10/03/11

Billy, Don’t Be A Hero

Categories: GQ, News, Opinion

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If you grew up in Nottingham in the Seventies, the only name you could cite when people asked you which famous bands came from your neck of the woods, was – wait for it – Paper Lace. Their song“Billy, Don’t Be A Hero” was the sole standard-bearer for the Nottingham music scene, and boy were we embarrassed.

The band however became more famous as the quintessential “one-hit wonders” than they did for anything else. Unless of course they have done anything since, which I very much doubt.

In fashion, as in music, the thing that makes brand owners extremely nervous is the idea that when you do eventually hit the big time, your product is a one-hit wonder. They often wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, the nightmare always the same: that someone in the fashion press has suggested that their product has had its day. Suddenly the queues outside your shop disappear and you begin to wonder whether it was a good idea to buy that enormous stock warehouse last month.

The dilemma starts when one of your products begins to take off and everyone seems intent on cramming you into a pigeonhole of their choice and locking you in it forever. I say dilemma because, as sales begin to take off exponentially, it creates opportunities that you had never dreamt of, and it is nearly impossible to turn them away. Can you imagine the owner of Ugg saying that he is worried about being pigeonholed and is therefore stopping production of all sheepskin products in order to concentrate on sexy stilettos? You can’t do it. So instead you have to ride the wave and try to introduce more and more new and different products as quickly as you can.

I wonder if Patrick Cox was worried when he was selling 500,000 pairs of his Wannabe loafer, allowing him to open shops all over the world? He should have been, because the story ends in a cake shop in Soho (albeit a lovely one).

Why did it happen? He is a great designer who had a lovely brand which was worn by all of the great celebrities and he hung out withElton and David. It happened because he became so strongly associated with one single product that when it became unfashionable, the business crumbled.

Crocs is a classic example, swinging from a profit of $168m in 2007 to a loss of $183m a year later. It seems to have now stabilised by introducing new, and somewhat successful, products into the mix.

Staying on the shoe theme, our own Dr Martens rides the peaks and troughs of fashion like a rollercoaster. One minute its products are all the rage, next they are not, but the company still relies on the sole it invented at the start of its life and the brand is so strong that it can make it through the hard times, safe in the knowledge that in the not-too-distant future, a new generation of hipsters will “discover” this down-to-earth workwear brand.

Here’s a good game. Stop for a minute and think of all the brands that are known for a single product. Then look out for them in the press as they frantically try to climb out of their pigeonhole with new product lines and marketing campaigns.

What is the point of all of this? Fashion is a powerful force and nobody can manipulate it to serve their needs, unless you are Coco Chanel. What you can do, however, is create season after season of clever, well-designed product, that is relevant for your brand but shows the breadth of your capabilities, and then just keep plugging away.

Trouble is, of course, you might just hit upon a second “Billy, Don’t Be A Hero” and then you’re right back on the merry-go-round. Oh, to be on that merry-go-round.

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