Is it the end for fashion’s diffusion labels? By Lucie Muir.

Recently, fashion has seen a spate of diffusion line closures. In 2011, Dolce & Gabbana decided to pull the plug on its ‘D&G’ line. In March this year, it was announced that Marc Jacobs would be folding its ‘Marc by Marc Jacobs’ line into the mainline. Then this November, came the news that Burberry too has chosen to drop the separate ‘Brit’, ‘London’ and ‘Prorsum’ lines, so that by the end of 2016, there will be a single brand on offer in stores.

Citing Burberry’s reasons for the move, company chief Christopher Bailey, told The New York Times: “We will still have the wide range of products that we have today — they will all just be known as Burberry, as part of a unified, consistent luxury brand. We believe that this will make us simpler and more intuitive for our customers. And we are confident that this will make us both more productive and more efficient as a business.”

As an industry observer, I’m intrigued to see fashion’s leading players beginning to do away with less high-end permutations of their mainline collection. Besides, I found all those diffusion names with their quirky abbreviations and ampersands unnecessarily confusing. Or in the case of Burberry’s ‘Prorsum’, verging on the unpronounceable.

Until now, diffusion lines have provided consumers with affordably- priced designer goods. Italian and American designers such as Armani, Versace and Donna Karen started the trend during the ‘80s and ‘90s. Back then, diffusion lines were seen as highly innovative, especially when you consider that alternatives at lower price points were few and far between. Other than conservative or non-descript product lines, the only other real option was to buy brands from a major European manufacturing company, such as Italy’s Gruppo GFT.

This encounter between the best apparel manufactures and ready-to-wear’s top designers as one astute analyst explained to me, was based on a simple formula: “first, take the creative effort produced for the mainline ready-to-wear collections, dilute it and simplify the product. Next price it accordingly and sell greater numbers to larger audiences – reaping greater financial gains in the process.

To date, Burberry and its multiple clothing and accessories lines have been relatively successful. However, there are some who think that taking Burberry’s ‘Prorsum’, ‘Brit’ and ‘London’ collections out of the equation will be good for the long-term of the brand but bad for the short-term results. Yes it’s a big gamble, or as another industry insider whispered to me: “Heaven forbid things backfire and it becomes just a trench and scarf business in years to come.”

Several reasons could explain why increasing numbers of fashion houses are choosing to unify their brands under one label. For starters, the global fashion industry has come under attack from mass fashion retail and specialist mid-price brands infiltrating the accessible luxury market. Just look at the growth of Cos, Sandro or Maje to see where savvy women are shopping these days.

As for the accessible luxury market space – whether occupied by sub-brands or by specialist brands with a mid-price agenda – it will remain there. High-end fashion brands will just have to find better, more creative ways to close the gap by broadening their offer and selling a wider spectrum of products under the same umbrella. Fendi’s ‘Strap You’ collection of interchangeable handbag straps is a good example of how a brand can still integrate lower-cost products into its range.

Then there is the issue of fast fashion. Consumers have relished lines created by retailers such as Uniqlo and Topshop and their rapid responses to market demands coupled with impressively quick production times. But with many high-street items such as Balmain for H&M now costing as much, if not more than, some entry level products on Bond Street, surely the diffusion line had it coming?

An oversaturated marketplace brimming with new designers has also had an impact on the diffusion line business. With so many fashion labels out there, there’s only one thing for it – to consolidate. By focusing on their premier label, brands will make things simpler for the consumer and if they are lucky, boost their own profits.

But luxury goods groups take note. If you are going to cut diffusion ranges, we still want to see product integrity, great quality and value for money and above all – creativity. Speaking of which, I’m sure Bailey and others are secretly breathing a collective sigh of relief that the diffusion line is on the demise. With creatives across the board bending under the pressure of constant collections and a relentless show schedule, one less collection to worry about might be a good thing.

Whatever the case, as the trend within the industry to consolidate one too many fashion lines gains pace, any brand – be it Burberry or Dolce & Gabbana – that takes swift action to optimise profit by rolling everything into one has to be commended. Furthermore, as the Chinese market starts to contract, isn’t it time for other luxury brands, which depend on it, to follow suit and make their business even more nimble?

 

Lucie Muir has been a fashion journalist for over 20 years working for publications such as Vogue, The Financial Times, Luxury Briefing and the International Herald Tribune.

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