. But in order for fashion to leap forward, there needs to be more attempts at radical transformation. "What motivates people in California that they want to change an industry," Thorbeck said. "Retail is still a place that can be reinvented."