Fashion designers are actually not ‘dictators of taste,’ study finds

Fashion designers are actually not ‘dictators of taste,’ study finds
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Most of the literature on innovation develops in the context of technology, where the degree of radical or incremental change in terms of functionality of the product can be evaluated according to objective and predictable models. In creative industries, a valuable source of competitive advantage lies in aesthetic innovation. In the world of fashion in particular, innovation is reflected in the way and the intensity with which styles change, so it is much more difficult to determine what is truly new. Consequently, over time, fashion critics have taken a key role in evaluating the quantity and quality of innovation introduced into the fashion market, since their experience allows them to evaluate the contribution of a specific designer in the context of what preceded him/her and what other stylists do. Each season, fashion critics examine the new collections that leading fashion designers present, evaluating what is authentically original versus what is simply reworked, thus playing a fundamental role as gatekeepers of taste within the market.

This is the phenomenon on which we have focused our attention. We studied the patterns of innovation and the influence exerted on them by opinion leaders in printed media in an industry where innovation is least codified in terms of the dynamics of development and launch of new products. In this research paper we document how stylistic innovation, with respect to styles that major fashion brands introduce each season, is influenced by the specific exogenous factor of the critical assessments made on the past work of a given designer.

The work spans a period of 10 years, from 1998 to 2008, and examines every season’s collections (spring/summer and fall/winter) developed across that timespan by all prêt-à-porter brands present in the official fashion show calendars provided by the National Chamber of Fashion in Milan and the Fedération Française de la Couture et du Prêt-à-porter in Paris. The result is a sample made of 42 companies, 22 present on Milanese catwalks and 20 on the Parisian ones. Of great interest are the results that emerged from the analysis of their innovative behaviors, described in the article “Changing Style in Style-Changing Industries. The Role of Critics as Gatekeepers in High-End Fashion,” published in the special issue of Advances in Strategic Management titled “Style in Strategy and Strategy of Style: Theoretical Developments, Empirical Results, and Research Agenda.”

For each of the fashion brands considered, all the items for each collection were analyzed as part of their respective communication campaigns. Using a grid of five parameters (cut, color, length, fabric, decoration) each garment was coded and compared with a similar garment proposed in the previous season, in order to build an innovation index for each type of product, collection, and brand. The average therefore makes it possible to identify an overall innovation index per season with reference to each single brand. At the same time, all the reviews produced downstream of fashion shows by opinion leaders in international media considered particularly authoritative sources (International Herald Tribune, The New York Times, WWD, were collected and classified to obtain a synthetic index of evaluation for each collection.

The evidence that emerges from the analysis suggests that designers are by no means path-independent in their decision to bring new designs into the market, thus refuting Karl Lagerfeld’s famous dictum according to which “fashion designers are dictators of taste,” but instead tend to be sensitive to their past successes and failures. Not only that, but they also consider the past work of competitors and how their own innovations were rated by critics in various fashion season. In summary, our work reveals how much designers are sensitive to critical evaluation and the way this influences the evolution of their style; the innovations they propose tend to be close to what was praised earlier and far from what was not particularly appreciated in the past.

Executives in creative industries should, therefore, take note of how designers integrate critical feedbacks and how stylistic innovation occurs incrementally based on what critics are willing to accept. In industries where technological innovation drives product innovation and functional requirements matter most, the fact that change is incremental or disruptive depends on the capabilities of the company. In fashion, change could be implemented much more easily in principle, as there are fewer operational constraints. However, how much innovation actually occurs is rooted in the response critics provide to past innovations.

In conclusion, this study not only documents the strong correlation between style dynamics and critical feedbacks, but also has important implications for any company seeking to strike a balance between autonomy and conformity in defining its unique positioning on the market.

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More information:
Paola Cillo et al. Changing Style in Style-changing Industries: The Role of Critics as Gatekeepers in High-end Fashion, Aesthetics and Style in Strategy (2020). DOI: 10.1108/S0742-332220200000042007

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Bocconi University

Fashion designers are actually not ‘dictators of taste,’ study finds (2021, May 6)
retrieved 12 May 2021

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