Business of Fashion

WSJ Reporter Suzanne Kapner Answers Our Retail Questions

Westport resident Suzanne Kapner (SK) has been a Wall Street Journal reporter for the retail and fashion industry for the past 12 years:  some of the most tumultuous and innovative time in retail history. Covering everything from fast fashion to consignment, bankruptcy to brick and mortar, high tech to Kanye West.

WLM: Why did you become a retail journalist?

SK: My career in journalism has allowed me to combine two of my passions, fashion and writing. I was a fashion design major my freshman year of college at Syracuse University. I won best designer that year for a suit I made. It’s navy blue wool with a magenta lining. I still have it. My sophomore year, I transferred to the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse and majored in journalism. I’ve been writing about fashion and the retail industry ever since. 

WLM: How have fashion trends changed in the eras of e-commerce, social media, influencers, and fast fashion? 

SK: The legacy top down hierarchy of designers and fashion editors arbitrating what people wear has given way to a bottom up movement where influencers and other forms of social media set the trends. This democratization of fashion means that anyone can be front row at runway shows with a click of their computer mouse. Fast fashion chains make the latest designs accessible to the masses within weeks. And people can shop from the comfort of their couch. 

WLM: How has the business of fashion changed as a result of these new developments?

SK: Companies are crowdsourcing ideas for new products and trends on social media platforms like TikTok. At the same time, they are paying influencers to be their brand ambassadors, while speeding up their production cycles to better compete with fast fashion chains and tap into the buy now, wear now movement. E-commerce has allowed startups to take share from traditional players and forced the behemoths to rethink their business models, including how many stores to operate and where to locate them. But the pendulum is starting to swing back in the other direction, as online brands open bricks-and-mortar stores of their own and sell their goods in department stores they initially shunned.

WLM: Is sustainable fashion impacting the industry in any meaningful way?

SK: The biggest impact so far of sustainability is the rise of the resale market. It used to be that shopping for secondhand goods meant sifting through piles of clothes at the local Goodwill or a neighbor’s garage sale. Today, it’s as easy as hailing an Uber or renting a room through Airbnb. Bargain hunting, environmental concerns and the sharing economy have erased the stigma of used goods at the same time technology has made thrift shopping more accessible, reliable and cool. Brands are also starting to use more environmentally friendly fabrics and manufacturing techniques. But it's hard for consumers to separate what’s real from the green-washing.

WLM: How will AI affect the industry? 

SK: Retailers are starting to use AI to offer better product recommendations to customers, track their inventory and process returns. AI’s impact will continue to grow over time.

WLM: Lastly, how do clothing brands determine price point, and are the higher prices legit or a gating factor for their ideal customer?

SK: In the simplest form, brands take a markup on their costs, typically around 50% or even more for luxury goods. These days, technology is playing a bigger role in setting prices. Companies can adjust prices in real time based on sales or the competitive landscape. This is known as dynamic pricing. The inflationary pressures ushered in by the pandemic have pushed up prices for a range of goods across industries. Brands that are hot have the most pricing power and many luxury brands are taking advantage of this by raising prices exponentially. They are known as Veblen goods - status symbols for which demand increases as the price increases.

"The legacy top down hierarchy of designers and fashion editors arbitrating what people wear has given way to a bottom up movement where influencers and other forms of social media set the trends."

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