When A First Lady’s
Patronage Is Not Enough
By Richard Collings
Published: March 22, 2010
As you know by now, Chicago-based women’s wear business Lola Black LLC, the parent of label Maria Pinto, is closing.
Made famous by the simple chic sheaths in vibrant hues worn by First Lady Michelle Obama on the campaign trail, Ms. Pinto in a release cited soft buying trends on the high-end as the reason for closing her company. Ms. Pinto, however, vows a return.
She is a solid designer, with plenty of experience, who helped put
What this news reveals is that the First Lady’s appeal has limitations, perhaps, above a certain price-point, when it was thought that an endorsement from the likes of Mrs. Obama was enough to send sales over the top. She certainly hasn’t hindered the growth of the more accessible fashion retailer J. Crew.
Last year, Ms. Pinto said her company’s sales had grown by 40 percent, in part due to the patronage of the likes of Mrs. Obama and the equally prominent Oprah Winfrey.
Conventional wisdom ran along the lines that the First Lady could crown the new ‘It’ designer, as in the case of Jason Wu, but that perception could be greatly undermined now with the difficulties of a label such as Maria Pinto.
Not that Mrs. Obama’s role or goal is to promote the fashion industry or to influence who is ‘in’ or ‘out’ in the volatile world of the rag trade, nor should it necessarily be. But because of the First Lady’s popularity, she has had an impact.
Some might say that as Mrs. Obama’s wardrobe grew to include a myriad of designers to parallel her growth into the role of First Lady, Maria Pinto was squeezed out or perhaps shoved to the back of the closet by so much Azzedine Alaia and Narciso Rodriguez.
Maria Pinto no longer was generating quite the news as her label did when she was primarily favored by Mrs. Obama during her husband's campaign for the presidency.
It could also simply highlight not only the limitations of the First Lady’s patronage, but celebrity endorsements in general. Short-term buzz may lead to some name recognition, but without consistent patronage, and perhaps even lower-priced product, high-end labels lacking a certain creativity could be quickly doomed.
If Ms. Pinto had chosen to produce a lower-priced line of those simple sheaths in the same hues as for the First Lady, manufactured in a place such as Korea, in a decent but more affordable fabric, retailed by the likes of a Kohl’s, how might her business have fared instead?
It’s not exactly rocket science that those with mass appeal have success hocking lower-priced goods. Target was savvy in hiring teenage blogger Tavi Gevinson, whose large audience likely skews younger and has a more limited income, to promote a line of clothing by Rodarte sold in the discount department store.
Likewise, bloggers such as Bryanboy understand the power of the mass market as they tweet about shopping at fast fashion retailer Uniqlo or write about snagging a faux feather coat at Zara. Ms. Gevinson has recently featured duds from the retailer Gap on her blog, as well.
Teaming with powerful celebrity names either in entertainment, the blogosphere, or politics can have its advantages for luxury goods companies, as name recognition can help fuel sales for the next must-have fragrance or pair of sunglasses, or maybe a handbag or pair of shoes for the more aspirational armed with a credit card.
Revenues from such lucrative ancillary products sold to the masses can support a label’s more costly creative aspirations.
On the other hand, for luxury labels to rely too heavily on a celebrity or First Lady’s endorsement could be disastrous, a kind of short-term thinking that lacks a big picture mentality needed to survive.
Real consumers of luxury goods tend to be more mature or older, just to apply some common sense here, as they climb the corporate ladder, receive inheritances, as their investment strategies mature, or their start-ups grow. Success, and the money to afford certain things that accompany it, takes time. Who do these women read, where do they go for their information, what are their desires and needs?
It’s not as if there isn’t money in the mass market. Even high-end designers these days are readily producing diffusion lines, teaming up with retailers of fast fashion or more accessibly-priced clothing, and so on. That’s where the money seems to be these days.
And one certainly wouldn’t shun a celebrity endorsement, I suppose.
But if one’s aim is to focus on producing luxury garments above a certain price-point for a certain audience with no fragrance or sunglass products or licenses in the pipelines, as well as no line at Uniqlo or Target or H&M, perhaps that requires an entirely different approach, especially when attempting to survive a recession.
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