Surviving the Times

When the going gets tough, the tough gets a new design concept. At least that’s the philosophy Lana Fuchs used when her urban streetwear brand, BILLIONAIRE MAFIA, couldn’t find retailers outside its local store. From her bustling booth at MAGIC, the semiannual apparel trade show at the Las Vegas Convention Center, Fuchs explains how she took a collection from dying to thriving during a collapsing economy.

"Many of the stores I wanted to be in found the line scary," she says of the dark, gangster theme BILLIONAIRE MAFIA formerly carried. "As a business person I had to change directions."

The fact she’s able to show at MAGIC is the first indication she made the right decision. With the retail industry suffering, attendance at the Vegas apparel trade shows has declined. To survive the times, many brands have had to embrace change.

Fuchs didn’t want to make a complete U-turn and abandon the relationships she started nurturing, though, so she took more of a detour and landed on a colorful path of graffiti-laden T-shirts, hats and accessories. Her hard-core rap-listening audience turned into a younger crowd that still could be categorized as urban but with a much more optimistic outlook. In fact, MAFIA now stands for Music Art Fashion Inspires All.

Six months after the change, BILLIONAIRE MAFIA has found a home in 300 retailers in the United States, plus an international presence in Canada, Australia, Dubai, UK and New Zealand. The design change, which comes with the help of renowned graffiti artists, accounts for a lot of the success, but Fuchs credits mass production and promotions, too.

If a buyer wants to order 1,000 items, she can have them ready to go in no time. She calls it a risk, but it’s based on a shopping climate that fosters immediate gratification.

On the promotions end, Fuchs doesn’t skimp, either. To ensure her brand got in people’s mind-sets during MAGIC, she presented a private Busta Rhymes concert hosted by Shane Sparks of MTV’s "America’s Best Dance Crew."

According to The NPD Group’s chief industry analyst, Marshal Cohen, Fuchs used the right formula to turn adversity into an opportunity. During his seminar at MAGIC, "The New Economy, The New Consumer, The New Rules: Are You Ready?" he asserted that innovation is the key to growth in a recession. "Innovation is about redefining who you are," he says. "It’s about moving your brand forward."

For Jude Fuller, designer of the contemporary sportswear brand lily+jae, that meant putting out eco-friendly versions of her designs. After several of the boutiques that carried lily+jae closed their doors, she saw the eco approach as a way to open new ones. The remainder of the collection, she says, was built around the challenging economic times.

"The theme of the season was ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ because times like this are all about reactions," she says. "You can either pull forth and save things or sit back and kind of hide."

One component is appropriate for young professionals while the other side is much more casual and lounge-inspired.

The line itself, which had a booth at PROJECT at the Sands Expo, also scaled back, shrinking the collection by about 20 percent from the season before. Another area that saw a cut back was promotions. Celebrities such as Ashlee Simpson have been known to don the brand through free handouts, which are still in practice but not as heavily as before.

After all the adjustments, fall ’09 profits decreased for lily+jae but sales remained steady. They interpreted that as a success.

Although Fuller has found it difficult to tap into her creative side while focusing so intently on logistics, she also recognizes an upside. "I feel like we learned a lot," she says, "and had to work a lot harder."

Not everyone has had to undergo renovations. Neal Kusnetz, president of luxury line Robert Graham, which is sold locally at Neiman Marcus and Elton’s, claims his company only felt very slight repercussions and that only pertained to products above $250. "There was a slight slowdown, but that’s only compared to how much it was revving up before," he says.

Kusnetz thinks the line, which exhibited at ENK Vegas at Wynn Las Vegas, proved the exception to the rule because of its commitment to quality over quantity. A lot of companies cut back on production costs which meant using lower grade fabrics. The way Kusnetz sees it, that might save in costs but it ends up costing the brand its public image.

"For people who are buying things today it has to be special," he says, "and we’re special."

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