With some help from Vogue and the CFDA, the e-commerce giant is opening a new store to showcase independent designers. Does this mark the moment the two worlds finally get hitched?
By Vanessa Friedman
Published: May 16, 2020
From left, Lauren Sanchez, Jeff Bezos and Anna Wintour during the Tom Ford Fashion show at Milk Studios in Los Angeles, Feb. 7, 2020. With some help from Vogue and the CFDA, Amazon is opening a new store to showcase independent designers. (Calla Kessler/The New York Times)
Finally, Jeff Bezos is really in fashion.
On Thursday, Amazon rode to the rescue of the beleaguered U.S. industry — or at least one particularly challenged and particularly notable subsection: independent high-end designers.
Along with Vogue and the Council of Fashion Designers of America, the e-commerce giant announced the unveiling of “Common Threads: Vogue x Amazon Fashion,” a new storefront featuring 20 buzzy creative names, including Batsheva Hay, Brock Collection, 3.1 Phillip Lim and Edie Parker.
“I’m thrilled to announce this partnership and want to thank Amazon Fashion, not only for its generous support of ‘A Common Thread,’ but also for so quickly sharing its resources to aid American designers affected by the pandemic,” said Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue and Condé Nast’s artistic director.
“While there isn’t one simple fix for our industry, which has been hit so hard, I believe this is an important step in the right direction.”
The move will create a new outlet for brands that are currently at risk of bankruptcy after COVID-19 forced the closing of the stores that sell them, resulting in canceled orders and piles of unsold stock. Even luxury e-tailers like Net-a-Porter have had to close their warehouses.
But it also positions Amazon, which may be the largest fashion retailer in the United States but is often seen as, if not an enemy, at least a questionable suitor when it comes to the designer world, as its white knight. And the move gives Bezos a certain sway over a community that, until now, was largely suspicious of him.
In other words, he is not an entirely selfless savior. There’s something, and potentially a lot, in it for him.
Even before he stood next to Wintour in his Tom Ford tuxedo as a co-host of the Met Gala in 2012, Bezos had his eye on the shiniest, most eyeball-attracting part of the apparel sector.
But the ethos of Amazon — “the everything store” — has never mixed well with that of the fashion week flock, which may best be characterized as “only a few, very special, things,” just as its shopping “environment” never seemed sufficiently glamorous to many luxury brands. Though their products were sold on the Amazon-owned Zappos or Shopbop, those brands shied away from being sucked into the parent company’s maw.
That did not stop Amazon from trying. In 2011, the company introduced myhabit.com, a flash-sale site meant to compete with sites like Gilt Groupe. That closed in 2016, the year after Amazon teamed up with the CFDA to sponsor the first New York Men’s Fashion Week (a relationship that ended in 2017). That same year Amazon Fashion went all in with private label clothing, a category that now includes 111 different labels and 22,617 products, according to a new report from Coresight Research.
On an investor call in 2016, Jean-Jacques Guiony, chief financial officer of LVMH, the largest luxury group on the world, announced: “We believe that the existing business of Amazon doesn’t fit our luxury, full stop, but also doesn’t fit with our brands. If they change the business model, I don’t know, but with the existing business model, there is no way we can do business with them for the time being.”
Still, WWD reported in January that Amazon was planning a new luxury platform to compete with the Alibaba Tmall, along with a $100 million marketing campaign; and as recently as February, Bezos was at Paris Fashion Week celebrating Diane von Furstenberg’s Légion d’Honneur with Wintour and designers like Christian Louboutin.
Now the novel coronavirus pandemic has changed the playing field.
Amazon, Hay said, “is the one place everyone is shopping.” (Indeed, Bezos is potentially on his way to becoming the world’s first trillionaire because of it.) Whether they like it or not, designers, especially small ones, have no real choice. They need to move their existing inventory, and they need a partner with the logistics to do it. And one that has access to an enormous ready-made consumer base.
The idea for the storefront came out of an initiative created by Vogue and the CFDA, who have been working together on ways to support the industry through the pandemic. Last month they announced the Common Thread grant program, raising over $4 million to be disbursed in small increments to designers, retailers, garment manufacturers, as well as the fashion support system to help them survive until reopening.
Amazon is donating $500,000 to the fund (for which many of the designers it will sell have also applied), and when Amazon asked how else it could help, the storefront idea was born.
As to what exactly it is: The designers can choose what inventory to sell on Amazon (most likely a mix of current and past stock), and they control their own pricing and imagery. They can opt to use Amazon’s fulfillment platform or do the fulfillment themselves. The standard third-party selling fees — typically around 17% — apply. According to one participant, however, Amazon agreed to eliminate monthly fees, warehouse fees and packaging fees for the initiative.
Vogue and the CFDA initially approached most of the designers about the deal because, as Hay pointed out, Amazon “doesn’t have much of a relationship with many of these brands.”
Now, of course, that will change. “It does feel like lot of things are shifting in the world,” she said.
Whether those shifts includes a customer who wants to buy an irony-laden prairie dress (Hay’s signature) or a very expensive unique floral dress (a trademark of Jonathan Cohen) at the same time and in the same place that she buys toilet paper and nail polish remains to be seen.
After all, at the time of the Common Threads store opening, the three current top-selling items on Amazon, in clothing, shoes and jewelry, were a men’s T-shirt multipack, a Hanes men’s sweatshirt and a classic Croc. Even in the private label offering, the average price tag is only $32, according to Coresight.
And many shoppers attracted to the idea of supporting small designers are attracted specifically by their de facto positioning as the anti-Amazon. Now that these brands are a part of the Amazon universe, it could affect how they are perceived, as could the recent controversies around Amazon’s treatment of its warehouse employees.
That’s especially so because, even though the designers may control their own products and how they are photographed, the clothes are pictured on the shop “racks” in the classic Amazon square with the same typeface and price tag (albeit a much bigger number) that everybody who uses Amazon is conditioned to seeing when they buy, say, Clorox.
On the other hand, this could also be the beginning of high fashion’s slide down the slippery slope into Amazon’s waiting arms.