Dapper Loves: & Other Stories
& Other Stories is an interesting name for an apparel brand. But somehow, it works. I first heard about & Other Stories probably three years ago, and one of the first things I read about it was how the store was decorated. I was promised a store where product was not piled on top of each other (*coughH&MOldNavyForever21cough*), where color stories reigned supreme, and a considerable beauty department was housed within. In fact, along with the other H&M-owned brand COS, it was one of the two stores I wanted to see the most when I visited London three years ago. (I'd have said "one of the two *places* I wanted to see the most in London" but I am pretty sure you will judge me. Because I would do so. In fact, I do.)
But the moral of the story is that I did really like it.
What separates & Other Stories from H&M is not only the quality of the product, but also the design philosophy - and how they merchandise their stores in light of that. The brand understands each collection as a “story”, and creates multiple different collections each season that women can mix and match, and essentially create their own “stories”. The store layout reflects this practice of storytelling too - there is a lot of cross-merchandising (which really is a fancy way of saying "putting together different kinds of products that are cohesive and go well with each other") - or creating lifestyle moments with combining clothing with accessories and beauty products. This is no coincidence since & Other Stories as a brand aims to provide women with the “whole package” - the clothing, the shoes, the bags, the accessories, the beauty products to create her own personal style, and reflect her individual personality.
I really like & Other Stories design aesthetic, and a lot of their products as a reflection of that. They have the best leather bags within their peers in the market, and their shoe collection always has numerous very original designs. But what I like the most about this brand is in fact their stores. The fixtures are very simplistic, and the store brings together metal, exposed beams, wood, and white furniture together in a predominantly white color scheme that is broken up with color in bits and pieces. In other words the store is very modern-Scandinavian meets Parisian-flat, which is not surprising given the ateliers for the brand are housed in Stockholm and Paris - a factoid the brand repeatedly highlights as one of its distinctive qualities.
The store is a modern and low-key presentation, and sparse compared to other fast fashion retailers but it works with the product, especially when dresses, sweaters, and other items add color, texture and pattern to the space. Rolling racks, tables and body forms make the product look more sophisticated - and considering & Other Stories is still a middle-market brand, more expensive. It is also a cute detail that they have living plants around the store - again, a nod to the European aesthetic of the brand, and a novelty among fast fashion retailers.
And for some weird reason, I also like that they leave some of the body forms undressed.( It sounds pervy, but it is not.) They're just nice body forms, and they create a good contrast with the dressed mannequins.
The small details and casual displays also gives the store a cool character - the whole store doesn't look like it tries too hard, or takes itself too seriously. There is a playfulness to it - something I appreciate as a customer. To be snotty, it has an air of sophisticated nonchalance - an idea that is in itself very European. It is like somebody has left their "stuff" on their dresser while getting ready to go out - which I think is lifestyle merchandising at its best.
Another thing that separates & Other Stories from most other fast fashion brands is its vast beauty offering. For one, "color" is one of the biggest characteristics of the & Other Stories brand. Color chip plates are one of the most distinctive decoration in the store that differentiates the brand, as well as its shopping bags, from the others. A wide variety of color cosmetics offering ties in very well with the brand identity, especially since the skincare products are also categorized with colors as well. Color is very central to the & Other Stories identity and aesthetic whereas, say, the sister brand COS is more about shape and form.
The beauty department is not only considerably big but also inviting (and very, very exciting for beauty junkies like me.) & Other Stories wants the guests to test their products, including the scrubs and washes - the sink detail they have in their stores is pretty neat. It is also a great way to allow guests to leave with something - given the price point of & Other Stories is higher (and sometimes *considerably* higher since they have real leather and real gorgeous bags and shoes), one can pick up nail polish and lipstick, a candle or a body scrub regardless. (But to be perfectly honest, the "body scrub" is a product I've never quite understood - 1) who has the energy to scrub their body all over 2) it never works as well as you think it would 3) who can tell the difference, and if they do, they have way too much interest in somebody else's skin - which is creepy. I don't owe you baby soft skin Robert, go away.)
But why would a behemoth like H&M investing in creating new brands, you might ask (or you might not. I will explain it regardless.) It is because brand diversification and alternative positioning works in a saturated fashion market. Increasing your brand portfolio is actually not a new move in fashion, and it is a common practice so much so that mergers and acquisitions in fashion are its own category of business news. Some companies diversify their portfolio by mergers and acquisitions, and some do it by creating different in-house brands. But what is important is that all is done with a goal of increasing market penetration. Fashion conglomerates such as Kering and Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy (which respectively hold the likes of Gucci, Saint Laurent, Balenciaga, and Dior, Marc Jacobs, Sephora) are some of the most powerful companies in global fashion, and they acquire brands for a very strategic reason - because when executed well, holding different brands works. By diversifying the kinds of brands they hold, companies can position themselves in different market segments, and reach more people by offering different groups different aesthetics/lifestyles/products. This, as you probably already understood, spreads risk for the company, because of multiple revenue resources by alternative positioning in the market.
What is interesting (that is, depending on what your definition of “interesting” is) is that fast fashion companies have caught onto this strategy as well. Brand diversification is no longer limited only to luxury conglomerates, but also executed successfully by the likes of the Spanish Inditex, Swedish H&M, and Japanese Fast Retailing. Zara’s parent company Inditex holds Massimo Dutti, Zara Home, Oysho (a sleepwear - loungewear company we desperately need in U.S.), and Fast Retailing holds not only Uniqlo, but also J Brand, Theory, Helmut Lang, and Comptoir des Cotonniers. H&M (or Hennes & Mauritz) diversified its portfolio by both purchasing and creating its own brands - like its own creation & Other Stories, and COS, and of which it bought majority shares like Monki and Cheap Monday.
In other words, having & Other Stories is a strategic move for H&M - and an especially smart one. When there is so much competition in the market, brands need to differentiate themselves not only by product, but also by what they communicate to people. And where H&M is in the industry as a fast fashion brand is even a tougher spot. There is increasing market saturation considering all the value brands out there, and backlash against the environmental and socioeconomic consequences of fast fashion is becoming more widespread - which also means some consumers preferring to buy less, and buy better. As the cherry on top, fast fashion retailers are not the best positioned to differentiate themselves from others by being “lifestyle” brands. They have to change constantly to keep up with the trends, and the have the change fast - their designs are a reflection of outside trends rather than what they dictate as an individual voice. For example, Zara needs to be able to shift its aesthetic from 70s glam to monochrome minimalism from one season to the next if it is the prevailing trend. As a result, that is also also why stores like Zara and H&M prefer the austere, all white and generic stores and layouts rather than, say, a more elaborate and identifiable Anthropologie or & Other Stories layout and decor. When you take the clothing out of Anthropologie, you still feel like you are in a space belonging to a slightly pretentious, urban bohemian. But when you take the clothing out of Zara or H&M, it is a blank slate. The collection that has a different aesthetic from season to season is what makes Zara what it is. (That's also why windows are important enough for Zara to have a traveling group of specialists create every store window each season - it is the biggest and one of the few communicators of style aesthetic that season.)
But, of course, & Other Stories share quite a bit with other fast fashion retailers as well. Despite repeatedly defining two locations, Paris and Stockholm, as their design “houses”, we don’t know much about the designing team at &Other Stories - just like the designers not being front and center in fast fashion brands. There is more flexibility in premium fashion brands such as &Other Stories in terms of offering a multitude of design stories in one season, but it is still more constrained within the Paris and Stockholm “design teams” than teams that are basically unknown in-house employees at Zara, H&M or Forever 21. Middle market fast fashion brands don’t work like luxury brands - their design aesthetic need to be more unidentifiable to stay completrly flexible. Brand diversification and alternative positioning allows companies like H&M to keep being flexible according to trends with one brand, and allowing lifestyle branding with their other brand.
Or in the case it succeeds, it is having your cake and eating it too.
You can follow & Other Stories Instagram here. It is quite beautiful.
[ Photos by the talented Christian Hernandez. Follow Christian on @hernandezcd ]