1. Introduction to the Business of Fashion (Free Preview)

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What do you think of when you think of fashion? Most of us think of models, shows, and catwalks in Paris and Milan, a parade of changing trends and seasons, and a mix of practical and impractical designs showcased in fashion magazines like Vogue and Elle. Few of us think of the bustling industry that goes on behind the facade of glamorous models and photographers, and even fewer of us ever have to. But, when you peel back the figurative curtain to examine the cogs and wheels that make up the fashion industry, which runs like clockwork with changing seasons and modes, the industry is extremely complex and relies on an extensive network of farmers and growers, textile weavers, fabric designers, fabric and textile innovators, tanners, shipping companies, fashion and shoe designers, marketing teams, models, retail stores, networks, sales and marketing, and much more.
For a designer creating fashion, this process can seem extensive and intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. You have to understand fashion cycles and seasons, know how and where to integrate your products into fashion shows, understand product development, manufacturing, and retail, but once you understand it, this knowledge will give you the tools to successfully operate inside of the fashion industry.

In this lesson:

  • 1.1 The Global Fashion Industry
  • 1.2 A Brief History of Fashion
  • 1.3 Fashion & Its Consumers
  • 1.4 Couture
  • 1.5 Cycles and Seasons
  • 1.6 Fashion Shows


1.1. The Global Fashion Industry

The global textile and garment industry (including luxury garments, fashion couture, and high-street brands such as H&M) was valued at $3 trillion USD in March of 2015¹. The fashion industry is one of the largest industries in the world, and for good reason. Everyone wears fashion.

Most importantly, while clothing is a necessity, the large percentage of sales in the industry are designed to cater luxury demands, or clothing beyond what is necessary for warmth and shelter. This fact necessitates that designers create a complex shift in personal thinking to design trends which drive the desire to buy new items, even when those items do not solve any practical goals. This also allows for more creativity for designers, as the majority of clothing is purchased for no other reason than self-expression.

Designers create ideas, manufacturers and product development teams create products based on those ideas, fashion magazines, ads, and fashion shows create a demand for those products, and retailers buy the clothing or accessories created through this process. But, the industry is more complex than this simple cycle of design to production entails. Where an original designer can create a trend, hundreds of high-street shops will often step in to make that trend available to the masses at a lower cost, usually well into the product cycle. These trends are important for designers, because most shoppers only watch an elite few designers, and as a result, those designers have the capacity to decide what becomes popular in the fashion industry at any given time.

Internationally, hundreds of new fashion designers and retailers enter the market every year, but few ever move out of their small market sphere, while many collect a small but loyal following. Few fashion designers break into a global scene, and fewer retailers manage to do so. This is crucial because global brands drive trends. The American corporation Nike², an athletic leisure and lifestyle brand, is one of the largest fashion companies in the world with 2015 revenues of $30.6 billion, and a net worth of $105 billion. Nike makes about 64% of its profits from shoes, including about 6% from Converse, which they own.

LVMH³ is another of largest fashion retailers in the world, and they don’t specialize in design. Instead, LVMH, or Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy sells luxury products from top designers. This conglomerate doesn’t restrict itself to fashion sales, but instead, sells luxury goods including champagne. LVMH operates many of the independent stores around the globe for high end fashion designers including Dior, Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs, Donna Karan, Givenchy, R.M. Williams, Thomas Pink, Céline, Fendi, and many more.

Delving deeper into the global market, you reach high street shops which copy fashion trends to sell them at a lower price. The largest of these is Inditex, a global conglomerate which operates brands including Zara, Pull & Bear, Massimo Dutti, and Stradivarius, along with over 100 companies dealing with design, manufacturing, textile production, and shoe manufacturing in countries like Bangladesh, India, Morocco, China, and Turkey. Most importantly, Inditex primarily inserts itself into the fashion cycle after major label designers have created trends, and they tag along with those trends to earn money by retailing high-street items with designer appeal, but a significantly lowered budget. Others, like H&M and TJX fit into this same category, offering designer created trends at a high-street price, and they fit into the top 10 largest fashion companies in the world.

In the shoe industry, 41% of all traded footwear⁴ is leather, earning some $56.7 billion dollars per year. Rubber and textile footwear earn some $30.2 and $22.3 billion respectively, and rubber includes patent leather shoes. The entire footwear industry is worth $208.72 billion as of 2014⁵, and it follows many of the same complex trends as clothing, only on a somewhat smaller scale.

The size and reach of the fashion industry can also be seen in taking a close look at individual cities like New York. As one of the fashion capitals of the world, New York employees 180,000 people in the industry, headquarters nearly 900 fashion companies, is home to nearly 75 international fashion shows, and pays nearly $11 million⁶ in fashion industry wages per year.

In the U.S. alone, fashion and footwear make up a total of about 4% of all consumer expenditure or about $250 billion⁷. Internationally, fashion spending varies by city and by country, with Australia coming in top at an average of $1050 spent on apparel annually, and Europeans with an average of $663 averaged across 27 countries, slightly more than the U.S. average of $686 ⁸. And in India, that average is just $36 per year⁹.

This global fashion market is also growing consistently year over year. In Europe, markets include Germany with an average spending of about $62 billion on clothing, the UK with 59.7 billion, and Italy, with 48.6 billion spent per year¹⁰.

This very small look at the global fashion industry should give you an idea of how big fashion is, but it doesn’t necessarily give you a look at your role as a small designer or developer.


1.2. A Brief History of Fashion

The modern business of fashion, or the presentation of apparel as a luxury, to be changed out frequently, and to be copied from those more affluent than yourself, dates back to 17th century France, where Louis XIV is credited with the creation of fashion as a luxury. His drive to introduce France as the center of art and culture resulted in a trend that many of us are familiar with today. Fashion seasons. Members of the court were expected to change their apparel regularly, which began with simple, once per season, changes to the wardrobe. Seamstresses and tailors would design custom pieces to the specifications of the lady or lord they were creating apparel for. Outside of the court, the middle class, who were often wealthier than the nobility, would attempt to replicate these gowns and outfits based on coverage in newspapers.

Journalists earned a profit by selling more newspapers for coverage of what the nobility were wearing. As a result, they began to cover new outfits and gowns extensively, essentially beginning the fashion press in the early 1670s. As this process of creating new apparel based on seasons sped up, they would issue individual books including drawings of what the nobles were wearing, so that others in and out of France could copy them. In fact, this began something of a paparazzi, as journalists would follow affluent fashionistas in hopes of being the first to see and reveal a new gown or style.

By the 18th century, this process had sped up to the point of extravagance, and lords and ladies would often come out with new clothing so quickly that the fashion press couldn’t keep up. While the excesses of the court soon bankrupted the kingdom at the expense of the populace, the trend of copying fashion from affluent wearers had begun. The French Revolution is often attributed partially to these excesses, but after the fall of the French monarchy, the fashion cycle continued. The Incroyables and Merveilleuses eventually took over the fashion scene, bringing eccentrics, scandal, and neoclassicism to French fashion.

During this time, the fashion industry in the rest of the world was largely based on what could be copied or bought off of French designers. Men’s fashions remained primarily the same in the form of tailoring with quality and basic tailoring available from London, and regular changes in style, color, and fit available from France, but these changes often reached the outside world months or even a year after they were popular in Paris.

In the early 20th century, this establishment changed with the creation of couturier houses, allowing companies, rather than the wealthy, to dictate what was in fashion. These houses printed their own fashion press, which was distributed around the world. While the wealthy would often make special trips to Paris from London and even New York to purchase a year’s worth of clothing, the middle class could now purchase clothing from these fashion magazines, and have items designed in Paris delivered to them in the United States or in London.

In 1890, the fashion press Vogue formed in the United States and moved to Paris in 1920. By 1928, Coco Chanel came to prominence in Paris with her signature boyish looks and feminine lines that clashed with the majority of what was popular during the day.  

Fashion stalled through the 1930s and 40s, prompted by war time fabric shortages and drafts, as well as the German occupation of France. The majority of new design moved to New York, where designers were limited by mandates controlling how much fabric could be used for each article of clothing. This created the somewhat stern look of the 1940s, with fitted jackets and pencil skirts designed to use minimal fabric.

In 1947, Christian Dior presented his New Look, and forever changed the world of fashion. The New Look created the feminine silhouette still popular today, with a flared skirt, a nipped waist, and an emphasized bust, often complete with low heels and boots. This style was extravagant after the bare minimum of fabric of the early 1940s, and it was quickly in demand around the world. More importantly, it was quickly made available around the world as department stores copied it and sold it at a variety of price points until the New Look was just that, a Look.

By this time, things were rapidly changing in the fashion industry.  Haute Couture had changed from a small-scale luxury craft into an art. In the early 1900s, Jean Lanvin, founder of the Lanvin House, opened her business on just 500 francs, but by 1947, Marcel Boussac invested $500,000 in the House of Dior.


(Haute Couture 1958 – photo courtesy of jinterwas)

By the 1960s, popular trend had begun to creep away from Haute Couture, as the youth of the day preferred London and its casual fashion. Following up on this trend, in 1966, the designer Yves Saint Laurent made a name for himself in ready to wear fashion, effectively ending the days of primarily exclusive fashion, and beginning the age of popularized mass-production.

Following in his lead, today, there are few designers who do not offer ready-to-wear styles, and few haute couture designs that are not copied by mass-market high-street shops such as H&M.


1.3. Fashion & Its Consumers

Fashion today is distinctly different from fashion at any other point in history. In 1947, everyone purchased the same trends and styles. Today, fashion is broken up into ‘tribes’ of people with different ideas and aesthetics, who purchase high and high-street fashion based on their preference, rather than the one thing that everyone is wearing. Fashion journalist Teri Agins proclaimed this ‘trend’ to be the end of fashion, but, it is the opposite.

Modern consumers are driven by dual needs to seek out styles that appeal to their preference as well as the need for practical clothing and footwear that suits their lifestyle and area.  While the fashion giant has split, leaving behind a realm where one designer reigned supreme for as much as a decade, it has embraced a freedom of creativity and design that allows a fashion designer to succeed alongside hundreds or even thousands of other looks.

This trend, where the consumer purchases clothing that allows them to control ‘who they want to be’, is what American anthropologist Ted Polhemus calls style tribes. These tribes include modernism, artistic, Avant Garde, rebels, goths, and many more, that allow the wearer to choose their ‘tribe’ and to tell the world who they are with their clothing.

(Hairstyling at an Avant Garde backstage)

These tribes accommodate hundreds of different types of fashion, allowing designers to cater towards specific social groups. This intrinsically changes what fashion is, and increases the value of fashion, especially for persons who move in and out of different social circles (such as between business at work and leisure) allowing designers to create a larger, more involved market, where consumers actively choose their fashion based on their lifestyle choices.

While some modern apparel caters to the practical, the majority of clothing is sold as luxury items, because people follow new trends and purchase what they don’t need, often choosing items because they like it, but also purchasing new items to appear hip or in fashion. Like in 1947, with the introduction of Dior’s New Look, some people modify their existing wardrobe to meet new fashion trends, adding key pieces to fit in with newer styles, and others opt for an entirely new wardrobe each season or each year.

More importantly, fashion tribes motivate people to buy in order to satisfy the standards of their social group, so that they look the part and are able to create a self-image with their wardrobe. This ties into materialism, lifestyle choices, the desire to be popular, and even a desire for success. As a result, retail stores often indulge in status marketing, showcasing models with sex appeal, money, or social status, rather than the people who would normally be wearing the clothing.

(Dior fashion – Las Vegas)

As a result, there are three distinct, but equally important, reasons that consumers purchase apparel.

Practical – Consumers who need regular apparel for no other reason than that they have to wear it. Practical purchases are typically of high quality, durable materials, and are intended for everyday use or for work. These types of purchases are limited, but never go out of fashion.

Social Groups – Maintaining social status in certain groups, such as punk or hipster requires a certain dress code. Consumers will purchase clothing that allows them to meet social expectations of who they are trying to be. Fashion is used to establish culture and identity, and that is its primary function in today’s world. Catering to one of these groups allows you to make sales in this group, but typically limits your sales to one or more similar social circles, which may grow and wane in size over time.

Trendsetting – Consumers will purchase fashion because it is new, on-trend, in-fashion, or expected of them. This group is considerably larger today than it has been at any other time in history, thanks to the Internet allowing bloggers, Instagrammers, and YouTubers to reach large audiences with their fashion advice, and closets.

These considerations often come together to make up the complex decisions behind purchasing apparel and footwear. For example, someone who is attending a gala will make a trendsetting purchase decision to purchase clothing for that gala, but their decision on which type of clothing to buy will be heavily influenced based on whether the event is held at work, or at a renaissance fair. Essentially, multiple buying reasons are usually in play each time someone makes a purchase.

Buying decisions are extremely complex, but understanding them can help you to plan and prepare clothing and shoes that consumers want and need to buy.


1.4. Couture

Couture is French for sewing, but it has come to represent everything that is the high fashion industry. And, importantly, there are distinctions. Where ‘couture’ can refer to Prêt-à-Porter or ready to wear clothing and accessories, it is most often used to mean Haute Couture.

French for “high sewing” or “high fashion”, Haute Couture is considered the highest level of fashion, the creation of unique custom-made high-fashion garments, typically for women. Making use of luxury materials and designs, attention to detail, and hand-sewing techniques, couture is the fusion of costume and high-fashion, and often seen only on the most affluent and famous people, and can include custom design, or items modelled on the runway and altered to suit the person wearing them.

Haute Couture is regulated by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, an association whose members are designated to operate as ‘haute couture atelier’ or ‘house’. Essentially, “Haute Couture” is legally protected, and to use it, you must join the ‘club’ in order to receive approval to use the label. The Chambre annually reviews its membership, which must comply with a strict level of regulations and standards in order to maintain that membership.

While, today, Haute Couture is typically made on-demand for affluent persons such as actresses, it directly ties into the history of fashion, as designers would typically create a trunk show designed to present their designs in salons. Models would carry cards indicating the number of their garments, the audience would jot down numbers they liked, and then the client would visit the designer to have those garments made to their measurements and preferences. In some cases, a buyer would have the design mass produced for their own store. This type of exclusivity has now become more exclusive, as Haute Couture has largely become a series of one-off garments, custom-made for special occasions, and often worn only once.

Shoes have escaped this commodification of exclusivity to some extent, but Haute Couture shoe designers still exist. In fact, designers including Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs, and Christian Louboutin create haute couture footwear customized for the individual in addition to their mass market lines.

(Paolo Roversi editorials for Vogue Italia, September 2014)

Today, couture collections are typically seen on runways during fashion weeks, and pricing begins in the thousands and even hundreds of thousands. But, because few can afford these high-fashion couture collections, most designers and companies use the press, glamour, and appeal of their couture to market ready-to-wear (Prêt-à-Porter) lines at a significantly lower cost. As a result, couture often accounts for a small fraction of the market share of even the most affluent designers, and is more often regulated to visual advertisement rather than a saleable garment.

In turn, magazines such as Vogue bring pictures and pricing directly to the public, allowing the wealthy to purchase it, and high-street shops to copy it. But, this applies to affluent Prêt-à-Porter lines as well, as they are often more saleable than the over the top Haute Couture designs.

Well known couture labels include Armani Privé, Atelier Versace, Chanel, Christian Dior, Givenchy, Jean Paul Gaultier, Valentino, Elie Saab, Giorgio Armani, and Paul Smith. By the 1970s, the trends of haute couture and formal fashion had almost died completely in the Western world, but the key element of a trendy designer created fashion, which is copied and duplicated by retailers and mass market producers remains the norm.

Most importantly, many designers work with large fashion companies to deliver their designs to a large audience. Others choose to create their own, exclusive fashion lines, which are available to only a few. And, others attempt to create their own lines of mass produced fashion which they bring to the market on their own.

With the advent of the Internet, this process is easier than ever for designers who have more tools to reach the people who love their designs, making it possible for bespoke designers to reach small audiences to offer custom design, if not haute couture, to a larger audience.


1.5 Cycles and Seasons

In the history section, you learned about Louis XIV and the introduction of fashion seasons and cycles. These two terms mean something very different, but each relies on the other for valuation and meaning.

A fashion season is a scheduled showing of new fashion by designers, typically held in fashion cities such as Paris, Milan, or New York. Seasons typically align with actual seasons (Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter) and involve ‘collections’ such as the Louis Vuitton Autumn Collection.

Moving away from Haute Couture and high fashion, mass marketers, less popular designers, and retail shops often have 4 to 8 seasons in a year, comprising of mid-season changes in their lines to boost interest in their apparel and to induce their existing consumers to make another purchase. This is known as ‘fast fashion’ where items are sold to be used quickly before everyone else has them and then thrown away or replaced as the item becomes more popular.

While the original idea of a fashion season was to allow a consumer to purchase an entire capsule wardrobe for the upcoming season, this is no longer the case. Even in high fashion, designers typically introduce multiple styles and options throughout the year in addition to the four main seasons. Inter-seasonal lines are typically more commercialized, and allow consumers to purchase high-fashion items more quickly.

Fashion Cycle – The concept of a fashion cycle is more complex than a fashion season, but the two tie in together to create meaning. A cycle is the product lifecycle of fashion or apparel, or the period during which the fashion exists. A cycle is typically defined by five stages, beginning at creation and ending at obsolescence.

These stages include the introduction, rise, peak, decline, and obsolescence.

Introduction: A designer introduces a style at a fashion show or major design center, gaining interest from a large crowd. High prices and limited quantities ensure that only the affluent and fashion leaders can wear these styles. This method involves the oldest and most accepted method of fashion change, the trickle-down theory, where the affluent make choices that eventually trickle down to the less affluent until they become common practice. The trickle-up theory is a relatively newer theory, where the choices of the less affluent come to affect those of the affluent. For example, jeans and T-shirts, or athletic apparel, which were once worn by the working class, and are now worn by the very wealthy and affluent as well.

Rise: Manufacturers begin to copy popular designs using less expensive fabrics and fewer details, and then retail the products at a variety of price ranges based on the quality of the garment. These mass produced styles are affordable for the majority of people and create massive sales. For trend followers and smaller designers, this is the best stage to join a trend. It’s also the least risky for those who copy it, because the trend is proven to be successful, but the market has not yet been saturated.

Peak Stage: The style is at its most popular and accepted stage, it is mass produced but at a wide variety of price points based on quality, and it may come out in different colors or styles. At this stage, a style may either remain and evolve to become a classic.

Decline: The majority of persons interested in following trends have this style and are unlikely to purchase it again, consumer demand is going down, similar items have oversaturated the market, and fashion retailers often mark down their remaining stock to sell it more quickly.

Obsolescence: Consumers are no longer interested in purchasing this product, even at a low price point and are moving on to new styles.

Importantly, this product lifecycle can take a season or it can take years, depending on the product and how well it is adopted. Some styles never leave the Peak stage, for example, leather jackets and blue jeans. Others leave the peak stage very quickly and are never seen again after the season in which they are introduced. For example, orange go-go boots. More importantly, some resurface decades after their original introduction as part of a retro style. Therefore, it is difficult for marketers to predict the lifespan of a style, because it is entirely up to consumer adoption and the actions of fashion designers in the spotlight.

Fashion Movement – Fashion movement is the process of how fashion changes. For example, fifty years ago, the styles and materials used for shoes were often very different from those used today. Fashion movement is influenced by social trends, new fibers and fabrics, and even advertising techniques.

Slow Fashion – This includes fashion that is intended to last for years, and remain a closet staple. These items are constructed for quality rather than affordability, start at higher price points, and typically contain neutral colors and cuts that work well with most fashion trends. Examples include jeans, pencil skirts, a plain black pump, or Oxford shoes. These can remain a staple of any designer’s collection.

Fast Fashion – Fast fashion is manufactured quickly to meet trends and consumer demand, to sell quickly, and then be replaced in the next season. This typically includes the latest social trends for outfits such as cocktail dresses, neon shoes, or the latest trend in women’s pumps, and may only be worn once or twice by the consumer.


1.6 Fashion Shows

Fashion shows exist primarily to display the latest seasons of fashion designers, companies, and haute couture, and can vary quite a bit based on their intention. The two primary types of shows include men’s wear and women’s wear. In the main fashion circuits or the “Fashion Weeks”, women’s wear shows are held in February and September or October, in New York, London, Milan and Paris. Menswear shows are held in January and June or July, in London, Milan, Paris, and New York.

In many cases there are also individual fashion shows not related to the Fashion Weeks, including inter-seasonal collections, or the Miami Fashion Week, which is entirely dedicated to swimwear.  Each ‘Fashion Week’ is held for one week in each city, comprising a total of one month in each of the ‘Big Four’ fashion cities.

(Photo Courtesy of byyalex)


New York
New York Fashion week begins the women’s fashion week and ends the men’s fashion week. New York Fashion week typically integrates with popular culture and brands, and many brand sponsored events take place during the week. New York’s ‘press events’ date back to 1942, where local designers would show their new designs to the press, and became the “NYF” in 1993.

London Fashion Week presents itself as a trade-show and includes a collection of haute couture, London based designers, and ready-to-wear fashions.

The Milan Fashion week is the third week in women’s and men’s wear, and typically frequented by Italian designers such as Armani, Prada, Roberto Cavalli, Dolce & Gabbana, and many others, as well as international, and local lesser known designers.

Paris Fashion Week is the most famous and the most anticipated fashion show, and typically the highlight of the womenswear fashion month.  Dates are selected by the French Fashion Federation and designers show off Haute Couture and ready to wear styles, semi-annually with spring/summer and autumn/winter seasons. Men’s and women’s fashions are separated, and typically shown on different dates.

This information can help you to understand fashion cycles, consumers, and how the general fashion industry works, as well as the scope and reach of the industry. Selling shoes requires that you incorporate yourself into this large and complex world revolving around trends and high fashion, and this knowledge will help you to do so. By following fashion shows and seasons, you can begin to predict new trends, and integrate them into your own designs during the early stages of adoption.



(1) https://fashionunited.com/global-fashion-industry-statistics
(2) http://www.statista.com/statistics/267948/brand-value-of-the-leading-10-most-valuable-luxury-brands-worldwide/
(3) http://www.statista.com/statistics/267948/brand-value-of-the-leading-10-most-valuable-luxury-brands-worldwide/
(4) http://www.statista.com/statistics/227278/leading-10-global-footwear-consumers-by-country/
(5) http://www.transparencymarketresearch.com/pressrelease/footwear-market.htm
(6) http://www.nycedc.com/industry/fashion
(7) https://maloney.house.gov/sites/maloney.house.gov/files/documents/The%20Economic%20Impact%20of%20the%20Fashion%20Industry%20–%20JEC%20report%20FINAL.pdf
(8) http://www.statista.com/statistics/289996/expenditure-on-clothing-and-footwear-in-the-united-kingdom-uk/
(9) http://www.statista.com/statistics/279749/global-per-capita-apparel-expenditure/
(10) http://www.statista.com/statistics/419877/clothing-consumption-expenditure-europe-eu/

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