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Finance Meets Fashion

What is a good investment from a fashion point of view? Why should – and must – a T-shirt cost more than a loaf of bread? FemaleOneZero met with three experts from the banking and lifestyle sectors for a roundtable at comdirect

Participants:

Frauke Hegemann, COO at comdirect bank AG
Cécile Wickmann, Founder & CEO of Rebelle
Julia Zirpel, Founder of the wearness

Moderation: Natascha Zeljko

To begin, I’d be interested to know: what was your first fashion moment? When did you first get in touch with fashion?

(Frauke) I think that was when I was about eleven years old. Back then, those cycling shorts were in style. And you wore XXL T-shirts with them, ideally from Benetton. Of course, I had to have a combination like that, too.

(Julia) I grew up partly in India and we had a nanny. One day, she had bought a new sari and wanted to show it to us. It was bright pink with golden embroidery. She put it on and changed before our eyes, she started to shine, the sari gave her dignity and self-confidence. That was the moment when I realized what an effect fashion has.

(Cécile) My mother has always had an affinity for eye-catching clothes – in-your-face colors, extravagant cuts, lots of gold according to the motto ‘more is more’. But I was only consciously preoccupied with the subject when I was at school. This was due to my classmates, Benetton and Chevignon jackets were an absolute must-have, closely followed by Diesel or Chiemsee.

Finding your own style takes time. When did you find your “fashion-me”?

(Cécile) I’ve always been rebellious, perhaps because of my mother’s eccentric style. I said to myself, “I wear what I want, not what others like.” Of course, one isn’t always immune to influences. But most of the time I walked around in a completely different way than the others. But it still took a few years before something like my own style emerged.

(Julia) With me it was a longer process. My mother was a pattern maker and textile engineer and sewed a lot. I often tried things at home and loved to wander through second-hand shops and flea markets. I experimented – and there were certainly looks that didn’t need to happen.

How about you, Frauke? You’re more like the classic type. Was it always like that?

(Frauke) I have always had a soft spot for subtle colors and have set accents by mixing one or two colors with it. That’s what I still do today. So maybe a jacket or a handbag in a different color, but otherwise I am rather the classic type. That started early on.

„I grew up in the midst of fabrics and sewing machines. Maybe you look at things differently, pay more attention to quality and details.“ Frauke Hegemann

You had a textile business at home. To what extent did that influence you?

(Frauke) My mother, and especially my grandmother, had a strong influence on me. The company sewed tops like blouses and nightwear. I grew up in the midst of fabrics and sewing machines. Maybe you look at things differently, pay more attention to quality and details. As a teenager, for example, I saved for a pair of shoes for two years because I really wanted them and no others.

In Germany, fashion still has a reputation for being superficial, where fun and reason are played against each other.

(Frauke) I don’t think it’s a contradiction anymore today, because it has become much cheaper. In the past, you didn’t have so much choice and fashion was also more tied to your wallet. Nevertheless, I would of course like to see people consume more consciously. So not to buy so fast and thoughtlessly and then dispose of things quickly.

In the meantime, there has been a greater awareness of sustainability – at least in parts of the population. Julia, you have turned this into a business model with the wearness – you sell ethical luxury fashion. What are typical reactions?

(Julia) I am often asked, “Why does everything from you guys have to be so much more expensive?” Or rather, “Isn’t it possible to buy cheaply and sustainably?” To be honest, this irritates me. If you talk about meat, then you also know that ethical treatment is more expensive. People now accept that. Why not in fashion? And I even think it has to be a bit more expensive, it’s about appreciation. Only if I’m willing to invest a little, do I think, “Do I need that? How long can I wear it?” We have to relearn that certain things have their price.

One could argue that one must also be able to afford such an attitude. Isn’t that rather elitist?

(Julia) Of course, this is quickly assumed in the discussion. But if you look at the last 20, 30 years, the democratization of fashion has resulted in everyone buying super cheap, including the wealthier. With the effect that a fashion piece is only worn three or four times on average and then thrown away.

One way to conserve resources is second-hand. Seen in this light, it is gratifying that the subject of lifecycle has undergone a change of image. What was it like when you started with Rebelle, Cécile?

(Cécile) Sustainability wasn’t a new topic back then, but it focused on areas like nutrition or mobility, fashion and lifestyle came later. It was clear to us from the beginning that it would eventually go in that direction. In the beginning, we actually often heard the question, “How does it smell in your warehouse?” or “Do you have your own cleaning service?” That was extremely prejudiced. That’s different now. I would even say that we have a part in it. Back then, it was a totally new market segment that developed out of a cool niche theme. There were a few stars and starlets who publicly said, “I’m wearing vintage.” That’s it. But it was also clear to us that we wouldn’t be able to convince people with sustainability alone. Nobody will say, “Okay, I’m buying something that I don’t like, that I have hygienic doubts about, just because it’s sustainable.” We’re talking about fashion here, it’s an emotional product, and it’s an emotional decision.

(Frauke) I see it the same way. For me, it’s a matter close to my heart; I see something and think, “This is it, this has to be it.” And in the second step I ask myself, “What is this material? Where was it made? Is that chemical or natural fiber?” Another important aspect is whether it can be washed in a washing machine or not. If I take everything to the dry cleaner, it’s not very sustainable. I try to buy consciously, but of course you buy sometimes a piece that is a bit cheaper. Then you can try out a bold color. But with the classics, with dresses, I apply other standards. It’s about longevity, so I think about whether I want to wear it for the next five years or longer and want to sell it on or give it away at some point. In the long run, that pays off for your wallet.

How did your childhood influence you in this respect?

(Frauke) What I learned back then was to look closely at how the workmanship is. And when you buy a super-cheap T-shirt, you’ll find that the seam gives or it’s shrunk after one wash. Seriously, you shouldn’t buy it. In the course of time, I have actually noticed that I prefer to buy less, but more valuable. You also wear it with a different feeling if the piece has a certain price, or if you’ve even saved for it, then if you simply bought it quickly somewhere in passing.

„Women absurdly often buy something new for special events and spend an incredible amount on it but it’s only worn once.“ Julia Zirpel

Let’s talk about Angela Merkel’s kimono. A few weeks ago, pictures went through the press showing Merkel wearing a certain outfit four times in a 20-year span. What was astonishing was the sneering commentary generated in gossip magazines.

(Julia) I thought the kimono was a positive surprise. Otherwise, she tends to wear these taffeta dresses at evening events. To be honest, I liked the kimono much better. On top of that, it makes sense to put on clothes more often. Women absurdly often buy something new for special events and spend an incredible amount on it but it’s only worn once. And in everyday life, they start to skimp on things that they wear permanently.

If you go away from politics to banking – which, for a long time, was considered the last bastion of the trouser suit. To what extent has that changed today?

(Frauke) We are, I believe, also concerning the dress code, on a different route. And overall that has loosened up. There are various reasons for this. In the past, banking was more male. Suits dominated, and I think that had a slight effect on women. Then there was the female variant of the outfit. When I started in 1994, I also had trouser suits and female suits, but that was never an end in itself, it was about the customers. They expected people to sit in a bank and be properly dressed. It conveys seriousness and is seen as appropriate in the profession; you shouldn’t underestimate that. Due to changes in the industry, including FinTec etc., the appearance has become more modern and youthful. This is also reflected in our appearance. That’s why comdirect is now more colorful and diverse.

„In European comparison we are much less fashionable and stylistically confident.“ Cécile Wickmann

Speaking of clichés: It is often claimed that Germany has some catching up to do in terms of style. Is that still the case, or is it changing? Did digitalization help?

(Cécile) So that’s certainly a big influencing factor. Nevertheless, I would say that it’s not just a prejudice, but, unfortunately, is true in European comparison; we are much less fashionable and stylistically confident. I studied in Paris, where the women go to great lengths for their appearance because otherwise they feel insecure. A thousand times more is invested in cosmetics and fashion. But you live in 30 square meters. We simply set different priorities. But I don’t want to evaluate it in the sense of better or worse. It just stands out.

What is your experience with Rebelle? Who orders what?

(Cécile) German customers really buy an incredible number of German labels, for example Marc Cain, which isn’t particularly exciting for any other European country. They also buy Hugo Boss and Strenesse. All German brands. The Scandinavians, on the other hand, buy their Scandinavian brands – and I understand why they buy them. The German customer is really much more conservative, cautious, and unfashionable than other countries in Europe.

(Frauke) When I’m on holiday in Italy, I always think to myself, “My goodness, the women here dress great!”

The subject of fashion and lifestyle is full of contradictions. On the one hand, there’s this incredible hype about individuality, everyone wants to look different, and then everyone runs into the same shops and you see the same dress three times at a party. How do you explain that?

(Julia) Individuality requires self-confidence. You have to be ready to look different than the masses. Especially when it comes to fashion, many are insecure and prefer to look left and right. And it also has to do with belonging. You transport a message with your clothes. By the way, I think Instagram not only promotes individuality, but also creates a certain uniformity.

(Frauke) That also speaks in favor of not following every trend. Once you’ve found your style and know what you want, you’re more confident about dealing with this hype about trends. And then you’re not at the mercy of this crazy beat. When my mother was still producing, there were seasonal goods twice a year, and then you started to have mid-seasons. Meanwhile chains like ZARA and H&M change the collections every two weeks.

„I believe that digitalization has brought more opportunities than risks.“ Frauke Hegemann

This has sped up incredibly, also due to digitalization. On the other side, digitalization has opened up distribution channels for many small labels in the first place.

(Frauke) Digitalization has, of course, made the range of distribution quite different. Smaller shops have the opportunity to sell their goods and get attention in the first place. On the other hand, saturation has been encouraged. Nevertheless, I believe that digitalization has brought more opportunities than risks.

(Julia) And at the same time the situation has changed. Everyone is online today. How do you stand out from the crowd? How do you position yourself? There has already been a shift, and for small labels it is no longer so easy to become visible in all this mass.

What was it like when you started with Rebelle six years ago?

(Cécile) Something to keep in mind is that Rebelle wasn’t born as a tiny garage startup; it’s an insanely capital-intensive business. I, too, believe more in the opportunities than in the risks, even if you admit that, in recent years, German traffic has shifted to American platforms. Everyone is on Google, everyone is on Facebook, everyone is on Instagram. Don’t over romanticize that every small label on Instagram uploads three beautiful photos and then can’t save itself and goes straight into mass production …

(Julia) Those days are over. There are certainly these labels, but it has become more difficult to be seen.

The fashion industry as a whole is in crisis. Especially German labels in the middle price segment – some were mentioned earlier – are crushed between luxury and fast fashion. What have these brands missed?

(Frauke) Well, I can’t really judge it one hundred percent for these labels, but I think that some have definitely passed on online business. And you also have to see the massive cost pressure from the fast fashion labels – people are simply no longer willing to spend more money on quality. Though it may well be worth investing in quality.

„In Scandinavia many labels have successfully established themselves between fast fashion and luxury in recent years.“ Julia Zirpel

(Julia) Interestingly, this is above all a German phenomenon. In Scandinavia, for example, many labels have successfully established themselves between fast fashion and luxury in recent years. I believe that many German labels moved their production out of Germany too early. People are proud of the things that still come from France. In Italy, too. In Germany, there is no awareness at all anymore, because you have no contact points with this industry, unlike in the automotive industry. Then the location is important.

(Frauke) I think it’s also a question of how to market it.

(Julia) Exactly.

(Frauke) I can remember that in the mid-1980s whole productions left Germany, when it was said that you had to produce in the Czech Republic, you had to go to Eastern Europe. My mother had consciously decided against it. But the pressure was strong. I believe that this awareness of the need to strengthen the domestic market is only slowly gaining ground today, comparable to the regional trend in the food industry.

What’s that like in banking? Here, too, a lot has changed in recent years.

(Frauke) Of course you have to reinvent yourself again and again, including us as a bank. We have, for example, launched the initiative finanz-heldinnen, with which we address the topic of finance for women in a very target-group-specific way. We have noticed that there is a huge need, because otherwise there is hardly any talk about it, both in private and in society in general. And perhaps the big labels didn’t address their customers adequately and sought an exchange, and in the end produced something that didn’t fit in with society.

(Cécile) I also believe that marketing is a huge issue. The Scandinavian brands are a very good example: what has always inspired these countries was the knowledge that they are a small market. It was clear to them that they had to ensure they were able to survive in the global market through communication, positioning, and storytelling. The Germans relied on their purchasing power for a long time, you could somehow sell your things here, at least that was true for the time before globalization. But if you look at the brands today, it doesn’t look good: many German brands have a hard time fighting or they no longer exist.

However, not only has the market changed as a result of digitalization, payment systems have also accelerated processes.

(Frauke) It has become much easier to pay. I think this is a huge improvement of the shopping experience. Today, more than 90 percent of payments are made via credit cards or eWallets such as Paypal, etc., and this applies to all industries – even furniture.

Let’s look to the future: where is the journey going?

(Cécile) I think we will still see this insanely brand-driven consumer behavior. That won’t change overnight. Many companies have consistently done a very clean job of positioning their brand over a long period of time. Nevertheless, I believe that, not least because of digitalization, a lot of opportunities are opening up for existing brands to reposition themselves and reach their target groups faster. On the other hand, there are of course opportunities for new labels to bring their products to their target groups through a very clear USP, and there will certainly be something like ease of use and some technical gadgets playing a major role, not only in fashion, but in the entire lifestyle sector.

„They young, educated target group is much more concerned about how and what it consumes.“ Cécile Wickmann

What about the millennials? What kinds of impulses do they generate?

(Cécile) One can already see that many young people are increasingly concerned with the topic of sustainability. This young, educated target group is much more concerned about how and what it consumes. Individuality and sustainability are more important to them than owning a specific brand or product.

After all, comdirect conducted a major youth study this year. What kind of insights were collected?

(Frauke) What is really very exciting – and what you might not expect – is that young people today are saving a relatively good amount and even provide for their old age. And they have more money than in the past. The fact that they regularly put something aside is a good sign, which actually suggests that they are more responsible. I believe that society as a whole has already begun to rethink how to use resources more sparingly.

(Julia) I too believe that the attitude has changed, that people are asking themselves, “Where do the things actually come from? How are they made?” And I also think that the big labels are aware of that and especially the big luxury companies have put it on their agendas. Especially sports players like Adidas and the likes have a huge influence because they set global trends.

„For me, the question also arises: what happens to the fast fashion sector? Will there really be more conscious consumption in the low-cost segment as well?“ Frauke Hegemann

(Frauke) Absolutely, the corporations will be among the first to push this forward on a grand scale. For me, the question also arises: what happens to the fast fashion sector? How will that change? Will there really be more conscious consumption in the low-cost segment as well?

Last question: you are invited to a meeting with Michelle Obama. What do you wear?

(Frauke) Every day I put on what I feel comfortable in, so I wouldn’t pick out anything extravagant. I would just be the way I am and put on what I feel like that morning.

(Julia) When Michelle Obama took office, she set a clear sign and deliberately focused on younger American designers with an international background. And I think now is the time to talk about sustainable fashion. In that sense, I would wear something I know is well made, is ethically correct.

(Cécile) I wouldn’t think of anything special, I’d probably think more about conversation topics. So that I don’t go out of that meeting and think afterwards, “Ugh, that would have been a good question…”

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