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Why Fashion’s Most Extreme Brands Are Winning Big

Industry experts weigh in on the popularity of Balenciaga, Gucci, and Off-White

If you’re at least as old as I, you might remember Edina Monsoon’s birthday episode from the ’90s British hit comedy series Absolutely Fabulous—“Is it Lacroix, sweetie?” Edina asks as her put-upon daughter, Saffy, hands her a gift. “You didn’t just put it in a Lacroix box, did you, sweetie?” Saffy replies, “Do you like it?” and Edina pouts. “I like it if it’s Lacroix.” Lolz. Beyond the Lacroix, there was a lot of Gaultier in the series too, and of course, Lagerfeld, because Karl is older than the hills and will live in some form or other on this earth long after we’re all gone. But the brands du jour have changed in the twenty years since. According to The Business of Fashion, the three hottest brands right now are Balenciaga, then Gucci, then Off-White—this according to an in-depth report compiled by BoF digital partner, fashion search platform Lyst.

The Lyst Index, a ranking of the top brands based on this data, collected from millions of consumers and products, has Gucci, designed by Alessandro Michele, in the number two spot for Q3, down from first place in Q2. BoF notes that the brand is still the most consistently high performer in the brand rankings to date. But still, number two this quarter, and reportedly pipped to the post by Demna Gvasalia’s Balenciaga. And coming in at number three? Off-White by Virgil Abloh, which is up from number 34 last quarter. That’s a massive jump—but what does it all mean?

We made some calls—first to Rihanna’s stylist and 032c fashion director Mel Ottenberg. “It’s a crazy, fucked-up, upside-down world these days, so it’s time for new ideas to reign supreme,” he offered. “Some new, extreme voices in fashion are being heard, loud and clear, and people are buying into the newest, loudest, and clearest visions.” We called Bruce Pask, men’s fashion director at Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman. He agreed. “All those top three brands have a distinct signature—Michele’s maximalist opulence, and Demna’s proportion shifts, like that asymmetrical torque on the body, and also his logo-driven pieces. And Virgil’s brand identity—that arrow graphic is so smart. People are craving excitement in their clothes, and those three brands are delivering that.” Barneys New York’s fashion director, Marina Larroudé, expressed a similar sentiment. “People are gravitating toward unique and special pieces, but they don’t want a super fancy look. These brands offer a diverse assortment. Their pieces are very well done with a modern aesthetic and a youthful look,” she said, adding, “Consumers crave novelty and want an emotional connection to their purchase. People are gravitating towards intricate, playful accessories and ready-to-wear that will get them likes on social media—fashion is no longer about looking proper and well groomed, and the influence of streetwear and hip-hop culture is huge! That’s what’s pushing fashion now. There is no bigger trend than streetwear at the moment. It may not last forever, but at the moment, streetwear is the look.”

It’s true. All three of the top brands are extreme, with uber-distinct brand identities. Michele’s Gucci is all about opulence—fine fabrics in bright, rich colors, dripping with crystals and sequins, and so many man-hours of embellishment and embroidery. Bold graphics, like that black-and-red snake or the snarling tiger lend an edgier aspect to the aesthetic, but this is unarguably high fashion at its uppermost peak. Conversely, Gvasalia’s Balenciaga is all about irony. It’s anti-fashion—Ikea bags or laundry bags reimagined in Italian leather, and those Crocs that were decried by some as click-bait, but which will definitely pound downtown pavements in cities across the world come spring next year. Balenciaga is also more streetwear-leaning, which brings us to the Lyst Index’s bronze-medalled brand, Off-White. With his roots in streetwear, founder and designer Virgil Abloh has made a determined excursion into high fashion-land, but there is still a streetwear thread through his collections, and a collaboration with Nike, plus his nightclub life as DJ Flat White, bolster that. And while high fashion brands like Valentino, Givenchy, and Saint Laurent occupy some of the other top 10 positions, Vetements is number four, Stone Island’s eight, Moncler’s nine, and Raf Simons rounds it all out at number 10—#streetwear.

 

It’s worth noting that the Lyst Index is all about online engagement, not sales. The index and indeed the BoF article are careful to package these findings as a list of “what’s hottest” rather than “what profits.” But it is a significant indication of what’s piquing all our interests, and perhaps that the fashion needle is swinging toward something more subversive-slash-streetwear. We seem to be nearing a place where the “streetwear” label doesn’t even mean much. If the high fashion and streetwear amalgamation continues at its present pace, eventually, “streetwear” will just be “wear,” negating the label entirely. But for now, undeniably, Balenciaga has a streetwear slant that Gucci,despite its forthcoming collaboration with Dapper Dan, does not.

We wrote about Prada outfitting Drake on his Boy Meets World tour, and we touched on fashion’s broader embrace of streetwear and hip-hop, but a new report by Launchmetrics (formerly Fashion GPS) delves deep into the influencer sphere. Crunching the numbers, the report calculates that rapper Nicki Minaj was the number one influencer at New York fashion week, generating nearly 12 million interactions with just 22 posts on Oscar de la Renta, Marc Jacobs, Monse, Gucci, and Philipp Plein. Calvin Klein, now helmed by streetwear-leaning fashion god Raf Simons, who counts rapper and fashion darling A$AP Rocky as a friend and fan, enjoyed the lion’s share of social impact too—10 percent of the total. Interestingly, Launchmetrics’ analysis of social and online engagement specifically linked to the recent fashion weeks put a slightly different perspective on both Balenciaga’s and Off-White’s influence—the brands had 8.9 million and 7.2 million engagements at Paris fashion week respectively. To put those numbers into perspective, that’s versus Chanel’s 23.7 million, and at Milan fashion week, Gucci’s 39.7 million.

 

This all makes sense, though. Chanel, par example, is not breaking the Internet 24/7. Its astronomical fashion shows drive engagement because the brand’s reach is so global, but the brand is not a hype beast like Balenciaga or Off-White. And speaking of hype, the Hadids. I’ve seen Gigi up in the clurb, in the DJ box next to Abloh, with Bella and the Jenners—they’re all ’bout that hip-hop life, and despite Yeezy dropping out of the Lyst Index’s top 10 brands, Kim K is, according to Launchmetrics, still killing it.

Influencers on social media and the rose-filtered lives they document themselves living fit seamlessly with the high life hip-hop celebrates—they go blinged-out, hand in hand. And while old-school folk in denial have long insisted social media stars would be a flash in the pan, they were wrong—way wrong. “These girls have been more influential than any other It girls before them,” offered Larroudé. “It’s because they dress their age. They’re in sneakers, crop tops, track pants, tight dresses, and big hoops. It lets other girls out there not only be inspired by their looks, but copy them too. If these girls wear one brand’s must-have item, it sells out. They are selling a lifestyle to a whole generation.” I spoke to Nicola Formichetti last week about Nicopanda’s new collaboration with Urban Outfitters, and he summed it up in fine Formichetti fashion: “If it doesn’t look good on Instagram, why would you buy it?” #nuffsaid.

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