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Why the premium league is winning

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As some shoppers tire of throwaway fashion in favour of a more sustainable, individual and seasonless style, premium brands and retailers are in a prime position to thrive

The struggles of the UK high street have been well documented: fickle shoppers, business rates, a crowded market and the threat of digital competitors has formed a perfect storm of challenges for brands and retailers alike. The premium end of the market is far from immune from these difficulties, but as the industry shifts, smart businesses are capitalising on the changes with their curated, targeted offers.

Certain stores and brands are responding to a shift in the way UK shoppers hunt for clothes and favour an ethos that favours the traditional strengths of the premium sector.

Some customers are shunning disposable, fast fashion in favour of higher-quality items and longer-term style, argues Liv Foged, founder of premium fashion agency Style Fuel, which represents Vanessa Bruno, Polder and Just in Case.

“The UK has typically a very ‘buy now and throw out’ mentality. But now it’s moving over to people wearing things multiple seasons, not going out and buying a whole new wardrobe every season,” she explains. “In general, retailers tell me the British don’t tend to follow fashion trends so constantly. They have a style and they stick to that.”

ME + EM

Me + Em autumn 18

Clare Hornby, founder of premium brand Me + Em, which has five stores and this week opened its first concession in Selfridges, agrees that there is a shift in the way customers are shopping: “I think customers are coming to the realisation that the fast fashion offered on the high street ticks the box for instant trends but is inconsistent when it comes to fit and quality. It’s a considered alternative to fast fashion: collections that have had a lot of time and effort poured into them.”

Premium position

The premium sector is well positioned to capitalise on the shift.

“One opportunity – and something we see brands like Me + Em doing really well – is to tap into the concept of capsule wardrobes and a season-neutral approach, moving away from the trends-led cycle,” explains Stephanie Dorfer, retail editor at research company Stylus.

As fleeting trends become less relevant to premium shoppers, wholesale retailers are looking for standout product – whether on the basis of quality, value or design – to appeal to these savvy and engaged consumers.

“I’m seeing people dare, people taking chances,” says Foged. “What they’re selling best are the unique pieces with points of difference. People are looking for unique pieces. If you are an independent label in the UK, your best option is to build a collection that can be made collectable over time.”

She highlights the success of MDK leather jackets, which retail for around £300, as a beneficiary of the consumer’s pursuit of quality and individuality: “Shoppers feel they get something with a good quality, that will last them a long time, but also has a bit of personality and a good price. It’s not from the high street and it’s not what everybody else has – it’s something new and different and unique.”

Laurèl autumn 18

“There is no space for ‘safe’,” agrees Diane Sykes, owner of Diane Sykes Fashion agency, which represents premium brands  Laurèl and Marc Aurel. “More now than ever, customers are looking for value for money. It is not so much about the price tag but more about if that particular piece offers value.”

The need for uniqueness plays into the hands of the premium independent sector, with smart buying and stand out brands drawing in the savvy customers hunting for the perfect mix of quality and individuality.

Julia Jaconelli, owner of womenswear independent The Courtyard in Guildford, explains: “The premium independents are finding it easier than the high street, as we specialise in clothing that you can’t get everywhere,” she says. “Customers will specifically come to this one store where they know they will get treated well and also find items they will like and that are different from the norm.”

Agents and retailers highlight bright, bold and colourful styles as being top performers for the season ahead, with “THE” dress – a statement, bold one-off standout style, fuelled by the Instagram popularity of brands such as Rixo London and Ganni – noted as reigning supreme as a key item for a premium store’s arsenal, which customers are looking for to wear with both trainers for daytime and as an evening option. Hornby reports that sales of Me + Em have already risen by 200% on last year.

Despite the wealth of opportunity, the sector still faces challenges. Capitalising on these changes requires a sharp eye for product and a smart buying strategy in the face of tough market conditions.

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Essentiel Antwerp autumn 18

“Clients are streamlining their brands and narrowing down more carefully what works and what doesn’t,” explains Lucy Wernick, owner of Lucy Wernick Fashion Agency, representing premium brands such as Essentiel Antwerp, 360 Cashmere and Intropia.

“They are happy to offer brands doing a similar job as long as they have their own strong identity but are careful not to offer too much in the same category. Market conditions, weather and the combined effect of both on sell through mean a more cautious approach and perhaps a more determined statement from the outset.”

Cross-platform demands

Not only does the premium shopper demand more from her product, but also from all aspects of shopping – from in-store experiences to online, multichannel ease. Providing omnichannel access and retaining exclusivity requires a careful balancing act.

“The omnichannel approach is everyone’s biggest challenge at the moment,” says Hornby. “The majority of women still like to discover a brand offline before they move to shop online, so it’s about achieving that balance between the two.”

Dorfer agrees: “One of the biggest challenges this sector faces is the part wholesale, part-owned store model many premium brands operate – something we see luxury fashion brands being more selective with. The more channels you sell through, the harder it can be to protect your brand image. You also open yourself up to additional discounting, which can water down the value of both the product and brand.

“Premium brands will need to be more selective in where and how they distribute their product. They also need to focus on the basics such as fast, convenient delivery options – something many mass fashion brands have mastered.”

Alongside this, in-store expectations are ever evolving, as more customers are demanding something special, elevated levels of service and experiences are key.

Dorfer explains: “Experience has become a vital ingredient for fashion brands at all price points. It’s all about optimising your store offering, whether that’s integrating technology, adding an event area or even moving premises to a smaller space and turning it into a showroom but really focusing on omnichannel.”

Penny Rawson, founder of north-west based premium womenswear independent The Edit, stresses the importance of creating a unique retail offer and providing customers with a story: “Customers will buy into brands that provide more than just the item they were looking for. As retail has become a pastime, customers are choosing shopping environments based on enjoyment. Is there a sense of theatre? Is there always newness, is it inspirational, is the service joyous? Is the fitting room experience enjoyable?”

Jaconelli agrees: “The premium shopper [more than any other] needs to feel it is worthwhile coming into the shop rather than ordering online. Therefore, they expect to be treated as an individual, special customer. Loyalty needs to be rewarded.”

“Extra services for me are customer evenings with special prizes, goody bags, discounts, talks and fashion shows to make the loyal customer feel special and wanting to come to the store. Like personal, one to one styling sessions – out of hours if required.”

Given the vast spectrum of high expectations, winning customers in the premium sector is a challenging ask. But if customer attitudes continue to veer towards sustainable, capsule clothing, and if brands and retailers can balance exclusivity, experience and omnichannel, then the future of the premium sector looks bright.

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