Menswear brands are the star at Pitti Uomo. But what really makes a brand shine brightly? Photo credit: Juhn Maing
Menswear brands are the star at Pitti Uomo. But what really makes a brand shine brightly? Photo credit: Juhn Maing

“Italians work a lot on product and in France, you work a lot on the marketing of product. If you integrate the two, I think you can have a great story and that’s what I was doing [at menswear brand Berluti] and what I’m doing [at Zegna].” – Alessandro Sartori, Artistic Director, Zegna (WWD, April 2, 2018)

Tactically, Sartori is right of course that both marketing and product development are essential to premium or luxury menswear brands. This assumes that brands are ultimately reducible to brand and product management. But the question remains, how relevant is this traditional view? In the long run, what do knowledgeable, digitally native consumers really want? Digital connoisseurs, I argue, are increasingly the pivotal customers of tomorrow. For them, nearly every aspect of a menswear brand (brand values, products, quality, fit, customer satisfaction and popularity) has become transparent, searchable, clickable or scrollable on a screen. Although logo-driven consumers will never disappear, it is now far easier than ever to become a connoisseur and explorer in search of truly distinct experiences and objects.

I think Sartori actually hints at deeper challenges facing menswear brands. For starters, it is extremely difficult, perhaps even impossible, for a single menswear brand to remain extraordinarily compelling across all aspects of the customer experience even in just a handful of product categories. Let’s compare two examples. Leather goods and apparel are completely different categories. They use separate design and production methods and skill sets for leather and garment production. For premium and luxury brands, doing both well means two different workforces often located in two different countries. These design and production cultures are not scalable and not easily transferrable. It gets even more difficult when you add another dimension, say, customization or a third dimension such as design.

So now we have product category, customization and design. What is the likelihood of excelling across all these silos in this combinatorial matrix? It is much more likely that a brand will miss the mark in at least one of these silos.

For many consumers, these nuances may not register, at least initially. Instead, early on, brands tend to play a primary role in building your wardrobe and sense of style. At the beginning, consumers lack the knowledge or appetite to dive into a decision matrix with multiple dimensions. Instead, men use brands as a decision shortcut to help cut through the clutter of decisions, large and small, in the pursuit of personal style and sartorial well-being. But this changes over time.

The most striking thing about my sartorial journey has been the declining importance of brands over time. I must confess that I have rarely found any menswear brand that remained compelling over a sustained period of time. Actually, the problem is even larger. I have yet to find a brand that I felt spoke to me in a 360 degree way – encompassing a wide product range, craftsmanship, design, customer service and history. A few have come close for specific product categories but even here the list is vanishingly short.

In my case, I find it easy to compare and find gaps in relative value and desirability for each brand. The more I know about brands, the more difficult it has become to find a truly compelling one. So the search goes on.

Eventually, I think the following happens: as a consumer you change strategies.

The more knowledgeable you are, the more likely you discriminate value more granularly as well as holistically. In other words, you drill down to the cultural, product, component or even material level as a way to compare brands. Over time the direct influence of brands declines as (a) you develop a deeper appreciation and understanding of what you are wearing, their value and why and (b) makers and creators are increasingly able to connect directly to consumers (and vice versa).

At some point, given enough time, resources and experience, you let go of the guide rails provided by brands to more freely discover your preferences and more directly engage with their sources. I’m afraid this logic applies to retailers, even the most savvy ones in menswear such as Mr. Porter or The Armoury. Even the best curator or algorithm cannot read your own mind as well as you can. This assumes, of course, you know what you want.

If you find yourself at this stage, then the next logical step is going outside any given brand’s echo chamber. For instance, this may include using “category-first” aggregators like Massdrop that elevates choice, price and convenience across product categories. This is a platform that reduces a brand’s ability to shape and package its product and story via influencers, advertising messages or sponsorships. After all, these add unnecessary marketing expense to the final product or service.

Going even further, what is the end game for the consumer seeking something deeper than the business-as-usual brand management prevalent in menswear today? I think a critical part is having a more genuine, meaningful relationship with the maker (or makers) of what you wear. Arguably, the maker or creator is the only truly indispensable person in the value chain from order to delivery (apart from the customer of course).

This implies you desire and prefer more direct engagement and investment in artisans, makers and creators. At least that has been my own experience. Ultimately, if you can source what you want fairly easily, why go through a middle man?

For such a customer, a brand needs to be more than just marketing or product management. Powerful brands offer deep, meaningful relationships with people who create moments of distinction in some form or shape. What makes people, objects and moments interesting? It often arises from a specific place with a distinctive heritage and culture. Practically speaking, this suggests the following rule of thumb – you should be no more than one degree removed from the maker, artisan or creator. Ideally, you should have a direct relationship with him or her.

This is the rule I try to follow with Sicilian Reserve and the reason why I bring the tailor(s) to the US. This is more costly in time and expense but far more rewarding for everyone involved. The more engaged customers want to learn more about the makers behind their clothes and accessories. And the more forward-looking makers will want to forge a relationship with their end customers.

This is also why I am so optimistic about the future of Sicilian makers and artisans. Not only are their history and skills utterly unique, but you still have to personally travel to Sicily to fully experience what they offer. This enables true discovery as opposed to the packaged messaging and retail experiences commonly employed by brands today.

I believe that concentrated authenticity is the preferred model for tomorrow’s tastemakers. Their target will be “alt-luxury” menswear brands committed to forging a genuine, memorable connection with the right customers. This means less messaging, more voice. Better, more tuned conversation, less unnecessary product (and hence less advertising). The more tightly you can harmonize place, product, maker and audience, the clearer and more compelling your brand will be.

This is especially true for the most discerning customers, digital connoisseurs, and those who are hungry for true distinction.

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