Balance of power

women's empowerment and retail

The recent tide of activity around women's empowerment and the rise of the #metoo and Time's Up movements which came to prominence in the film industry is now penetrating the fashion industry.

At a time when retail hinges more on evoking sentiment than ever before, we see a wave of designers and retailers incorporating key messages in their ranges and collections.

Maria Grazia Chiuri's first collection for Dior featured t-shirts with the slogan "We Should All Be Feminists", and in celebration of International Women’s Day, Net-a-Porter has launched a limited-edition collection in collaboration with designers such as Isabel Marant and Victoria Beckham with profits going to the Women for Women International charity.

These collaborations and collections clearly have positive motives. From the operator and investor perspective, working with a brand that has a strong point of view on such hot topics can spell both opportunity and risk.

Critically, the messaging must be appropriately integrated to the brand and effectively marketed. It is a fine balance to strike between being provocative with opinions, while safe-guarding engagement and commercial performance. Yes, there is opportunity to drive engagement - supporting good causes is part of a sustainable business model. But key to this is understanding the motivations and behaviours of the audience and hitting the right tone around highly emotionally charged subjects.

It is all too easy to get it wrong - Victoria's Secret's performance took a hit at the end of 2018 and its stock declined 41% that year as its brand positioning and marketing stagnated. This decline was also fuelled by Ed Razek, the 70-year-old creative director and show's producer, who stirred up a storm when he said that he would refuse to use transgender or plus-size models.

Challenger brand, Lemonade Dolls (seen above), however, identified a gap in the market for a comfort-focused lingerie proposition. At a time when Victoria's Secret dominated the space, founder, Lemon Fuller, stepped out of the box and made a stand for comfort, stating that women "didn’t want to wear chicken fillet padded bras with underwire!". Backed by the highly influential Caren Downie, Lemonade Dolls has built a `girl army' community and established a video platform to discuss topics called `Tit Talks', featuring women such as Kelly Knox, the first disabled model to walk in London Fashion Week. The business appears to be thriving and is now in the midst of its second round of funding.

Today, we live in a time where consumers are more aware and vocal about their views than ever before, which is why retailers and investors need to be on their toes in their messaging - cultural appropriation or ignorance can have dire commercial implications, whereas getting it right can be a launchpad to growth.

Melissa Yeunh