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Donatella Versace "Versus" The Mid-Market

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This week, Gianni Versace S.p.A. announced that it was cutting loose young British designer Christopher Kane from the helm of its second line, Versus. Signora Versace is not seeking to replace him, per se. Instead, she is employing a curious new tactic, as the press release reported: a "strategic repositioning of the Versus brand, aimed at anticipating new industry trends and capturing market opportunities" that amounts to pooling young creative talents to work alongside Donatella in the creation of "seasonless" capsule collections.

Under her tutelage, Versus will collaborate with young designers, stylists, and other assorted creatives (insert Blogger X and contemporary artist Y here) to develop small collections, co-branding projects and limited edition ranges. New collections are to be introduced via presentations, the first of which is slotted for March or April 2013 in New York, rather than bi-annual Milanese catwalk. Meanwhile, distribution will focus on e-commerce, with the creation of a digital flagship store.

So what exactly are these "new industry trends" and how do they reflect on the fashion industry in general? The collaborative "tribe" approach to creative direction is an intriguing one that speaks to the increasingly collaborative nature of fashion design and marketing, a sort of interactive and "inclusive" attitude designated by the web. But is this a good thing or a bad thing?

The FT's Vanessa Friedman blogged recently about the precarious position of non-designers designing, arguably, Donatella's new M.O. will see more of the same, cemented by the seal of approval of one of Milan's most renowned luxury fashion houses.

Furthermore, this notion of rejecting the fashion calendar to create "seasonless" collections that are disseminated online is a sort of rule-rewriting that has already been tried and tested with limited success, one Alessandra Facchinetti's Uniqueness springs to mind. Gucci and Valentino's former creative director's foray into just such a venture back in the fall of 2011 fell short of expectations, though the Facchinetti surname does not pack the same kind of big league punch as Versace. The idea of "seasonless" design, in my opinion, is limited, as "fashion" is a concept which is, essentially, predicated on the necessity of the change of season.

More importantly, this overhaul calls into question the viability of "second" lines in today's market where disposable income for the targeted bracket (namely, twenty-something designer aficionados such as myself) has shrunk considerably. The topic was first raised in Italian earnest when Stefano and Domenico announced the shuttering of D&G last year. The mid-market, or high mid-market, is contracting, while the top end and bottom rung, aka fast-fashion (as evidenced by Donatella's own sell-out collaboration with H&M), are booming. No need for finger pointing to 99% "Versus" 1% catchphrases here.

Designers as businesses have to consider the relevancy of their second lines, whose prices remain considerably higher than even the priciest high street labels, but are (in most cases) not that much better made and certainly fall short of the sartorial splendour of mainline pieces. A Versus jersey t-shirt runs about £260 and a pair of skinny jeans £280-in no one's book is that a bargain buy. Second labels are all about buying into a brand, but those who have the cash to do so these days have more than enough to scoop up mainline pieces, and those who aspire to be entry level purchasers instead have to hope and pray for high street collaborations.

So the question seems to me, why even bother restructuring Versus at all? Why not take a cue from Milan's dynamic duo and cut it altogether if its fiscal prognosis is uncertain? Or, if the H&M collection was such a hit, revealing a consumer voraciousness for iconic product at accessible prices, why not simply reinvent a newer, even more accessible label and build on that new customer base mobilised by aforementioned high street collaboration? You know, a product that is actually diffused.

While how this restructuring will pan out in terms of product, price and market-positioning remains to be seen, the fact that it is even happening at all is a harbinger, I should think, of more second line overhauls to come. The sad fact of the matter is, among these so-called "new industry trends" lies, cleverly concealed in marketing jargon, the death of the diffusion label as we know it coinciding with the demise of middle class purchasing power and an aspirational and upwardly mobile youth demographic. In the case of Donatella "Versus" the mid-market, the verdict, both design and dollar-wise, is as hard an outcome to predict as the muddled futures of the margianlised demographics themselves.