CONFESS: Do Latvian fashion designers have an opportunity to create a systematic, long-term image for the Latvian fashion market? Could you, please, give examples for those who not only want but are also capable of establishing a company?
ANNIKA VITOLA: Latvian fashion designers are in an amazingly privileged and at the same time absolutely unenviable situation. The reason for that is the small size of the Latvian market. And because fashion design is more than just a fast-moving consumer good, the amount of potential consumers tends to decrease even more.
In such case what is possible is to start a deep and thorough relationship with the consumer, which gives the business an attainment for the long run. Starting with an individual relationship with the customer during the time of choosing, ordering and trying-on the product, and by ending with the designer’s direct communication with the customer, for example, online through social networking sites — this not only helps to build brand recognition, but also forms future clientele, which at the particular moment may not be of accordant age and within an appropriate financial status group to afford the brand’s products.
But of course the “unenviable situation” I am referring to is financial results affected by the size of the market. Therefore each brand must also find ways to export it’s production. And I think that this is where the trouble begins for many Latvian fashion brands; as it is one thing to sell your nurseling to a friend of your husband’s sister, who for obvious reasons is ready to pay for it, but it is completely different to be able to gain a profitable brand’s clientele, or in an ideal case - to be competitive abroad, where no one has heard about you or your product. And here we finally come to brand identity, which helps communicate the brand to those who know nothing about it whether in Riga or Paris.
Speaking on the subject of brand identity, primarily, one must always remember that in order to address potential clients, the product itself must be of good quality. Of course, it is also possible to communicate products that do not meet this criteria. For example, to create a real razzle-dazzle*, sweep everyone off their feet… However it will not work in long-term, because in today’s age of information and internet or also known as the age of transparency, it will only be a matter of time before people will start to share their personal experiences about the product promoted by the campaigns.
Secondly, long-living products can be altered from other products by the fact that at the moment of creation there has already been knowingly (for example, through consultations with communication specialists) or unconsciously encoded a message, which not only draws potential clients’ attention, but also allows to create around it an inexhaustible communication networks. This is the point which often is forgotten or found to be needless, but the truth is that from the perspective of communication (as it is not possible to change the quality of the product by communication), it is the main requirement for brand’s success.
Considering all that’s been said, there are two very successful examples that prove how this can be achieved even in Latvia by building the brand on hard work, persistence, wisdom and personal intuition. They are MAREUNROL’S and ZoFA. I truly believe that in future we will hear a lot about these two brands and their founders.
C: Fashion industry in Latvia could be called as one of the most sensitive. Part of the consumers criticise designer work and say that the manufacturing technologies of the products are questionable. As we know, everything that is not precisely explained, can cause rumour. Does this show a problem in the communication?
AV: The core of every company is product or service which it offers to it’s customers. As the reputation and even existence of the company depends on client’s satisfaction, careless attitude towards product’s quality or design, in my opinion, is a huge designer’s irresponsibility.
If the quality of the product is questionable and in the final product it is obvious even to a person who, in this case, has never held a needle and a thread in it’s hand, then it is clear that even the most clever communication specialist will not be able to solve such a problem, as the consumer comes to buy the product, not the communication.
The same goes for those designers who think that Latvian customers are ignorant of fashion world outside of our country, offering their alterations of foreign designers’ work.
It is of course a completely different story, if quality for some reason has failed only on specific number of products, or a rumour has been spread about company purposely. Then it is exactly communication department’s job to clear the subject and to play the situation right. Besides, considering speed of information travel nowadays, the person responsible for company’s communication must always be prepared to disapprove any rumour or misstatement right away, so that such a case would not turn into a reputation disaster which can lead to bad financial results.
C: What, in your opinion, are the biggest communication mistakes that Latvian fashion companies make?
AV: Without going into details or describing particular situations, I will describe three essential mistakes as I see them.
First — most people still do not consider communication as an important part of the company. Instead contacts of family and friends are used. Usually thereby no one outside the closest circle of the designer’s friends doesn’t know such a company exists. And, unless some coincidence happens, it is most likely that they won’t know of them in the future as well. Although I mentioned previously that we live in a small market, it is naive to believe that it’s possible to tell all the interested person’s about your product without the help of communication. Recognition and success do not happen overnight.
Second mistake — if the communication is used, then not constantly. But communication is like a relationship which has to be nourished all the time. You must constantly attract the attention of your costumers, become a part of their daily lives.
And thirdly what I see is wrong — communication is built by analogy “mother praises her child”. Companies tell about their news, maybe highlight some good qualities of their products, but all these messages catastrophically miss a long-term rational foundation and strategy. It is done only for the record, company cannot answer itself “why?” the communication is needed, and what exactly does it want to achieve with it.
C: What is your idea of comprehensive communication? For example, there is an opinion in the public that the price of Latvian fashion design does not suit its value. But has someone explained what is included in this price?
AV: Successful communication is based on ability to choose and use the most suitable communication channels to reach brand’s target audience. If one brand’s customers regularly read the biggest newspaper in the country, but the other brand’s audience is always online and follows tweets on Twitter, then it is only natural that messages to these audiences will be delivered through the exact channels they use and like, not vice versa. Of course, it does not mean that one audience would use only one information source. As I said before, each brand must find its own message, learn and know their target audience. And then based on this knowledge build accordant communication.
Society, media or government should not be blamed for the fact that society is not informed and therefore has prejudices about some particular brand or Latvian fashion design in general — it is brand creators themselves to blame. Fashion designers and their fashion brands are the same market players as companies in other business fields. Plus, I think that very often they have a big advantage over the later — creativity works as an added value to their product. Unfortunately I have observed that in Latvia creativity often is not perceived and used as an added value, but instead as an excuse to take a position of a defenceless market player.
C: The market right now is over saturated. Western countries are focused on intense competition and are pushing out small companies from the market. Will future Latvian fashion designers be working abroad for someone else or do you see that they could still successfully develop their own companies here in Latvia?
AV: Of course, the big players in the market with multinational luxury conglomerates behind them are not going away anywhere soon. But fashion industry for some time already has been horrified by how much energy is required from the head designers of such company fashion houses — with every new season the designers are expected to create better and to sell more. What such a never ending rat-race can do to the designer’s psyche we can see very well in the tragic stories of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano.
Alongside global economic crisis and things like eco-lifestyle becoming a part of our daily lives, we can see that people pay bigger attention to unique, hand-made things. After this big and impersonal mass market craze, people were thirsty for deeper meaning, closer relationships, and for their own, not machine made things. Although in the beginning this trend was actualised by every girl who had some spare time on her hands by knitting scarfs and making earrings at home, now it has developed, matured and reached, in my opinion, it’s best point, which can be called “craftsmanship”. High quality and craftsman made things are well appreciated. A successful money investment for a customer does not associate with quantity anymore, as it is quality now that matters. Better less, but such things that will have value even after 10 years.
Hereby at this moment the main task for Latvian fashion designers is to focus on accomplishing their personal skills, as well as to keep their eyes and ears open in case they meet any of our old craftsmen. High-quality knowledge that successfully can be fused in fashion design to make it more unique, still surrounds us, but unfortunately it slowly starts to vanish as it is poorly inherited.
If we will manage to catch this “train” of craftsmanship and connect it with our designers’ creativity, at the same time educating at least a few business and communication talented fashion enthusiasts, then Latvian fashion industry after some time could stand on its own feet.
But as long as we will be afraid of honest critics and will keep pretending in front of each other thus keeping a naive hope that one day in the future we will be able to compete with the big fashion nations — by trying to keep-up with them, imitating their social events or by feeling proud of our own publications in tabloids — we will not get very far. I think it is wrong to look at the fashion business so superficially, one must get much closer to it, analyse more. We must find our own strength instead of trying to copy the strengths of others.
Maybe to some it sounds utopian, but I honestly, from all my heart, believe in this model of development.
C: Do we need more than one educational institution in Latvia for fashion designer specialty? They mostly prepare designers who have no job opportunities in Latvia after graduating. Is there a need for structural reforms in the fashion education in Latvia?
AV: To stand “against” is always easier than to find a way to be “for”. It applies to this case as well.
I believe that the main goal for our two biggest educational institutions in the field of fashion is correct — Art Academy of Latvia educates designers, while Riga Technical University qualify their students in clothing and textiles technologies. In theory the students of both universities could successfully complement each other after graduating. One of them would have developed his own individual, competitive design, while the other would have mastered some special craftsmanship or, in a perfect scenario, together with other students from Riga Technical University invented a new type of thread or fabric.
The problem starts when none of the main goals of these educational institutions gets fulfilled because of the subjects taught by methods and teachers, who don’t suit the reality of today’s market. Here I would like to add that fashion is not the only field in our country which does not provide qualitative education, mostly because of the reasons I mentioned earlier.
I think in many schools there is not enough focus on innovations, competitiveness and development of students’ willpower, ambitions. Teachers lack authority to be able to get the best out of their students. Also it is common to see a link missing between the teaching pattern and reality. There is not enough encouragement to do things on your own, and not to hope to be hired by someone else. This all leads to why we have so many students but such a small amount of accomplishments. Students should each day be reminded that one should not stop at what is already achieved. A desire to gain bigger knowledge and to try harder, to include meaning in their creative work, should be motivated. The students should be encourage not to be afraid to take responsibility or to ask for advice from those who know better. Because — as harsh as it may sound — talent is only a small part of the success. The real key to success is hidden in consistent work and established contacts on the way to the goal.
C: Most Latvian fashion brands want to present themselves as modern companies. They are consumer focused, and so they keep only a small amount of production in store, as well as immediately use up everything that is delivered for doing the orders. What about the communication of these companies? Can it be called modern?
AV: As I told in the beginning of our conversation, an individual approach to the client has a big value, and it is essential for modern communication. But extending the company’s profile and pointing it, for example, in the direction of export, the company could achieve much more. Even with big clientele it is possible to have a personal communication and to successfully present the character of the company.
In my opinion, a brand with a very modern approach to communication is QooQoo which has found its uniqueness and created its “face”, language style. Although the brand itself is very youthful, digital, technology oriented, and it seems natural for them to use modern communication channels and tools, I still think that it is more a result of very systematic work and thought-out decisions. This is the case when creator of the brand makes a perfect reflection of the product, so communication is done actively, but with ease, which gives high credibility and brings a positive reaction from the costumers — natural interest in brand’s production.
C: Do you believe that an intuitive communication can be more successful than a systematically planned one?
AV: Of course. I also believe that to become an outstanding fashion designer it is not necessarily to have studied the subject. As a result of different lucky coincidences an untalented person can become the world’s most powerful brand, but, unfortunately it does not mean that all such people will.
The same is true for communication. It is possible to have an intuition to be the person that always happens to be in the right place at the right time, providing the listeners with the best possible message for the occasion, and by such activities constantly assuring big and positive publicity for him or herself. However, as such people are a rarity, I wouldn’t suggest to count too much on that. A certain way and tools by which the goal is planned to be achieved will always be more effective and safer choice than unsteady wandering in the direction of the goal.
C: What would you recommend to the media and journalists in Latvia who communicate with the representatives of fashion industry?
AV: In my opinion the media in Latvia are very open to all the news related to Latvian fashion and they are always ready to report about achievements and success in the industry. Thereby I would recommend them to keep their attitude as it is.
As for the companies, I wish them an understanding of the real value of communication, creation of a strong strategy and a successful fulfillment of it along the way. Then the media will not only report about the awards and competitions our designers have won, but also about other ordinary achievements as well. And in the long-term it will not only let the society, but also the industry see itself in a much more convincing light.
* Song from the Broadway musical “Chicago” in which lawyer Billy Flynn is telling that the basis of gaining the sympathies of society is a simulated circus-like fuss with an intention to confuse the spectator