This is part of a series highlighting notable entries to our 2012 Innovation By Design Awards—Ed.
Fashion is inherently fickle. Just ask Heidi Klum: "You’re either in, or you’re out." While it’s easier than ever for anyone with a vision to share it with the world—think Etsy, Fab, Of A Kind, any social media platform, and yes, even certain reality shows—the nitty-gritty of creating a viable collection can be an eye-opener for newbies. "What a lot of designers aren’t prepared for is how challenging it will be to produce and deliver well-made clothing in a range of sizes, in a volume that translates to a living wage," Gitte Jonsdatter tells Co.Design. The former Ideo design strategist launched Muuse last year as a means to give fresh talent a platform to realize their unique couture, from high-concept (check out Mina Lundgren’s Frame Top), to cool and casual (like Linda Vasel’s Diamonds T-Shirt).
"We are, in essence, promoting mini-brands each time we take on a designer," Jonsdatter says. "They must have an original idea, with sketches that give insight into a process that leads from concept all the way to the fabric and trimmings choices—and of course convey that story in great editorial photography or film." For those who make the cut, the site acts as a kind of collective launching pad which operates on three distinct platforms: Tailor-Made features lines that have garnered attention on the runway or in the media, and each piece is made bespoke to the buyer’s measurements (my personal fave is this 2V Leather Dress); Ready-to-Wear garments are made in small batches of 50 to 100, sewn by Muuse partners across Europe; and Pre-Order acts as a kind of Kickstarter for apparel, where interest is gauged online before the items are produced in limited editions.
It may seem like a risk to invest in untested talent in an industry dominated by high-profile names, but Jonsdatter believes that nowadays, instant recognition doesn’t necessarily equal prestige. "The saturation of some large luxury brands has in some ways degraded their status in the eyes of connoisseurs," she says. "It is, for example, difficult to argue that owning a Louis Vuitton bag expresses a discerning eye; everyone knows the company, and can buy the same bag—or a copy of it—in any major city." Touché. Because of this shift, she believes the timing is right for Muuse to make a move on trendsetters searching for the next big thing. "Discovering and wearing pieces that are not as readily available, and are not obvious choices, has become the new luxury for many," she says. Then again, there is a surfeit of fashion labels in the world, ranging from grand to micro, all approaching a similar price point. And it is the marketing behind those brands that justify the enormous price premiums on their clothes (just think of Alexander Wang’s $150 t-shirts, or Louis Vuitton’s $5,000 purses.) Would anyone pay a similar price for a lesser-known designer, just starting out? Jonsdatter’s challenges are simple: Can the quality of the designs win out over the lesser name recognition? Can Muuse offer the branding muscle that the young designers don’t have?
Though eventually the number of designers on Muuse will be capped, for now, the shared experience is essential to the business plan. "Exposure for young designers is only part of our goal. When we pool production, logistics, and marketing resources, it becomes financially viable for each to put these collections up for sale. The success of some will offset low sales on others, meaning it can be risk-free for each designer." This approach also offers a PR boost, as individuals promoting their own work in turn draws more attention back to Muuse.
Since launching last summer, the site is now introducing a collection a week. "Our ideal is that designers are on Muuse for a period of time, and then the ones who see sales can move on to run their own label," Jonsdatter says. "At that point they will have a better sense of who their customer is, and can select our services to support just the aspects of the business they need help with."